As social media giants crack down on fringe groups, the groups seek shelter using more lenient alternative social networks
As scrutiny of how hate speech, harassment, and fake news spreads on social media platforms has increased, so too has social media companies’ efforts to curtail this activity. Youtube launched a program in which volunteer contributors can mass flag videos called Youtube Heroes, Facebook is preparing a New Integrity Initiative that will allow users to mark news articles as “fake”, and Twitter took down over 370 thousand extremist accounts since mid-2015.
Accordingly, the alt-right media’s attention recently shifted from predicting the decline of social media power houses to recommending “free-speech” alternatives. Alt-right media outlets also started an information campaign calling the above actions by some social media companies “censorship”. Breitbart.com has published 2,100 articles that contain words “censorship” and “social media”. Infowars are not far behind with 1,360 articles mentioning the keywords.
Seen.life is advertised as a “free speech” Facebook alternative. It appears to be a subsidiary of fringe media outlet BeforeItsNews.com, run by Temporal Media Ltd. It’s worth noting that BeforeItsNews.com does not mention their shared ownership in their advertorials for Seen.Life.
Alt-right, xenophobic, and Anti-Semitic content is particularly prevalent on Seen.Life. Among the most popular groups on this nascent social networking site is “Rise Against Islam”. It describes itself as a group dedicated to “resolving the [Islam] situation” and calls moderate Muslims to “change their belief system or face the wrath of the countries they are trying to occupy.”
A similar group, called Zeepertje (translated as “Seaweed” in Dutch), shares the ideology of “Rise Against Islam”. The group description says:
ISLAM IS A REAL THREAT FOR WESTERN SOCIETIES AND THEREFORE “ISLAMOPHOBIA” IS A NON-TERM…
…WE HAVE TO STOP THE INSANITY OF THE “REFUGEE” INFLUX WITH ONLY YOUNG MEN READY FOR WAR. They will demand, cry, sue us, terrorize us and outbreed our race…
Whereas “Rise Against Islam” and “Zeepertje” fall short of invoking swastikas and Hitler imagery, a neo-Nazi group “United Nazional Socialism Elite 1488” does just that.
These hate groups have been active anywhere between several months and several years; however, Seen.Life has yet to take action against any one of the groups mentioned. Seen.Life’s focus appears to be generating more users looking for a “no censorship” social network, rather that addressing content that incites hate and violence.
@DFRLab reached out to Seen.Life for comment, but the only mechanism found online to reach out consistently populated an error response.
Gab is one of the most well-known alternatives to Twitter. It, too, has become a go-to social network for white supremacists, alt-right, and conspiracy theorists seeking a less regulated Twitter alternative. Conditions on Gab are therefore more fertile for fake and hyperpartisan news to spread across the site.
For example, an already debunked story about a mosque in Houston that refused to help refugees was posted by at least four different users in less than six hours. The mosque covered in the story does not exist.
Anti-Semitism and white supremacy are also spreading across the network:
Most recently, Gab became home to a notorious white supremacist Andrew Anglin, whose website Stromer, was recently been taken down by American, and later Russian, registrars for hate speech.
While Gab did not act on Anglin’s content spread on its platform, Google took action and removed the app from Google Play, citing hate speech policy violations.
When asked for a comment, a Gab representative replied saying:
Gab is NOT a racialist site; it is a First Amendment site that promotes the US Constitution and her values.
However, Gab is not only used by alt-right or fringe figures in the United States. In fact, according to data from online traffic analytics website Alexa, only 52% of Gab’s users reside in the U.S., while 10% of site’s visitors come from Germany and 8.9% come from the UK, both of which have strict hate speech laws.
Despite Google’s crackdown, the platform recently raised more than $1 million dollars.
Good Gopher brands itself as an alternative to Google.
It offers several different types of search — independent media, mainstream media, academia, and products. It lists well-known conspiracy (e.g. infowars.com, naturalnews.com) and fringe news sites (e.g. breitbart.com, libertyblitzkrieg.com) as “Independent Media”. A side by side comparison of search results for “Obama” on Good Gopher and Google shows the bias of the alternative search engine.
Similar to Seen.Life, Good Gopher was created by the people behind a conspiracy news site called NaturalNews.com.
Some of the recent conspiracy theories peddled by the site include a claim that polio vaccines caused a polio outbreak in Syria and that Hurricane Harvey was engineered and steered towards Houston as a “weather terrorism” weapon.
Voat is a “free speech” alternative to Reddit. As Gizmodo described it back in May, it’s a “refuge for the communities deemed too hateful or toxic to exist on the lenient-to-a-fault social aggregator Reddit.”
The site has at least four different subverses (similar to Reddit’s subreddits) dedicated to “investigate” the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which resulted in a shooting in a D.C. pizzeria — pizzagate, pizzagateuncensored, pizzagatewhatever, and pizzagate2.
Some of the hot topics discussed on Voat include complaints about StormFront, a white supremacist site, being taken offline with a message:
Another hot topic discussed on Voat is the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, which Voat members consider to be a “car accident” and a part of “living in a big city”:
The platform’s toxicity has affected its financial sustainability. Back in May, the managers of the Voat warned users of the website’s imminent closure citing their inability to cover hosting costs, which amount to $6,000 a month. The post said, “Donations, ads, and merchandise only put a dent in this”.
The alternative social networking sites, with the exception of Gab, are struggling to increase their membership or secure funding to sustain themselves long term. This, however, may change as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Youtube accelerate their response to disinformation, extremism, and hate speech.
What all of these social networks have in common is their goal to create an alternative social space, which marks a new line of division in our societies where our political leanings determine not only our favorite press, but also our social media membership.
Donara Barojan is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the DFRLab.
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