Bolsonaro’s supporters migrate to alt-right platform after Twitter’s crack down on hate speech
A significant number of Brazilians joined the social network Gab.ai after Twitter suspended accounts associated with the far-right in the country.
Users from the country have since become one of the largest groups to access the Gab website, second only to the United States. Gab is well-documented as a fertile environment for the spread of conspiracy theories and hate speech.
The migration emulates a similar shift in the United States after social media companies began to take action against online hate speech. It illustrated the challenge removing extreme speech from the main social media channels presents.
On the one hand, removing accounts reduces their potential to inject hateful content into mainstream discussions. On the other hand, the action risks pushing extremists onto fringe websites where monitoring their activities is more difficult.
Ahead of Brazil’s October general election, Twitter and Facebook took measures to curb online disinformation in the country. On July 25, Facebook removed pages and accounts connected to the right-wing activist group MBL (Free Brazil Movement).
A couple of weeks later, users complained that Twitter had either suspended or was shadow-banning their accounts. Complaints mounted around the #diretaamordacada (muzzled right) hashtag, which was used even by Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate currently leading in the polls.
The migration to Gab started with Twitter hashtags. Hashtags promoting Gab appeared a few days after Twitter suspended both Brazilian accounts and that of right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The most popular hashtag, #MeSegueNoGab (Follow Me on Gab), was tweeted 25,000 times between August 20 and 23 and trended in Brazil.
The hashtag was championed by Twitter profiles historically linked to Jair Bolsonaro. Among the main influencers sharing the hashtag were the Movimento Brasil Conservador (Conservative Brazil Movement), and hyper-partisan websites Conexão Política and Portal Terça Livre. There was no evidence of automated amplification.
An analysis of hashtags related to #MeSegueNoGab and the word cloud of the tweets also suggest the movement was intertwined with Bolsonaro’s supporters.
“Alt” Social Media Platform
Gab was created a few months ahead of the 2016 elections in the United States.
It claims to focus on freedom of speech and individual liberty. In practice, it attracts users banned from other social platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, for violating community rules, and thus became a chamber for the alt-right.
Gab‘s design and interface is similar to Twitter. Users can post up to 300 characters “gabs” and use mentions and hashtags. Replacing Twitter’s bird, Gab uses a green frog, an emoji often used to symbolize the meme turned alt-right symbol Pepe. The only posting rules on the website include:
It is prohibited to encourage violence and terrorism, to post illegal pornography, and to post confidential information of other users.
An academic report, featuring researchers from multiple universities and published in January, showed that the most popular users were alt-righters such as Milo Yiannopoulos; Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba; and conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones — recently banned or suspended by all major social media platforms. Among the most popular hashtags used on Gab were “alt-right,” “Trump,” “MAGA,” “pizzagate,” and “BanIslam.”
The study also showed that, on the platform, “alternative” sources are more likely to be shared than traditional media sources. Among the most shared links, for instance, 1.4 percent were Breitbart, and 0.4 percent Fox News. The researchers also found that 5.4 percent of Gab posts contain a hate word, more than twice Twitter’s rate.
Two episodes illustrate the potential impact that information originating from Gab can have on the offline world. In March, a fake video of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez went viral after it was posted by Gab on Twitter. In April, Newsweek reported about a harassment campaign against a high-school that allegedly originated on Gab.
Gab in Brazil
Although there is no accurate data about the number of Brazilians on Gab, it is possible to observe a significant increase in terms of access to the website in the last weeks. Alexa, an Amazon subsidiary that provides online traffic information, showed that Gab had a 18.4 percent increase in traffic in approximately four weeks, going from 12.2 percent on August 26 to 30.6 percent on September 21.
Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, wrote in a post that Gab’s user base had increased from 500,000 on August 2 to 600,000 on August 25 (archived on September 17). When Brazilians began joining Gab, he retweeted posts from Brazilians and even shared links in Portuguese.
Many accounts suspended by Twitter in the days preceding this migration to Gab have since joined Gab. Among them are Reaconaria and Conexão Política, which were reportedly affected by Twitter’s crack-down but have now recovered their Twitter accounts.
Gab has also served as an alternative to accounts that are still suspended on Twitter. Before being suspended, the Twitter account “Br45ilnoCorrupt” showed at least one sign of automated behavior. From July 29 to August 2, it tweeted an average of 639 tweets per day, or one every two or three minutes. That is considered highly suspicious by the @DFRLab benchmark.
The account is also highly active on Gab. Created in August, it posted 2,218 times as of September 5. Gab does not allow for a user to easily identify when an account was created, but in the hypothetical scenario that it was created on August 1, it would have a high average of 62 posts per day (archived on September 17).
As transitions to Gab were advanced by Bolsonaro supporters, a visual analysis shows that a significant portion of discussions on the website concern the presidential candidate. The most influential names on Gab are connected to the far-right in Brazil, such as Olavo de Carvalho, who played an important part in spreading the URSAL conspiracy theory, and the internet character Joaquim, whose account was suspended from Twitter several times.
Although Bolsonaro does not have an official Gab account, his party PSL (Partido Social Liberal, or Social Liberal Party) has a profile, created on August 23. We attempted to contact PSL to confirm the official nature of the Gab account, but the party did not respond to the inquiries.The front-runner also has a non-official profile that reproduces his Twitter posts (archived on September 17).
None of the leading presidential candidates have official Gab pages. Green candidate Marina Silva has a Gab profile that appears official (archived on September 17), but her press office denied its authenticity.
Profiles were also created for other candidates, but in at least two cases, their ballot box numbers were replaced by 17, Bolsonaro’s number. There is no indication of who created these fake profiles.
Guilherme Boulous, from Brazil’s socialist party, and Geraldo Alckmin, from center-right PSDB, were victims of this tactic. Other candidates, such as former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (archived on September 17) and Fernando Haddad (archived on September 17), from PT, were affected by “parody” profiles that portray both in a negative light.
“Parody” profiles of media outlets have also been created. The three most influential newspapers in the country — Folha de S. Paulo (archived on September 17), Estadão (archived on September 17) and O Globo (archived on September 17) — have parody profiles. There are also automated accounts that reproduce Twitter posts from these and other news outlets, but no traditional media outlets are officially on the platform.
Meanwhile, many right-wing partisan websites have verified accounts on Gab, such as “Conexão Política” (archived on September 17) and “Renova Mídia” (archived on September 17). Users can get their account verified on Gab by paying a premium quota and sending a picture with their ID names visible. However, many profiles do not carry their founder’s name and have been verified anyhow, such as “Ódio do Bem” and “Isentão.”
Gab is a fertile space for the spread of misinformation and disinformation in Brazil. The platform itself acts as a gigantic filter bubble. Other social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have been criticized by showing one-sided content to users according to their likes and beliefs because of their algorithms. On Gab, this one-sided view of the world reaches another level based on a self-selected user base made of mostly far-right supporters.
The analysis also highlights how challenging it is to remove extremists from mainstream social media channels. Whist it weakens their potential to introduce hate speech and conspiracy theories onto these platforms used by most people, it can also push these users into fringe websites where anti-hate policies are almost nonexistent, and it is harder to monitor their activities.
Luiza Bandeira is a Digital Forensic Research Assistant at the @DFRLab.
#ElectionWatch Latin America is a collaboration between @DFRLab and the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.
This article was written in collaboration with Fundação Getúlio Vargas’s Diretoria de Análise de Políticas Públicas(FGV-DAPP).
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