Biden Rescinds Trump Decision to Turn Sacred Arizona Land Into a Copper Mine

An Apache activist dancer performs in a rally to save the Oak Flat area, in front of the U.S. Capitol.

An Apache activist dancer performs in a rally to save the Oak Flat area, in front of the U.S. Capitol.
Photo: Molly Riley (AP)

In a victory for Indigenous rights and conservation activists, the Forest Service rescinded its decision to permit a controversial mining project to be built within Arizona’s Tonto National Forest on Monday.

The decision comes six weeks after the subagency issued an environmental impact statement greenlighting the project on land known as Oak Flat in January. The move reflects the sea change between the Biden and Trump administrations’ approaches to land, extraction, and Indigenous rights.

“This is tremendous news for Oak Flat, tribal communities and everyone who loves this special place,” Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an email.

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Oak Flat is a lush, 6.7-square-mile (17.4-square-kilometer) stretch of forest just east of Phoenix. To the local Apache people, who call it Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, the area is holy. It lies at the center of four sacred mountains, and has been the site of spiritual and cultural ceremonies for centuries. The richly biodiverse oak groves it contains are important sources of acorns and other food sources for the Apache. It is also the location of burial sites and ancient rock carvings, as well as a popular campsite.

Despite its significance, Resolution Copper—a joint venture by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP—have been gunning to turn the area into one of the largest copper mines in the country. To do so, the firm wants to use a process called block caving to extract the copper reserves, leaving irreversible craters on the land’s surface and destroying its greenery.

The environmental impact report the Trump-era Forest Service issued in January was a necessary step to transfer ownership of the site to Resolution Copper, a process which was set to be completed in mid-March. But Apache activists and supporters noted that the statement was fast-tracked. In fact, it was not originally scheduled to be released until December 2021 but was rushed out in the final week of the Trump presidency—a sign that the administration aimed to speed the process before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

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“We’re grateful that the Biden administration recognized that the fast-tracked environmental analysis was a sham and we know a thorough review will show a mine at Oak Flat will do irreparable damage,” said Serraglio. “These sacred lands should never be handed over to a mining company.

Indigenous organizers have been fighting the transfer of ownership of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, filing lawsuits demanding a federal judge halt the process. Last Tuesday, Apache Stronghold, a group advocating for the protection of Oak Flat, filed an emergency appeal demanding the site stay under Apache domain. The group alleged that the transfer would violate the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

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According to Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law who is representing Apache Stronghold, the Forest Service revoked their environmental impact statement just six hours before its deadline to reply to that appeal. The government, he said on Twitter, “knows it’s in trouble in court.” The Forest Service pulling their approval is a good sign for the future preservation of Oak Flat.

“The department is taking this step to provide an opportunity for the agency to conduct a thorough review based on significant input received from collaborators, partners, and the public since these documents were released,” the agency said in its announcement. It said the process could take months, which indicates that the transfer won’t happen when it was slated to next month.

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The move follows other actions undertaken by the Biden administration to respect Indigenous rights. In his first week in office, Biden sent a memo to all federal agencies telling them improve relationships with Indigenous tribes and strengthen consultation. He has also rescinded permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, opposed by tribes and other groups alike, and nominated Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet nominee ever, to oversee the Department of Interior.

But while rescinding the Oak Flat environmental impact statement is another step, it doesn’t end the threat to the sacred site. Goodrich tweeted that the move is not a permanent fix because while it puts the pause on the transfer of land, it doesn’t halt it altogether. That’s why the Biden administration should take the next step of issuing permanent protections for the land so it stays in Apache control.

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“These sacred lands should never be handed over to a mining company and we won’t stop until they’re protected for good.” Serraglio.

Gab, the Far-Right’s Internet Refuge, Has Been Hacked

Illustration for article titled Gab, the Far-Right's Internet Refuge, Has Been Hacked

Photo: Ascannio (Shutterstock)

The hacktivist collective Distributed Denial of Secrets—which recently came under fire for leaking one of the largest repositories of law enforcement documents ever recorded—is back with another high profile data-dump. This time, the group claims to have gotten its hands on a whopping 70-gigabyte dataset from Gab, the far-right social network that became one of the last online havens willing to host far-right personalities following Parler’s recent deplatforming.

According to a blog post from DDOSecrets, the dataset doesn’t only contain tens of millions of public posts from the site, it also includes private posts, user profiles, and in some instances, what appear to be plaintext passwords. Whether or not one of those accounts belonged to former president Donald Trump or was merely using his name is unclear, and made more so by conflicting statements by Gab’s CEO.

Per WIRED, which first covered the news, DDoSecrets was approached by a third-party hacktivist that siphoned the data from one of Gab’s backend in an attempt to expose the ranks of goons, bigots, and extreme nationalists currently teeming on the platform. The way this third party was able to siphon off this data, according to DDoSecrets cofounder Emma Best, was using what’s known as an SQL injection vulnerability—a relatively common bug that allows hackers (or hacktivists) pry into a site’s databases.

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Best explained that the group won’t be releasing this data publicly because of the sensitive information it contains—i.e. private chats, passwords, etc. Instead, the group has been sharing data with parties that have a “proven track record of doing research in the public interest,” including journalists and social scientists with a focus on the far-right.

If you’re wondering how Gab reacted to this news, the answer is: pretty badly. After being contacted by WIRED on Friday in advance of the database’s publication, CEO Andrew Torba put up a statement on Gab’s corporate blog not only refuting the hack, but implying that the hacker and journalist were colluding in an effort to “smear our business and hurt you, our users.” (For what it’s worth, DDoSecret has called these accusations “entirely false,” adding that “the Wired reporter has had no contact with the DDoSecrets source.”)

QAnon, CultTok, and Leaving It All Behind

“I was impressed that it only took four years,” Danielle, self-identified ex-cult member, 34, said on a phone call. This was a few days after Joe Biden’s inauguration, and we were talking about the previous week of SOS social media posts from wide-eyed QAnon followers, like a TikToker propped up on a pillow, pleading, like a disoriented hostage: “If nothing happens on the 20th, how many of you are going to feel stupid as hell?”

With Danielle’s long catalogue of TikTok videos poking fun at Trump worship and conspiracy theories, I waited for her to chuckle, but she was serious. “Just realizing that it’s a lie is only the first step in the process right there,” Danielle reflected. “They’re going to go through some stages until they come out on the other side.”

Like many “#excult” TikTokers, Danielle–aka DutchessPrim on TikTok who wishes to be identified by a first name only—refers to her white Evangelical megachurch as a cult. She’s not broadly describing white Evangelicalism, which would imply that 29 percent of white people in America are cult members. She uses “cult” specifically in reference to her hometown megachurch and monthly stadium-sized televangelist “Crusades” she attended throughout her childhood, where she was told if she strayed from the rules, she would be on the wrong side of “spiritual warfare” of good angels and bad angels battling over souls of potential church defectors. “A lot of the things that I was taught were very hateful towards a lot of groups of people,” she added.

Culttok and similar fundamentalist religious defector TikTok accounts sort of feel like something between educational channels and therapeutic practice; they (often former Evangelicals and Mormons) affirm that they were completely engulfed by a very specific kind of dogmatic ideology. They recall how they rejected what they describe as alternative facts and prejudiced messaging. They discuss the challenges of breaking free and letting go.

“Right now, QAnon and Trumpism [are] part of their identity, and recognizing that they were wrong is going to require a lot of introspection and self-analysis and critical thinking,” an ex-Mormom TikToker said in one video about QAnoners. Others have pointed out that Q, whose drops are littered with Biblical passages, distorted fundamentalist teachings. “Growing up as a fundamentalist Evangelical, we were taught that there was a greater purpose for everything, and that the rest of the world just didn’t know it yet,” an ex-Evangelical tells the camera. “Which is exactly what QAnon believes. They believe that there’s one savior playing a 3D chess game to save them from an evil they can’t see or fight.” Now that there are enough people grieving the loss of Q-pilled family members and friends to fill at least a medium-sized subreddit, it seems natural that some exculttokers and other defectors have addressed the question floating around for months—what’ll it take for all these Q people to leave?


For Danielle and other #excult TikTokers interviewed for this article, TikTok is a safe distance from her family, who are over on Facebook, and the pseudonymous handle makes searching nearly impossible (though a few people from her other life have found her there anyway).

On her TikTok, along with gleeful reacts to news bloopers and ridiculous tweets, Danielle parodies absurd church gossip and the many, many calls from her Q dad, who is portrayed in a tinfoil hat. On January 12th, she reenacted a late night call in which he tells her to withdraw all of the cash from her bank account, fill up her car with gas, and stock up on food; he informs her that Kamala Harris is building concentration camps in Northern Alaska. By January 18th, he tells her that all of the tubs are full of water and there’s a loaded gun next to the door.

In another TikTok, her more despondent “dad” says he suspects he might’ve been lied to, on the day after the inauguration: “I don’t know if you heard, but the founder of Q quit. I mean, that fool just said that we need to accept the results of the election!” Danielle doesn’t seize the opportunity to validate his doubts. Instead she asks if he’s heard about the “face-swap” fantasy that Trump and Joe Biden had literally swapped faces (a scenario propagated by an anonymous 4chan poster, likely a troll). He finds that reassuring, and she warmly hangs up and laughs to someone camera: “I’m just fucking with him at this point, I’m over it.”

She explained, “I think we have to laugh so we don’t scream.”

Danielle’s parents have fallen into the Q pipeline and what she and many call Trump’s “Cult 45” after she left the church. She can’t speak to how many of her former community members adhere to QAnon dogma but added that her education and unwavering devotion to the Republican Party would certainly make people more receptive.

QAnon (as a virus, with the sole purpose of spreading) feeds on the idea that Satanic forces are waging war for control of America and the minds of its citizens; it is explicitly founded on the idea of Satanic pedovores controlling a shadow government and driving media narratives.

But the big one—which dovetails nicely with the elusive, unforeseeable Plan—is the Rapture, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, an apocalyptic event to unfold on an unknowable schedule. Danielle’s mother believed quite literally that, on any day, trumpets from the sky would awaken the family, that God would ride in on a white horse, and the faithful would vanish to meet Jesus while nonbelievers were left behind to suffer the Apocalypse on Earth.

The event is rivetingly described in the 1990s best-selling, almost pornographically gratuitous, semi-fictional end-times series Left Behind, co-written by Evangelical minister Tim LaHaye and Christian author Jerry B. Jenkins. (The Washington Post has described them both as dispensationalists, believers that we are living through unfolding chapters, or dispensations, pre-written by God.) The series lures the reader into an action-packed page-turner full of car wrecks and cities on fire, at turns weaving into conspiracy theories that could easily be imposed on real-world events. The harbingers of doom, according to Left Behind, are a sort of deep state cabal pushing for a One World Government, a single currency, unrest in the Middle East, and the emergence of a Satanic false prophet—themes which, in the 21st century, have been superimposed on the war in Iraq, Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Israel embassy to Jerusalem, the European Union, and virtually all political opposition.

With the looming Rapture in mind, Danielle’s parents and church didn’t so much view politicians as functionaries for maintaining infrastructure, allotting budgets to federal departments and such, but agents of God or Satan, a militant all-or-nothing stance amplified by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and Alex Jones. When she turned 18, she was overwhelmed by the number of elders, and her parents, telling her that she would be a warrior at the polls, that her role was to stand up for God and cast her Republican vote. She remembers watching a propaganda film about Obama and crying when he was elected. “I’m surprised more churches haven’t lost their 501c3s in the past four years because of how much politics you’re hearing from pulpit,” she said.

When online conspiracies of the 2000s arrived, her parents were ready for them. When she brought up Q last summer, Danielle’s mom admitted that some elements of the ideology “make sense.” “That’s when I realized I was starting to lose them,” she said.

Years before performance artist Marina Abramović sent the notorious 2015 “Spirit Cooking” email that sprawled into a wild InfoWars conspiracy supposedly implicating the Clinton campaign in Satanic pedovore rituals—about midway through President Obama’s first term, maybe—Danielle had started to square up to the sinking feeling that things were all wrong. According to her church’s teachings, even feeling that things were wrong was wrong and meant she’d gotten “lost.” Starting with the question of why women weren’t welcome in church leadership positions and a lack of apparent concern for racial equality, she began re-assessing her own internalized rules: obedience, non-threatening femininity, consignment to a silent battle against her own critical thoughts. Around age 25, she said, her mounting doubts boiled over to a “quarter-life crisis.”

This is, in part, why she sees TikTok as a place where she can “make amends with the universe.” She can no longer wave away the real-world harm caused when a critical mass of people ascribe to the idea that being gay is a choice, for instance. “I felt like I owed a very wide audience…not only an apology but what am I doing to make up for lost time?” Her earliest TikToks weren’t about cult mentality, but amplifying Black Lives Matter protest clips and educating Donald Trump on Confederate atrocities, to the tune of Frozen’s “Let It Go.” (“Take ‘em down, take ‘em down,” she sings, over a slideshow of monuments.)

It took two years for Danielle to gather the strength to get in the car, drive to her brother’s house, and process her breakdown.

“You wake up one morning, and you realize that you don’t have to be that way, but you don’t know what other way to be,” she reflected. Without a friend or a fellow defector, she had to navigate the outside world alone. “It’s like being dumped in a country where you don’t speak the language, and nobody’s willing to teach you.”

You wouldn’t be able to tell from her TikTok—where she regails followers with whacky stories, logically deconstructs the connection between cults and MAGA, and fields questions about her current beliefs—but she can’t delete her emotional programming. She has to hold her doubts and inspect them in a constant process of rewriting and re-analysis. “It’s funny because this is the one thing where I really sympathize with the MAGA crowd,” she said. “I’ll drive by a megachurch and I have this burning desire to go in, like an addiction. I miss it, and I still want to be a part of it. But my logical brain tells me that I feel susceptible to it still 10 years later.”


Danielle identified a series of her former church’s protocols which seemed particularly cultish: “love bombing” new members with a big open-armed Sunday spectacle, maintaining paranoid vigilance of demonic outsiders, keeping tabs on each others’ missteps, possessing secret knowledge which makes everyone else wrong, complete devotion to charismatic leaders (especially televangelists like Benny Hinn) and warning of Biblical consequences for dissidents.

The QAnon ideology doesn’t neatly square with those indoctrination techniques—QAnon followers do ostracize “sheeple” and defer to Q’s total authority, but Trump (his separate-but-parallel cult), checks more of the boxes: charismatic “love-bomber” who demands total fealty from his enablers (or sic an armed mob on them). Former QAnon adherent and QAnonCasulaties subreddit moderator Jitarth Jadeja pointed out to Gizmodo via email that QAnon is psychological manipulation, but “not really a perfect match to anything. It’s kind of like an entirely new phenomenon, like some kind of force of nature we haven’t quite experienced before.”

As news networks have tried to explain QAnon to their viewers over the past few months, researchers have been arguing that we need to tighten up descriptors that adequately convey the danger of QAnon—it’s not just a “conspiracy theory,” any more than a religion is automatically an authoritarian cult. And then the word “cult,” a general term for devotion to a person, orthodoxy, or work—a word that accurately describes both followings of Ayn Rand and the Rocky Horror Picture Show—is kind of meaningless without other adjectives like “destructive” and “authoritarian.” Cult theorist Steven Hassan, author of The Cult of Trump and, himself, a former Moonie, calls this the “influence continuum,” placing QAnon on the “destructive authoritarian” axis of “political” cults, a class which also includes Aryan Nations, the Demoratic Workers’ Party, and the Symbionese Liberation Army.

The “destructive” cult suppresses what he calls the “authentic self” by forcing followers to adopt the dependent, obedient “cult self.” This is where the tightly controlled institution Danielle grew up in and more decentralized psychological manipulation of QAnon align.

“The vast majority of people in the United States in an authoritarian groups, in my opinion, have been raised in them,” Hassan told Gizmodo over the phone. If followers leave a cult but don’t reach a “perspective shift,” Hassan said, they might be just as likely to go along with another one.

“I guess the question is why are they leaving?” he said. “Are they leaving because they realize that their minds have been hacked? Or are they leaving because they realized that the prophecy failed and Trump isn’t going to be the president anymore?”

When asked whether he worried that more conspiracy theory-related destructive authoritarian political cults could simply step in, he said, “I’m very concerned.”


Q not only manipulates scripture to validate vague predictions and elevate Trump to messiah status, but specifically references passages that appeal to the dispensationalism of Left Behind. Q-drops are rife with passages alluding to spiritual warfare, like Ephesians 6:10-18: “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Major white Evangelical players reciprocated, early, disseminating QAnon-adjacent theories and sometimes just QAnon. (Danielle isn’t sure exactly how QAnon reached her parents, but it certainly wasn’t through 8kun, she said.)

In the 2020 pre-election book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, Sarah Posner covers the robust network of white Evangelical agenda-setters and televangelists who threw support behind Trump early and in return were granted “open door” access to his office throughout his presidency. The most prominent is televangelist Paula White, Trump’s longtime friend, “spiritual advisor,” and previous Trump Tower resident, who’s long maintained that she and Trump are on a mission from God to literally battle demons. White has collaborated with and spoken alongside, Dave Kubal, the director of an Evangelical political issues organization Intercessors for America, which recently put out a QAnon prayer guide titled “THE DEEP STATE PROBLEM.”

Even as a presidential candidate, Trump already attracted some white Evangelical figures who were certain that—even though he couldn’t and never really tried to quote scripture—God has sent, in Trump, a divine instrument to steamroll the heretical liberal cabal where other politicians had merely shown up for photo-ops. In 2015, evangelist Lance Wallnau described Trump on Facebook as “anointed in this season to break things open.” Comparing his to Jeremiah’s God-given assignment to “tear down and to uproot and to plant,” Wallnau continued:

“He has broken up a demonic cartel of political correctness and now it is up to you and me, each of us to move forward in our own sphere and knock down the obstacles that are silencing us and holding us back from what we are called to say and do.”

This and other prophecies would cement his relevance for the next five years.

Others made, and were rewarded for, similarly Apocalyptic prophecies. Televangelist Frank Amedia, a 2016 Trump campaign “liaison for Christian policy,” claimed before the 2016 election that God had told him that he’d sent Trump to bring on the Second Coming. (He’s also claimed to have resurrected people, and an ant, from the dead.) He went on to form POTUS Shield, an unofficial council of religious soldiers battling for Trump.

If you’re looking, you can even find a minister to mix Gospel with QAnon “spiritual intel reports” on a Twitch-style stream at the internet-infamous Omega Kingdom Ministry, which was inspired by QAnon “prophet” Mark Taylor, a former firefighter who claimed that he was told by God that Trump would be president in 2011, a tale that later manifested as a film.

White Evangelical pastors, Christian publications, and leaders in various Christian denominations have sounded the alarm early and often about QAnon, which isn’t only affecting their communities but also spitting back a bastardization of Christian teachings.

“I didn’t just feel like I was being fed overt Christian messaging, I was being fed [overt Christian messaging],” Jadeja, QAnonCasulaties moderator, said via email. (Despite embarrassment, he’s publicly shared his story in the hopes of helping others.) He hasn’t ascribed to Christian teachings before following QAnon. “It’s not a thread, it’s not intertwined, religious messaging is the rock upon which Q built his church.”


April (TikTok: aprilajoy), pillories the alarming QAnon-adjacent content that’s swirling around her conservative Christian community. She’s not #culttok; she’s still a believing Christian who’s disgusted by the abusive and hateful brinksmanship that’s eclipsed Christian empathy and love.

She uses her account, along with family content and news commentary, as a dump for all the toxic QAnon-adjacent waste she’s seeing on Facebook. In her long-running series “Things I saw ‘Christians’ post on Facebook,” she reads aloud a rapid-fire series green-screened memes and panic in a warbled voice effect.

A few samples: “AMERICA HAS FALLEN! ARE YOU LOCKED AND LOADED YET?” “Let he who hath not an AR15 take his $600 stimulus and buyeth a new one.” “Are we wearing red coats Wednesday or what? Sorry, it’ll be my first Civil War.” “What you see from the Capitol is from the Communist playbook. There are NOT Trump supporters!” “I guarantee you Judgement Day won’t be rigged.” “THEY’RE DOING THE SAME THING TO TRUMP THAT THEY DID TO JESUS ON A SMALLER SCALE. BEST PRESIDENT EVER.” “Two biggest LIES of 2020: 1. Epstein killed himself 2. Biden won.” “Father continues to release warrior angels to fight and bind the spirit of Jezebel coming against President Trump to destroy him! AMEN!” “Protected by our LORD AND SAVIOR” (over an image of Trump behind the Resolute Desk with Jesus over his shoulder.) “I tried to stop them, but I am only one man” (over Trump hugging a Statue of Liberty crying red tears.)

The paranoid hostility resembles nothing of the Christian spirit she’d embraced growing up in the 4,000-member church which her father pastored. “[Trump] has torn up families and churches over this,” she said. She says she gets messages daily from people whose parents practically disowned them. “If you speak out against Trump, they take it so personally that it’s like you’re speaking out against them or against Jesus.”

“I don’t know how to emphasize this enough,” she said, “but the Jesus that these people are talking about—a Jesus that is not all-loving—is not Jesus.”


Q’s plan complements certain (mostly white) fringe evangelists’ messaging, but it’s ensnared followers from all over the (mostly white) spiritual spectrum—believers in Norse paganism, Catholicism, New Age spirituality, and (in at least one case) Wicca.

As videos from the Capitol riot circulated on Twitter, a chunk of observers got a laugh out of a guy in what looked like a Roman armor Halloween costume. While he appeared to the uninitiated as a flamboyant oddball similar to the horned “QShaman,” ex-Mormon #culttoker Michelle, 29, immediately picked up on the reference: Captain Moroni, a commander who led an insurrection against “king-men” who attempted to topple democracy and install a monarch.

“The guy dressed as Captain Moroni really got me,” she said. “In the Book of Mormon, the king-men, who are portrayed as evil, are trying to overthrow the government because they lost the election. Captain Moroni is the one who has the title of liberty [a brief affirmation of democratic principles] and kills all the king-men because they’re not following the results of the election.”

Michelle—who asked that we use a pseudonym but goes by actual_agency on TikTok—focuses less on politics than personal transformation. Over the course of her #exMo TikToks, she enjoys forbidden coffee, finds her style, talks about clean-slate loving parenting rules.

She sees how the story of Gadianton robbers—a secret Satanic mafia from ancient America that infiltrates the government and kills people—could be adapted to dangerous narratives.

“People think that the government is run by the Gadianton robbers,” she said. “It’s very, very parallel to the Deep State. And so you search [for the Deep State] and think, well, that must be what this is.”

Her faith crisis began percolating with a latent awareness of the MAGA-like ability to wave away the leader’s abuses. She was horrified to learn in her twenties that apostle Joseph Smith had married teenagers—if the prophet wasn’t the person she believed him to be, what else was untrue? One question led to more questions, and she only got excuses for Republican-backed policies she didn’t agree with, like child separation, racist killings, and ignoring climate change (the last issue was something God would handle). “I really believed for a long time that if you’re a Democrat, you can’t be a Mormon,” she said. “But then I just started looking at my beliefs, and they just didn’t line up with the Republican Party.” When Black Lives Matter protests grew in size and frequency summer, she shared her concerns on Facebook, which only attracted a flurry of fretful texts and apologists on her doorstep.

“It comes back down to the idea that everyone is either working for God or Satan. There’s no alternative…I don’t know, it’s hard to be specific. That’s where I was like, I’m done. I can’t handle this anymore. “

In Mormonism, there is a “shelf,” the apologist term for the place you’re supposed to put your doubts. “Well, it gets to a point where your shelf breaks. There are too many things on there, and it just doesn’t make sense,” Michelle said. “Everyone has a shelf.”

Go Update Your Passwords Right Now

Illustration for article titled Go Update Your Passwords Right Now

Photo: Michael Smith/Newsmakers (Getty Images)

Hey, you, casual internet user. Why not go and update your passwords right now? I’m not trying to boss you around or anything, but semi-frequent password changes are widely considered a great way to avoid getting hacked and having your information spilled all over the web.

Yes, bad actors break into more systems than you would think by simply guessing codes. There have been some really absurd incidents over the years in which large, prominent entities got hacked because their password sophistication was… shall we say, poor. For instance, the global security firm Gunnebo recently had its data stolen, and it’s suspected that one employee’s particularly impenetrable password (“password01”) played a role. Similarly, a Dutch hacker claims to have commandeered our ex-President Donald Trump’s Twitter account by merely guessing the PW: “maga2020!” Even the “SolarWinds” hackers apparently compromised some systems by just firing off some good guesses, according to U.S. cyber agency CISA.

Over the years, hackers have developed sophisticated methods to identify those personal details you’ve squashed together to create said cryptographic fortress (insert pet’s name plus birthday digits, for example). They commonly leverage whole suites of automated software to do this, deploying them in so-called “brute force” cyberattacks in which they repeatedly attempt to breach a system via automated guessing.

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So, update your passwords! And try to remember to update them with some frequency! There’s definitely some debate as to how often you should do it, but the general wisdom is that you should update every 60 to 90 days—so every two to three months.

One of the best ways to streamline updates and keep all of your passwords safe and secure is to use a third-party password manager application like Keeper, Bitwarden, or 1Password. These apps, most of which are compatible with macOS, Windows, Android and iOS, can be downloaded onto all of your devices, where they will securely autofill login information for your accounts. Usernames and passwords are stored in a secure, encrypted cloud database. Not only that, but a password manager will frequently auto-generate strong passwords for you, updating regularly and customizing them for complexity. This does away with the simple password problem that so many people struggle with. It’s also just a really straightforward way to centralize and secure all of your passwords under one roof.

Password managers aren’t always 100% bulletproof, however (see: a recent privacy controversy involving LastPass, a popular manager that was caught using multiple web-trackers), but they are much better than putting yourself through semi-regular PW brainstorming sessions in which you struggle to produce complex codes you’re likely to forget.

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Of course, there are a ton of other password security measures you can take, along with consistent updates. Two-factor authentication is, of course, always a good idea too—since it requires multiple pieces of evidence that the user is who they say they are. And, if you want to be super safe, try springing for a security key, like OnlyKey or YubiKey, which essentially ensures that the only way someone can break into your accounts is if they have physical access to your device.

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Okay, that’s the end of your security reminder for today. Go, update, and be secure.

CPAC Panelist Tried to Launch Japanese Tea Party for Guru Who Communed With Pro-Trump Spirit

Happiness Realization Party candidates, including Jay Aeba (seen in the gray suit at center), at a Tokyo hotel in 2009.

Happiness Realization Party candidates, including Jay Aeba (seen in the gray suit at center), at a Tokyo hotel in 2009.
Photo: Harumi Ozawa (Getty Images)

One of the speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the potential coronavirus super-spreader event being thrown by Republicans in Orlando, Florida this week, is a former leader of the political arm of a… we’ll say spiritually innovative faith in Japan. The guru at the center of said group has previously claimed to have summoned the “guardian spirit” of Donald Trump.

That’s according to a report by the Daily Beast, which flagged Friday CPAC panelist Jay “Hiroaki” Aeba as a onetime leader of Kōfuku-no-Kagaku (Happy Science), a spiritual movement described by Vice in 2012 as the “laziest cult ever” and more recently in the New York Times as “Tokyo’s answer to Scientology.” Its guru, former bank exec and self-proclaimed living god Ryuho Okawa, claims to be a medium of sorts that can talk to the spirit of anyone, living or dead, and has happily invoked that ability in both scenarios. Per the Beast, Okawa has claimed to have spoken with such living luminaries as the current brutal failson dictator of North Korea and Donald Trump, as well as Jesus Christ (who still technically lives through all of us, I guess, depending on your religious persuasion):

[Okawa] claims to have had a great awakening in 1981 and subsequently founded the Happy Science religion (Kofuku no Kagaku) in 1986. In American terms, he’s like Billy Graham crossed with Shirley MacLaine. He’s channeled the spirits of Jesus, Kim Jong II, and in 2016, he even managed to obtain an exclusive interview with the guardian spirit of Donald Trump.

In that amazing encounter, Trump’s spirit correctly stated, via Okawa, that he would be the next president.

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Other spirits Okawa has had nice conversations with include Quetzalcoatl, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, and the actress Natalie Portman, according to Vice News.

In a video dug up by the Beast, Okawa relays Trump’s guardian spirit as saying it enjoys criticism as much as a “New York cheesecake” (Trump allegedly prefers apple or chocolate pie) before rambling about how it will be “strong.”

Happy Science was reportedly once a rival of sorts to Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult that apparently tried and failed to assassinate Okawa with the deadly nerve agent sarin before it launched similar attacks on the population of Tokyo in 1995. According to the Times, Okawa is listed as the author of over 2,000 books, has been described as the head of a pyramid scheme, and is vehemently opposed by his own son, Hiroshi, who says he is full of “complete nonsense.” Okawa also moonlights as a peddler of bogus cures for the coronavirus—which he says was created by Chinese scientists, stolen by anti-Communist aliens, and dumped back on China as divine punishment. Naturally, he also believes Japan must prepare for a forthcoming apocalyptic world war.

While the ideological similarities between Happy Science and CPAC’s swarms of pro-Trump election truthers and QAnon conspiracists are obvious, here’s where Aeba, the leader of the Japanese Conservative Union (JCU), comes in. Aeba’s conference bio states he has attended CPAC since 2011 and hosted joint events with the American Conservative Union—CPAC’s organizer—but it doesn’t mention he was a chief of fringe Happy Science-affiliated political party the Happiness Realization Party (HRP). Per the Beast:

Aeba, who also used the alias Jikido “Jay” Aeba, and sometimes goes by Jay H. Aeba, was born in 1967 and graduated from the elite Keio University Law Division in 1989. In 1990, [Aeba] joined the headquarters of Happy Science and in May of 2009, he became their political leader. He served as the organization public relations chief. In 2013, he became the chief of the research and investigation division. In 2015, he ostensibly left the party and created the Japanese Conservative Union.

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Here’s a fun sample of what the HRP’s platform looked like in 2009, when Aeba was ascendant, according to the Japan Times:

A Happiness commercial posted on YouTube last week lays out the stakes. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il is preparing to nuke Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, bring Japan to its knees and enslave its people. “Japan will be unable to do anything about this because of its Constitution,” Kim sneers in the clip, referring to the so-called pacifist clause — Article 9 — of the 1947 document, written under U.S. Occupation, which renounces the right to wage war.

Against pictures of a mushroom cloud exploding over Tokyo and red ink slowly drowning the nation, the narrator warns that China ultimately lurks behind this plot. “With a population of 1.3 billion, China will rule the world,” intones the voice of Kim. “And North Korea will be No. 2.” Neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, nor their likely successors, the Democratic Party of Japan, have an answer to this threat, says the party. “The very existence of the nation hangs in the balance.”

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According to Vice, the HRP has never succeeded in electing so much as a single candidate to the Japanese parliament. It instead appears more interested in cultivating relationships with U.S. conservatives by adopting ultra-nationalist positions such as hardcore opposition to China, the subject of Aeba’s CPAC speech. In fact, Vice wrote that Aeba originally went to CPAC in 2011 to study the populist rhetoric of GOP politicians so that Okawa might pull off a Tea Party-style political revolution in Japan. (Right-wing nationalism has indeed surged in Japan since, though more to the benefit of the dominant Liberal Democratic Party and the hardcore ultra-conservative Nippon Kaigi, which aims to restore an emperor who would presumably not be Okawa.)

The current extent of Aeba’s relationship to Happy Science isn’t really clear. The Beast wrote that last year, Aeba professed to still believe in the religion, but that Happy Science disavowed him after he was named in Japanese media reports as the head of a nearly $9 million cryptocurrency scam that used an image of Aeba and Trump hanging out in marketing materials.

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“Jay [Aeba] and JCU are proceeding to deal with and address this issue with the cooperation of experts including lawyers,” the JCU told the Daily Beast. The organization added that it and Aeba have no organizational relationship to Happy Science, though it didn’t have any idea what Aeba’s personal religious beliefs are because it has a “policy of religious freedom for all members and staff.”

As the Beast noted, given the atmosphere of cultish fervor that has swallowed the GOP wholesale, it’s perhaps not too ridiculous to imagine that there could be market opportunities for someone claiming to be able to divine Trump’s will after his death. According to OpenSecrets, Aeba’s crypto startup is listed as a $60,000 partner in CPAC 2021.

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Aeba is in no way, shape, or form the only weirdo U.S. conservatives conjured up to speak at CPAC in 2021. Its speaker and panel list is stuffed full of figures promoting hoax claims that Joe Biden won the 2020 elections via mass fraud, while the ACU backpedaled and revoked an invitation to a hip-hop artist named Young Pharaoh after it was pointed out he is a raving anti-Semite.

Jeff Brain of CloutHub. Jeff Brain of CloutHub. Jeff Brain of CloutHub. Jeff Brain of CloutHub.

It’s the first day of the big Republican conference CPAC and a star has already been born.

The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel has been keeping his Twitter followers up to speed on the comments from the various speakers at the conference today, and it’s mostly been the usual parade of clowns like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz. But then, Weigel tweeted the following words:

“Jeff Brain of CloutHub asks the audience to put their hands up if they’ve lost followers on social media. #CPAC2021.”

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What a tantalizing sentence. It sounds fake. It sounds like a gag from The Simpsons. It’s just a straight-faced account of what happened when Jeff Brain of CloutHub took the stage at CPAC. Mr. Brain asked attendees to raise their hand if they’ve lost followers on social media, and a sea of hands went up across the audience. But the incident will live in infamy as the moment the world met Jeff Brain of CloutHub.

Mike Isaac of the New York Times tweeted, “‘jeff brain of clouthub’ now on repeat in my brain for the next two weeks.” Journalist Ashley Feinberg requested “a clip of Jeff Brain saying ‘I’m Jeff Brain,’” saying that she doesn’t “care about anything else.” Unfortunately, for Ashley and the rest of the world, Jeff Brain didn’t say “I’m Jeff Brain” during his appearance at CPAC. (You can see the full speech here starting around 18 minutes in.)

I also have to apologize to my readers for putting a big picture of Jeff Brain at the top of this blog post, robbing you of the pleasure of imagining what he looks like. Not knowing Jeff Brain, I pictured a bald man with a big ass head like Marc Andreesen with extra brains leaking out of his ears. But Brain’s head is basically normal-sized and topped with what appears to be hair.

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CloutHub is a new social media platform that’s trying to pull in the aggrieved conservative audience that Gab and Parler have targeted with mixed results. With that knowledge, you can probably imagine what Jeff Brain’s short talk was all about. He stirred up the audience with reminders of Donald Trump and the MyPillow guy getting deplatformed, warned that Big Tech is invading your privacy, and promised to provide a safe space for conservatives to talk about whatever they want. What’s more, his platform does it all. “Imagine if you read this morning that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram all merged together,” Brain said. “That is actually what CloutHub is.”

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But I’m not here to talk about CloutHub or the fact that its privacy policy is pretty standard fare for a social media company. I’m not here to say that responsibly running Facebook is such a monumental job that Facebook fails to do it on what seems like an hourly basis. I’m not here to talk about how much harder it would be to run Facebook if you bolted Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram onto it. I’m here to talk about Jeff Brain.

And now, I’m done.

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America’s Leaders Have No Clue What to Do About Disinformation

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley who appeared at a hearing held by the House Congressional Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/House Committee on Energy and Commerce

As disinformation and misinformation have increasingly been blamed for rising political extremism and polarization in the U.S., lawmakers have naturally sought to cobble together some sort of legislative response. The problem is that Congress is, themselves, so polarized that they can’t seem to agree on how to do that.

Case in point: a congressional hearing held Wednesday by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where lawmakers sought to look at the role of not just social media companies, but also traditional media—i.e., television—in enflaming partisanship and extremism. Republicans and Democrats both admitted that partisan media has played a big role in recent political upheaval, while ultimately trading aggrieved barbs indicative of the very problem they were trying to solve.

What is America going to do about disinformation? The answer, apparently, is: We have no idea!

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Deplatforming Fox?

The hearing was spurred by a recent incident in which Democratic California lawmakers Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jerry McNerney penned a letter to a dozen cable, satellite, and streaming companies, from AT&T and Comcast to Apple and Amazon, effectively asking that they reconsider giving a platform to conservative news programming like “Newsmax, One America News Network (OANN), and Fox News” on the basis that they were essentially “misinformation rumor mills and conspiracy theory hotbeds that produce content that leads to real harm.” As example, a section of the letter reads:

We are concerned about the role AT&T plays in disseminating misinformation to millions of its U-verse, DirecTV, and AT&T TV subscribers, and we write to you today to request additional information about what actions AT&T is taking to address these issues…What moral or ethical principles (including those related to journalistic integrity, violence, medical information, and public health) do you apply in deciding which channels to carry or when to take adverse actions against a channel?

It’s unsurprising that Democrats would be concerned about this since right-wing media has widely been blamed for helping radicalize Donald Trump supporters and galvanizing their quest to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. That galvanization ultimately helped push a deranged crowd into the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6—an incident that ended with the deaths of at least five people.

Critics have also blamed outlets like Fox News and other right-wing channels for sewing doubts about the seriousness of the coronavirus threat—and, in so doing, endangering the lives of their viewers. The Democrats’ letter alleges:

These same networks also have been key vectors of spreading misinformation related to the pandemic. A media watchdog found over 250 cases of COVID-19 misinformation on Fox News in just one five-day period, 9 and economists demonstrated that Fox News had a demonstrable impact on non-compliance with public health guidelines.

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At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans acknowledged the problematic nature of these beliefs, while nevertheless criticizing Democrats’ proposed solution, which they said was tantamount to unconstitutional censorship. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington state Republican and the ranking member on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, vociferously attacked the recent letter, saying:

In all my time on this committee there’s never been a more obvious, direct attack on the First Amendment…If the Majority was really interested in a meaningful dialogue, you wouldn’t schedule a hyper-partisan hearing to shame and blame. You wouldn’t be sending letters pressuring private companies to block conservative media outlets. I’m not only disappointed by this hearing, I’m deeply troubled by it.

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Rodgers also trotted out the “C” word—claiming the letter was similar to “actions by the Chinese Communist party.” If Rodgers’s concerns about freedom of speech might hold some water, a defense of the most baseless right-wing content that has come down the pipeline from stations like Fox News and OAN does not. Democrats said Wednesday that they ultimately did not actually support pulling certain programming off the air, though they wanted to find a way to de-escalate their messages.

Dog Death Threats

Conservatives’ unhinged ideations were not the only ones on trial Wednesday. Republicans defensively pointed out examples of blue America’s own media-fueled delusions—including, apparently, an episode involving death threats to a dog.

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Yes, Jonathan Turley, a conservative legal scholar at George Washington University, has said before (and repeated yesterday) that, after testifying during Trump’s first impeachment hearing in 2019, he and his family became the object of ongoing death threats via social media—including ones directed at his goldendoodle, Luna. He said:

Extremist violent speech is not an abstract or academic matter with me or many others who work in the public domain. Through the years I’ve received hundreds of threats against myself, my family, even my dog. My home has been targeted. Multiple campaigns have sought my termination as a professor. … Thus, while I am generally viewed as free-speech purist, I have no illusions about the harm of disinformation and extremist speech in our society.

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Also present Wednesday was Rep. Steve Scalise, the GOP congressman who, in 2017, was shot during the so-called “Congressional baseball shooting” wherein a gunman opened fire at a charity game in Alexandria, Virginia. The culprit, 66-year-old James Hodgkinson, was a big Sen. Bernie Sanders supporter and was largely thought to have been radicalized by political media. Scalise said Wednesday:

The gunman was motivated by hyper-charged rhetoric that he was hearing from the left—from high, prominent elected officials, as well as media personalities…

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Sending death threats and attacking people you disagree with (verbally or otherwise) is a very bipartisan problem: Just look at the horrible abuse that disinformation-addled right-wingers hurled at local health officials and Dr. Anthony Fauci for having the temerity to suggest they should wear a face mask and quarantine so as not to catch covid-19. In other cases, the most radicalized conservatives have done more than talk (see: the attempted kidnapping of the Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, not to mention the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, which threatened Democratic and Republican members of Congress alike).

Republicans also repeatedly brought up “Russiagate,” bandying it about as a liberal equivalent to their own constituents’ most paranoiac fantasies—and an example of how Democrats are susceptible to extreme thinking, too.

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In some sense, this is a valid point.“Russiagate” is a prime example of how a political meme can go viral, conquering millions of hearts and minds, before facts ever enter into play. The idea that Trump colluded with Russia to throw the 2016 presidential election was widely perpetuated by America’s elite media institutions (read: late night talk shows, MSNBC, CNN, Saturday Night Live, our biggest national newspapers, and so on). Leading news organizations gave the issue incessant, editorialized coverage—frequenting convincing their audiences that Trump’s downfall was right around the corner. These outsized claims largely fell flat when the Mueller investigation found no evidence of a criminal conspiracy to vindicate the “scandal’s” central premise. While there may be evidence of contact between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, the news coverage of the scandal frequently played hard and loose with the facts.

America’s Unhealthy Social Media Diet

Yes, Americans on both sides of the political aisle are susceptible to believing stuff that isn’t true and getting all riled up. We can argue about who believes the more ludicrous stuff (or who has responded to that stuff with the more violence and vitriol), but when boiled down to its essentials, most partisan thinking has a strikingly similar message and outlook: We’re getting screwed and it’s somebody else’s fault. The problem is that both sides can’t agree on whose fault it is (usually, it’s blamed on the opposing political party).

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One invited speaker, Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Media at Columbia University, said her research had seen similar types of information toxicity all over the map:

Misinformation is a systemic problem—it affects all. I wholeheartedly endorse the view that this is not a partisan issue. We see it in different geographies and right across the political spectrum operating in the same way.

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Speakers also zeroed in on one of the primary sources of the problem: the hollowing out of local news media via Big Tech’s greedy suck of national advertising revenue, and the subsequent ascendance of an information landscape governed by social media. With this transformation, Americans have essentially gone from a healthy media diet to one chock full of junk food.

Invited speaker Soledad O’Brien, a former news anchor and journalist who now runs her own media company, said that the affliction of America’s “truth decay” has been hastened by the decline of America’s journalism industry:

How did we get here? … I believe this era of “truth decay” began when local newspapers were badly—even mortally—wounded by the emergence of free social media and the decline of advertising dollars, like classified ads. Our country has lost almost 2,100 papers since 2004. Local news is the heartbeat of American journalism, the glue of civic participation, the place where we turn to for information about our local taxes, quality education, infrastructure. Its demise left the public with only the unfiltered and unverified cauldron of presumed fact and opinion that is social media.

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With these tectonic shifts, it’s also worth noting that our surviving media outlets have shifted to a business model that emphasizes divisive, polarizing issues designed to split audiences. Conflict drives readers, which drives ad revenue, which means that U.S. news outlets are effectively helping further the partisan entrenchment that everybody ostensibly wants to neutralize.

A Solution That Will Surely Work: Banning Liars

As with most things, diagnosing a problem can be far easier than finding a solution. There were few specific suggestions offered Wednesday about what could be done to make everybody more coherent and less angry.

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O’Brien, for example, proposed this actionable plan: “Do not book liars on the air!” she said repeatedly, opining that if news organizations would just avoid “liars” and “lies,” we could fix our broken media landscape.

Aside from the fact that it’s not exactly clear how outlets would do this (should CNN panelists be hooked up to polygraphs as soon as they enter the studio?), the problem that O’Brien is clearly side-stepping here is that Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on what counts as a lie and what counts as the truth. That’s the whole point: An ecosystem of separate, polarized, and mutually reinforcing news feeds has, time and again, led Americans to interpret the same set of facts through wildly different lenses. Within this atmosphere of distrust and fractured media, opportunistic actors—both domestic and foreign—take advantage of ideological fault-lines to make the problem worse.

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To come full circle and return to where we began: One thing seems certain and that is that de-platforming an organization like Fox News will not deliver us from this hellscape. No matter how noble the intent, a partisan crusade against conservative media won’t reduce polarization, nor will it rid America of the ideas expressed on those platforms. Instead, it will just drive former viewers of said content into other corners of the media ecosystem (read: the recent Twitter exodus to Parler), where they can be free to get more extreme.

Americans need to learn that neither half of the country is going anywhere. We’ll just have to keep listening to each other, no matter how much we hate what we hear.

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The Problem With Zoom Adding Free Captions After Getting Called Out

Illustration for article titled The Problem With Zoom Adding Free Captions After Getting Called Out

Photo: Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

As a journalist and content writer, I often have to go on Zoom calls every day with clients and interview sources who request to use this platform. I am also hard-of-hearing, which makes following what people say on calls tiring, due to listening fatigue.

Automated captions help me do my job. It is difficult to be prepared to answer a client’s question or provide a follow-up when I am concentrating on understanding everything that a person says. While automated captions do not remove all barriers I face as a hard-of-hearing journalist, it does make my job a bit easier. This is why I tweeted on Monday that it is ableist that Zoom does not have free captions, unlike the platforms Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Skype.

Until yesterday, Zoom did not offer closed captions on free accounts which is very necessary for the Deaf and hard of hearing community, people with auditory processing issues, and second language learners. Automated captions—while they do have their flaws, especially with foreign accents—help people like me catch more of what people are talking about.

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Zoom issued a statement to me late last night in the form of a link to a brand-new public blog post, after an inquiry for this piece. I’ve been thinking and talking about this publicly for some time. Zoom plans to roll out live captions to everyone in fall 2021, but people can now fill out live transcript access requests. I jumped on filling out the form—which was temporarily closed to the public when the blog post went live for at least 10 minutes—and now I am waiting for one to two weeks to get access to live transcripts.

I am happy that Zoom is making this change, but it should not have taken this long. While in its statement, Zoom claims that they made this change to “provide a platform that is accessible to all of the diverse communities we serve,” public pressure likely played a role in this change. This includes a petition about Zoom that hearing loss advocate Shari Eberts created on Change.org which has accumulated over 80,000 signatures as of this morning and a December 2020 class-action lawsuit against Zoom from people with hearing loss who have had to pay for captioning.

Zoom is not the only company or organization that has failed to accommodate hard of hearing and Deaf people throughout the pandemic. In fact, failing to accommodate hard of hearing and Deaf people seems to be a rare bi-partisan problem. Both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House failed to have American Sign Language interpreters at their covid-19 briefings.

One argument that I have heard again and again from people who are not hard of hearing or Deaf defending Zoom not having free captions is that I should just get my company to grant me a paid account. This frustrates me for numerous reasons. Deaf people are disproportionately unemployed. According to the National Deaf Center and Postsecondary Outcomes, 53.3% of Deaf people ages 25-64 were employed in 2017, versus 75.8% of hearing people. Even if Deaf people are unemployed or underemployed, they should still have the same access to this essential technology without having to pay. I am also a freelancer, which means I have to pay for my own business expenses. I should not have to pay for equal access because of my disability, which many hard of hearing and Deaf people have been doing to have adequate accommodations over Zoom. Zoom’s past failure to realize the necessity of captions for the hard of hearing and Deaf community also makes me question how many disabled people are on their team.

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Non-disabled people often do not recognize the importance of accommodations. Just last week, a California college professor was seen on TikTok berating a hard-of-hearing student for not responding in a way he considered to be appropriate, and for how the student interacted with their interpreter off-screen. I could not help but notice that the Zoom video did not have free captions either at this time. Virtual learning for heard of hearing and the Deaf community has come with its unique challenges, and I am happy that I only had to do my final semester remotely.

Disabled people need accessibility, but we also need non-disabled people to realize why giving us accommodations should not be optional.

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It frustrates me that the disability community has to pressure tech companies and even the government to be inclusive. Navigating the world as a hard-of-hearing person is tiring due to inaccessibility, and it is also tiring to have to fight for my rights to accessibility.

Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer whose work has appeared in Narratively, Bitch Media, Business Insider, and Poynter. You can follow her on Twitter at @metraux_julia and read more of her work here.

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Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Illustration: Angelica Anzona/Gizmodo

Moving into 2021 and forward, conservatives angry about cancel culture, censorship, shadowbans, or the attention of the FBI have a rich array of social destinations to choose from. We’ve prepped a travel guide for the unwitting observer who might be thinking of checking any of these conspicuous and lesser-known internet hellholes out—whether it’s to keep an eye on what the far-right is up to or to tell you exactly why you shouldn’t be going to these places.

Donald Trump and the Republican media ecosystem spent the last few years building an elaborate fantasy world for his supporters. They insisted, at every turn, that any unflattering portrayal of his unpopular administration was the product of a liberal media establishment staffed by socialist journalists and amplified by Silicon Valley tech companies angling to take him down.

A wide array of alternative social media sites cropped up to cater to right-wingers convinced that Facebook and Twitter were censoring them, despite all evidence indicating otherwise. They also cater to far-right groups ranging from fascists and white supremacists to QAnon truthers whom mainstream sites actually had been, with varying levels of commitment or success, trying to rid themselves of.

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The riots in DC on Jan. 6, when a mob of pro-Trump rioters charged into Congress trying to overturn the results of the election, resulted in a wave of platform bans targeted against the perpetrators and Trump himself. This fueled a sense of urgency among conservatives that their days on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites were numbered. So here’re some of the sites, platforms, and apps where they might set up shop in 2021, whether as a forever home or just a pit stop on a never-ending ride out into the fringe.


Parler 

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: Parler

Trump dedicated what counted, for him, as considerable time, effort, and energy into indoctrinating supporters with the idea that tech companies are hunting down and eliminating conservative accounts like it’s The Most Dangerous Game. Parler, which is sort of like if Facebook and Twitter were around in 1939 and allied with the Axis, was the primary beneficiary of this conspiracy theory—at least until its role in the Capitol fiasco saw it stabbed in the back by Amazon, Google, and Apple, which collectively trashed the app by killing its hosting contract and app store access in January.

Parler launched in 2018. But in the days after the November 2020 elections, Parler leapt to top spots on the App Store and Play Store, surging to over 10 million users in a very short period of time. That’s in large part because conservative media personalities with huge audiences, including pundit Dan Bongino, numerous Fox News hosts such as Maria Bartiromo, former Trump campaign official Brad Parscale, former Turning Point USA comms director and Hitler endorser Candace Owens, radio host Mark Levin, and a number of GOP members of Congress had been urging their followers to #WalkAway and set up shop there.

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Parler managed to maintain the outward appearance of being one of the most mainstreams of the alternative sites on this list—an extremely low standard—as it was flooded with conservative celebrities and hadn’t been implicated in any horrifying acts of violence yet. Rank-and-file Republicans may have been attracted to Parler from its promise of a moderation-free environment free from the influence of effete tech titans. But so were neo-fascist street-brawling groups like the Proud Boys, racists and anti-Semites, grifters, people posing as senators to sell CBD oil, porn spammers, campaigns begging for money, and disinformation purveyors (some from Macedonia), who thanks to those same policies were all able to rub shoulders with the normies in the endless feedback loop they’d always dreamed of. Now-former CEO John Matze said in an interview that “community jury” groups handled most moderation, which sort of helps explain why the moderation sucked.

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If this sounds like absolute hell, that is probably a positive statement reflection of your mental health. Well before the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, where a large number of the crowd were members of Parler live-streaming crimes, it was clear that was exactly where it was headed.

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“Parler is a mix of hard-right extremists, right-wing influencers, and mainstream conservatives who feel they’ve been personally abused by Silicon Valley,” Cassie Miller, a Southern Poverty Law Center senior research analyst, told Gizmodo in December. “It acts largely as a pro-Trump echo chamber and amplifier for misinformation. It will likely contribute to an even greater fracturing of our information system, which we know has immense consequences for elections and the larger political process. For example, the notion that the country is inevitably heading toward civil war is pretty pervasive on the platform.”

Miller told Gizmodo that the Proud Boys, which had been staging brawls in the streets of D.C. for months, used Facebook for recruitment until they were pushed off in 2018. She added Parler had “largely solved that problem for them, and it now acts as their main platform for propaganda and recruitment.” A half-dozen Proud Boys have since been arrested for their alleged role in instigating and carrying out the riot.

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There were a number of reasons to be skeptical that Parler’s success would last through 2021. Few, if any, of its celebrity proponents actually deleted their accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or what have you, because they were not actually being censored there. Parler’s target demographic include droves of trolls, assholes, racists, and other unpleasant people whose activities online tended to be centered around trying to piss off liberals, leftists, and minority groups, almost none of whom were actually on Parler to hold their attention. The site hadn’t demonstrated that it was anything more than a fad driven by feverish rhetoric from conservative media that would drop off as soon as they moved on to some other bogeyman.

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For a blessed few weeks, Parler’s blacklisting by Amazon, Apple, and Google seemed like it might mean the app wouldn’t come back anytime soon or possibly ever. The social media service spent most of its time helplessly petitioning for the courts to intervene and restore their service, and for weeks the only sign of actual business operations was a “Technical Difficulties” page that listed letters of support from such luminaries as Sean Hannity. Its CEO, John Matze, got fired in some kind of power struggle over moderation policies.

Unfortunately, Parler is back, baby, with a new web host that seems to believe something will turn out different this time. New safety measures the company announced on Feb. 15 included a “privacy-preserving” algorithm to identify threats or incitement to violence, a “trolling filter” to hide potentially bigoted posts, and a ban on attempts to use the site to commit a crime. Seeing as that’s pretty much the bulk of Parler, one wonders how studiously the new restrictions can possibly be enforced.

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“The fact that Parler’s interruption in service was only temporary tells us something about where tech is going,” Miller told Gizmodo this week. “We are going to continue to see a growing number of platforms that are looking to cater specifically to right-wing and extremist users, as well as infrastructure to support them. This is going to have a major impact on the information landscape and is something we’ll increasingly have to take into consideration as we try to tackle problems like disinformation and political polarization.”

Parler was so desperate to have Trump sign up that it reportedly tried to negotiate an equity deal with the Trump Organization while he was still in office, something that could be viewed as an, uh, bribe. Trump had reportedly been toying with joining the site, possibly under the moniker—we shit you not—“Person X.” He’s also reportedly had so little idea what to do without his Facebook and Twitter access that he’s spending a lot of his time suggesting tweets to those aides around him that remain unbanned.

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This leaves open the possibility that Trump could still decide to make Parler his own little post-presidential posting palace. Suffice it to say that would be nice for him.

MeWe 

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: MeWe

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MeWe was created by Mark Weinstein, a tech entrepreneur behind such previous best hits as the short-lived SuperFriends.com and SuperFamily.com, early social networks that spanned just a few years from 1998 to the early 2000s. It bills itself as a privacy-focused, subscription-based “anti-Facebook.” Its primary selling point to conservatives, however, is that it promises it has “absolutely no political agenda and no one can pay us to target you with theirs.”

MeWe has millions of users, who are subject to a fairly long list of rules. But in practice, a Rolling Stone report in 2019 found, its primary draw appears to be users fleeing either bans or just paranoia one is forthcoming on Facebook. Its policy of not intervening against dishonest, hoax, or factually incorrect content had made it a landing spot for anti-Semites, mass shooting deniers, and other conspiracy theorists who are apparently largely free to run wild because of the site’s narrow definition of hateful speech.

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Other groups that have migrated to MeWe include anti-vaxxers who feel suppressed by Facebook. In 2020, according to Business Insider, it became one of the staging areas for right-wingers organizing anti-lockdown protests during the novel coronavirus pandemic, who created numerous groups and flooded feeds with recruitment messages.

Weinstein suggested to Rolling Stone that because MeWe does not allow advertisers to promote or boost content, that effectively eliminates any concern about groups boosting hoaxes and propaganda because “I have to go find those groups and I have to join them. They can’t find me.” He later penned a Medium post demanding the retraction of the Rolling Stone article, stating the site’s terms of service clearly state “haters, bullies, lawbreakers, and people promoting threats and violence are not welcome.”

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As Mashable noted, MeWe also appears to be inflating the perception of how busy it is by creating dummy profiles for everyone from Donald Trump to the New York Times and then auto-populating them with content posted by those individuals or organizations on other sites.

(The site was originally named Sgrouples, like “scruples,” Weinstein said in an October interview, but like Parler, the original name didn’t stick due to users mispronouncing it.)

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“MeWe — ugh,” Elon University professor and online extremism expert Megan Squire told Gizmodo. “MeWe reminds me of what would happen if MySpace and the ‘blink’ HTML tag had a baby. Users who try MeWe after being on Facebook complain that it is horribly designed, very ugly, hard to use, and feels frantic with chat messages popping up everywhere. Probably the most notable groups that moved to MeWe in 2020 were the Boogaloo-style groups that had been removed from Facebook and other platforms.” (Boogaloo refers to loosely affiliated groups of internet denizens who figure the country is probably headed towards a second civil war, such as far-right militia orgs that are particularly wishful it would hurry up and start already.) Squire added that those groups and others had “struggled” to build audiences on MeWe.

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“Their exodus looked very similar to the Proud Boys did the same thing back in 2018 when they were first banned from Facebook,” Squire added. “Once on MeWe, both groups struggled to re-build the numbers they’d seen on Facebook, and many members of these groups left for other platforms.”

Jared Holt, visiting research fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Gizmodo he didn’t think MeWe had what it takes to compete for the hearts and minds of right-wingers.

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Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: MeWe

“I use MeWe for research because it currently homes the remnants of a fair amount of banned Facebook groups and pages that belonged to militia, QAnon, and ‘Boogaloo’ movement figures,” Holt wrote. “The site gives its users a lot of control over privacy, which likely contributes to its appeal for some of those groups. Each MeWe group has a wall that users can post to—like Facebook—but MeWe groups also have a simultaneous group chat function. Those group chats are often chaotic and can be steered in some very strange directions depending on who is active in the conversation at any given moment in time.”

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“Though some extremist groups are camping out on MeWe, I don’t see this platform capturing the attention of broader right-wing internet users in a way like Parler has,” Holt added. “Because of its privacy design, the platform can be a bit hard to grasp for users who don’t already know of specific people or types of groups they want to find. It has some territory carved out among awfully specific parts of the right-wing internet, but it’s hard for me to imagine this will become the next big conservative stomping ground.”

To give MeWe some credit, however, its default avatars—smiling cartoons of bread—are pretty cute.

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Gab

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: Gab

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Gab was founded in 2016 by the thoroughly unpleasant pro-Trump figure Andrew Torba, who was banned from seed money accelerator Y Combinator that same year “for speaking in a threatening, harassing way toward other YC founders,” according to YC via BuzzFeed. (Torba’s outbursts allegedly include telling YC founders to “fuck off” and “take your morally superior, elitist, virtue signaling bullshit and shove it.”) Since then, it’s become one of the primary dumping grounds for explicitly fascist and white supremacist posters who got tired of creating yet another Twitter alt.

The site likes to market itself, unconvincingly, as one of the last refuges of free speech on the internet in the face of Big Tech censorship, rather than a congregation of various sociopaths. Following a series of neo-Nazi terror attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the latter of which was committed by a Gab user—the site was forced off the App Store, Play Store, cloud host Joyent, payment processors PayPal and Stripe, domain registrar GoDaddy, and various other services. In 2020, its alternative registrar, Epik, was banned by PayPal for running a suspicious “alternative currency.”

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Suffice to say that Gab has a far more toxic reputation than, say, Parler. Mashable reported this year that analysts at a Florida police fusion center had warned participating agencies that its new encrypted chat service, Gab Chat, was likely to become a “viable alternative” for “White Racially Motivated Violent Extremists” leaving Discord, a gaming-focused chat app that had a reputation for being overrun with Nazis during its years of explosive growth.

Gab remains a “prominent organizing space for far-right extremists,” Michael Hayden, a senior investigative reporter at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Gizmodo. While interest in Gab has declined since the site became so closely associated with the terror attack at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, [Torba] has made a big push to bring in QAnon adherents who have been suspended elsewhere.”

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The site provides “the type of infrastructure hateful, terroristic people need to organize mayhem,” Hayden added.

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Torba has been telling anyone who will listen that Gab usership has surged as aggrieved right-wingers look for a post-Parler home, specifically claiming that as of early January, it had 3.4 million signed up. None of these figures are to be trusted, Hayden said, noting that an engineer for web host Sibyl System Ltd. had told the SPLC in 2019 that Gab’s quoted figure of 800,000 users at the time was not backed up by its usage statistics. Instead, the engineer said Gab’s usership was “a few thousand or a few tens of thousands.”

“It’s extremely difficult to get an accurate accounting of Gab’s real user numbers due to the degree to which the site is inflated with what look very much like inactive if not openly fake accounts,” Hayden told Gizmodo.

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8kun

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: 8kun

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8kun originally launched in November 2019 as a rebrand of 8chan, an image board that was itself founded as a “free-speech” alternative to internet troll-hub 4chan. 8chan was knocked off the web after it was deplatformed by numerous internet companies and hit with DDOS attacks after its /pol/ board, a hub for right-wing extremists flooded with hate speech, was implicated in several mass shootings by white supremacist terrorists in Christchurch, New Zealand; Poway, California; and El Paso, Texas. The perpetrators of those attacks, where a cumulative 75 people died and 66 others were injured, had all posted manifestos to 8chan before the attacks.

Its owner, Philippines-based pig farmer Jim Watkins, was forced to testify before Congress and gave no indication he planned to change a thing.

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8kun is also where “Q,” the unknown individual or individuals who started the QAnon movement, has continued the hoax after 8chan went offline. Watkins and his son, (ostensibly) former 8kun admin Ron Watkins, heavily promoted QAnon and are widely suspected to either be Q or know their identity.

Q hasn’t posted since Dec. 8, 2020—though 8kun also served as one of the several venues where Trump supporters rallied each other ahead of the Jan. 6 riots. Trump’s loss, subsequent humiliation in the courts, and failure to stop the Biden inauguration hasn’t exactly been great for the conspiracy theory’s brand. The younger Watkins has tried to rebrand himself as an election security expert just in time to score interviews with pro-Trump media boosting ridiculous theories of voter fraud.

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8kun is completely delisted from Google, making it somewhat harder to find for the kind of normies with limited navigational understanding of the internet flocking to sites like Parler, and it’s been sporadically knocked offline by attackers. While Q posted there, most QAnon aficionados actually followed them through a labyrinth of QAnon promoters, aggregation sites, and screenshots on other social media. That all means its gravitational draw has been somewhat blunted (a “rouge administrator” deleted its entire /qresearch board with no backups available last month, though it was later restored).

“The 8kun imageboard continues to be driven mostly by Q followers hoping for the anonymous poster’s return,” Julian Feeld, a researcher on conspiracy theories and co-host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast, told Gizmodo. “On the ‘Q Research’ board the usual cauldron of conspiracy theories stirs—‘anons’ are tracking media reports of famous illnesses, deaths, and suicides to see if ‘the storm’ might still secretly be on track. It feels like they’re trying to stay positive as the days tick on, which is nothing new for them.”

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Feeld added that 8kun’s replacement for /pol/, /pnd/, was just as openly extreme but appeared to be slowly fizzling out.

“Meanwhile the ‘Politics, News, Debate’ board is increasingly less active and currently serves as a hub for Neo-nazi propaganda,” Feeld wrote. “So far Jim Watkins has managed to keep the site functioning despite the many public outcries and activists’ efforts to keep it offline.”

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Both Watkinses have been suggested as potential targets in the lawsuits being brought by Dominion Voting Systems, a company that is currently suing Trump campaign lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani as well as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell for billions after they spread hoaxes claiming the company fraudulently flipped the 2020 elections. While that might be too much to hope for, 8kun doesn’t exactly seem to be on the rebound.

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DLive

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: DLive/Twitter (Other)

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DLive is a video site that found an audience with right-wingers banned or demonetized on other sites like YouTube and who weren’t keen on the prospect of moving to places like Bitchute that explicitly cater to the far-right, but offer a limited audience and unwelcome associations. Unlike Bitchute, DLive briefly attracted some mainstream talent—video game personality Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, one of the most-viewed streamers on the planet, signed a live-streaming exclusivity deal in April 2019 with the site before going back to YouTube exclusively in May 2020.

DLive, like the other sites on this list, has very lax rules. But it also has distinguishing features: It has an internal economy based on tokens called “lemons,” which are worth a fraction of a cent each, that runs on blockchain, the decentralized digital storage system that powers bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Lemons can be purchased or sold in cash and accrued by engaging in activities on the site, effectively making it gamified. DLive is also popular with gamers as a Twitch alternative, giving it access to a more youthful audience.

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These factors made DLive an attractive option for extremists to continue making money. Elon University’s Squire recently published research with the SPLC showing some 56 extremist accounts had made a total of $465,572.43 between April 16 and late October of last year.

“I don’t think there is any real advantage that DLive has compared to any other niche live-streaming site that facilitates donations,” Squire told Gizmodo. “There is nothing particularly ‘fashy’ about the site other than an apparently hands-off management style and a tolerance for hate speech and proximity to younger demographic game streamers. … The biggest advantage DLive has going for it is traditional network effects: like other social media platforms, the more people who use the service, the more valuable it gets.”

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“Contrast this to Telegram’s file sharing/encryption/stickers or 8kun’s anonymity or Keybase’s file-sharing/encryption, for instance—these are technical features that drive adoption by extremists,” Squire added. “DLive is just a seemingly-normal platform that is also friendly to white supremacist streamers; it allows them to appear normal as they make money after they’ve been removed from the more mainstream sites.”

Squire’s research showed that over the time period in question, DLive generated $62,250 for Owen Benjamin, a comedian known for racist and anti-Semitic “jokes”; $61,650 for white nationalist “Groyper” chud Nick Fuentes; and $51,500 for Patrick Casey, who used to be a leader of the now-defunct white supremacist group Identity Evropa and its similarly disbanded offshoot, the American Identity Movement. Others making thousands on the site included a prominent Gamergater, a white supremacist media brand, and a pseudonymous contributor to far-right publications. According to an August 2020 Time article, data from Social Blade showed eight out of the 10 highest-earning accounts on DLive were “far-right commentators, white-nationalist extremists or conspiracy theorists.”

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But DLive had its own recent day of reckoning after it was highlighted in numerous news reports as playing a role in the Capitol riots—Fuentes, for example, used the site to float the idea of murdering members of Congress and later streamed on DLive from outside the building. Fuentes and Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, another far-righter to find a soapbox on DLive, were subsequently banned. Some alt-right streamers on DLive, such as Casey, have taken to telling their audiences that their days using it are numbered.

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However, a report by Wired early this month indicated that Casey and other streamers on DLive continued to monetize with Streamlabs and StreamElements, third-party integrations that allow viewers to donate directly to creators (and allow streamers to bypass bans on major payment processors like PayPal). StreamElements told the magazine that it had removed Casey’s account after it reached out for comment, but Wired found that “dozens of Streamlabs and StreamElements accounts attached to white supremacist, far-right, or conspiracy theorist content are still live.”

The “only real actions” DLive has taken, Squire told Gizmodo, was the bans in January, a prohibition on streaming from DC implemented late last month, and demonetizing accounts with an “X” tag, which is required for political streamers.

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“Different streamers have been trying to game the system, for example by taking the X down so they can make money during the stream and then putting it back up and removing their videos,” Squire added. “It’s very tedious. Others are trying to pretend that they are just video game streamers.”

Rumble

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: Rumble

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Conservatives are convinced that YouTube, despite playing host to a sprawling network of right-wing commentators and pundits and possibly doing the least of any major social network to fight GOP-friendly misinformation, is secretly conspiring against them. Enter Rumble, which is like YouTube if it was designed by me using WordPress.

Rumble has been around since 2013 and managed to rake together a number of partnerships with companies including MTV, Xbox, Yahoo, and MSN. Per Tech Times, it has a rather confusing number of monetization options, two of which rely on signing over ownership rights to Rumble and a non-exclusive option where each video can make a max of $500. Rumble appears to generate a significant amount of its revenue by licensing viral videos, as well as its video player technology. In other words, this is sort of a weird place for conservatives to end up.

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Still, Rumble intentionally courted right-wingers as a growth strategy that seems to have paid off—it told the New York Times it had exploded from 60.5 million video views in October to a projected 75 million to 90 million in November. Rumble particularly benefited from the Capitol riots; Axios reported that downloads of its app doubled by the next week.

As of Tuesday afternoon, its “battle leaderboard” was headed by content from Bongino, Donald Trump Jr., far-right filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, pro-Trump web personalities Diamond & Silk, and radio host Mark Levin. The most-viewed video from the previous week was a video of Trump Jr. arguing the left was “trying to cancel” Senator Ted Cruz for fleeing Texas while freezing weather knocked out electricity statewide, lying that Cruz had no ability to do anything about the situation.

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Other top-viewed videos have included a video by “ElectionNightFacts” droning on dead-eyed about allegedly suspicious election results, a crying restaurant owner saying that her business is failing while Los Angeles authorities allowed movie sets to remain open, and numerous re-uploads of Trump speeches. 

 
Of the 50 most-viewed videos of the last week, all but five videos (four videos in French from a Quebec-focused site and an aggregated news roundup) were viral fodder for right-wingers. Much of it was either reuploads of videos that could be found elsewhere, such as clips of Bongino’s show, videos from Trump Jr., or just clips taken from networks like CNN or C-SPAN coupled with angry or exaggerated captions.

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Slate noted that in addition to a slew of content spreading conspiracy theories that the “deep state” had stolen the election from Trump, QAnon content and videos lying about the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism were gaining a large audience through Rumble. A search of the site shows that while many conservatives on Rumble were criticizing QAnon, videos promoting or covering the conspiracy theory were still widely posted.

CEO Chris Pavlovski told the Washington Post that while the site has rules against obscene content and certain categories of content like videos showing how to make weapons, he views his approach to moderation as akin to bigger tech companies’ a decade ago.

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“We don’t get involved in political debates or opinions. We’re an open platform,” Pavlovski said. “We don’t get involved in scientific opinions; we don’t have the expertise to do that and we don’t want to do that.”

The Post reported that Rumble was heavily reliant on traffic from Parler, with Pavlovski telling the paper more of its traffic clicked over from there than Facebook or Twitter. That may leave Rumble in a tough spot, though according to BuzzFeed, Bongino took an equity deal with Rumble to promote it to his followers on Facebook.

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Telegram

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Screenshot: Telegram

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Encrypted messaging service Telegram had long been a safe space for various fascists, racists, and quacks, and it served as one of their last havens after being squeezed out of competitors like chat server app Discord. Telegram has a far more laissez-faire approach to content moderation and was host to hundreds of white supremacist groups with thousands of members by mid-2020; it also serves as a central hub for fascist groups like the Proud Boys as well as a remaining outlet for far-right activists like failed congressional candidate Laura Loomer and distant memory Milo Yiannopoulos to reliably stay in contact with supporters.

Of course, Telegram isn’t just used by extremists. It and Signal, another encrypted chat app, have become wildly popular and are used by everyone from random suburbanites to political dissidents. The governments of Russia and Iran took use of Telegram by protest movements seriously enough to warrant attempting to shut them down (Russia’s attempt backfired big time with major collateral damage on unrelated web apps, while Iranians simply dodged restrictions with VPNs). A Belarusian news organization based out of Poland, Nexta, has been using Telegram to coordinate protests against dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

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Moderation is inherently more complicated on Telegram, as it’s privacy focused, mixes public and private messaging functions, has various encryption types, and content flows by in realtime. Telegram has shown limited interest in moderation of its social networking dimension, and it’s based out of London, insulating it somewhat from the political debates raging around U.S.-based sites. All of these factors have contributed to its popularity with extremists.

“Telegram is the largest safe haven for the most extreme parts of the far-right,” Miller told Gizmodo. “While white power accelerationists were, until relatively recently, largely confined to small, highly vetted forums that had a limited reach, they can now reach far larger audiences on Telegram. There is a large network on Telegram that exists solely to encourage members of the white power movement to commit acts of violence.”

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“We’re seeing the white power movement as a whole shift away from formalized groups in favor or small, clandestine terror cells, and Telegram is playing a major role in facilitating that reorganization,” Miller added.

In 2020, however, Telegram began banning some of the most extreme groups on the site, including a neo-Nazi hub called Terrorwave Refined with thousands of followers, a militant group tied to foreign recruiting for a white supremacist movement fighting in eastern Ukraine, and a Satanist group obsessed with rape. But it’s not clear that Telegram is putting up much more than a token effort in response to media pressure. Terrorwave easily slipped back onto the service under another name. In November 2020, Vice News reported that Telegram didn’t delete a dual English/Russian language channel dedicated to the “scientific purposes” of distributing bomb-making instructions until after it published an article on the topic. While it banned dozens of far-right channels following the Capitol riot, many others continue to operate.

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“Telegram’s attempts to ban white supremacist content had little effect on the extremist communities already established on the platform,” Miller told Gizmodo. “Most banned channels simply created backups, and had already used the platform’s export feature to preserve their content. The bans forced extremists to become slightly more agile but, beyond that, had little impact. Telegram continues to be a safe haven for extremists, allowing users to participate in the radical right without ever joining a defined group. More than any other platform, it’s helping to facilitate a shift toward a leaderless resistance model of far-right organizing.”

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Thinkspot

Illustration for article titled Your Travel Guide to the Rudderless Right-Wing Web After Trump

Photo: Thinkspot

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Thinkspot, the site founded by Canadian psychiatrist and surrogate dad to a cult-like fanbase of disaffected libertarians and anti-feminists Jordan Peterson, barely registers a mention on this list. While Peterson founded the site in 2019 in response to a series of bans on fringe conservatives and commentators sympathetic to the “alt-right” on Patreon, it’s not a hub of extremism, just pseudointellectual conservative drive. It is more or less a vanity site designed to facilitate giving Peterson money under the cover story of enabling intellectual discourse banned elsewhere on the web, and it appears to have been largely abandoned after he dropped out of the public eye in 2019 amid a months-long medical crisis.

Peterson announced his return in October but has only mentioned the site on his Twitter feed five times since February 2020. His posts in the past few months have largely been reposts of podcast episodes or YouTube videos with only a few dozen “likes” and the same captions that appear on other sites. On Monday, only a handful of the featured posts seen upon logging into Thinkspot were listed as having more than a hundred views, with the one highest on the “Top Posts” leaderboard having 850 views and eight comments.

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Facebook

The Facebook page of a militia group that showed up during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after which an armed gunman killed two and wounded another.

The Facebook page of a militia group that showed up during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after which an armed gunman killed two and wounded another.
Screenshot: Facebook/Tech Transparency Project (Other)

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“What’s that?” you might ask. “I thought all of these conservatives were fleeing Facebook?”

Well, maybe in the same sense that an angry teenager storms out of the room. Facebook remains the undisputed nerve center of the right-wing digital ecosystem. Right-wing media companies enjoy massive Facebook empires with staggering user engagement, the site has long been used to coordinate conservative propaganda campaigns, and Facebook executives have long bent over backward not to make policy changes that might piss off Republican politicians.

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Just this weekend, BuzzFeed reported that executives including Mark Zuckerberg and the policy team headed by former GOP lobbyist Joel Kaplan had intervened to safeguard conservative pundits from Facebook’s own mod team and shut down news feed changes that might anger pundits like Ben Shapiro. Facebook is built on juicing engagement on emotionally stimulating content, which aligns naturally with the rhetorical style of the right, the business incentives of reactionary pundits like Ben Shapiro, and explosive growth of conspiracy movements like QAnon and “Stop the Steal.”

Facebook is now trying to rid itself of certain kinds of content that have proven particularly PR-hostile, like hate groups, Boogaloo, and QAnon, and right-wing extremists have indeed sped up their pattern of migrating to platforms where they are more easily ignored or shielded from scrutiny. It’s also trying to fix messes like its pivot to boosting private groups, sparking a wave of toxic “civic” groups.

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Nothing about the basic pattern has changed, though. Facebook amplifies some type of reactionary mind gruel, ignores that specific strain until its exponential growth blows up in the company’s face, and then promises a quick fix while ignoring some other looming disaster. There’s no reason to expect that will change in the near future, or that conservatives won’t take advantage of it again, and again, and again. Welcome home.

California’s Landmark Net Neutrality Law Can Now Go Into Effect, Judge Rules

Illustration for article titled California's Landmark Net Neutrality Law Can Now Go Into Effect, Judge Rules

Photo: ALEX EDELMAN / Contributor (Getty Images)

A federal judge in California ruled on Tuesday that a first-in-the-nation net neutrality law passed in the state in 2018 can now be enforced, signaling a huge victory for proponents of a more egalitarian internet and paving the way for other states to begin introducing open internet rules of their own.

After the Trump administration moved to eliminate net neutrality protections nationally back in 2018, California lawmakers had sought to take matters into their own hands by crafting legislation designed to prevent internet service providers from blocking or slowing down Web traffic.

Not long after it was approved, the digital protections law was met with legal opposition from telecoms giants including AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and others, as well as from the Trump-era Justice Department, which sued to block the law hours after it first went into effect.

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But on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge John Mendez ruled that the law can proceed to enforcement, and also dismissed a pending injunction from a telecom association whose members included AT&T, Verizon, and Charter.

“The judge found that the law is on a solid legal foundation and that the ISPs trying to overturn it are not likely to prevail,” Barbara van Schewick, a law professor at Stanford University who wrote one of the legal briefs in support of the law, told the Washington Post.

“The judge found, as I’ve long argued, that an agency that says it has no power to regulate, it has no power to tell others they can’t regulate,” she said.

The news comes weeks after the Justice Department— under a net neutrality-friendly Biden administration — announced that it was dropping its Trump-era lawsuit against California’s proposed protections.

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The four trade groups involved in the efforts to overturn the law — the American Cable Association, CTIA, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and USTelecom — said on Tuesday that they “will review the court’s opinion before deciding on next steps,” indicating the potential for an appeal process that will once again delay California from enforcing the law.

“A state-by-state approach to Internet regulation will confuse consumers and deter innovation, just as the importance of broadband for all has never been more apparent,” the groups said in a joint statement. “We agree with the Court that a piecemeal approach is untenable and that Congress should codify rules for an open Internet.”

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