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.”)

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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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.

Parler’s Back With a New Interim CEO

A general view of the the Parler app icon displayed on an iPhone on January 9, 2021 in London, England.

A general view of the the Parler app icon displayed on an iPhone on January 9, 2021 in London, England.
Photo: Hollie Adams (Getty Images)

Parler executives have been insisting that the social network would be up any day now. Well, today is apparently the day.

After more than a month offline, Parler has risen from the dead, reappearing with a new interim CEO. In a press release, the company announced that its new leader is Mark Meckler, co-founder of the right-wing group Tea Party Patriots. The announcement comes a little more than a week after Parler fired its former CEO John Matze, who claimed he encountered “constant resistance” to his product vision.

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Under Matze’s leadership, Parler’s user base soared. It also got kicked out of the App and Play Stores and lost its Amazon hosting, among many other thing.

Meckler said in the release that Parler was built to protect free speech. He affirmed that the social network, which has been caught up in a storm of its own making, was being run by an experienced team and was here to stay.

“When Parler was taken offline in January by those who desire to silence tens of millions of Americans, our team came together, determined to keep our promise to our highly engaged community that we would return stronger than ever. We’re thrilled to welcome everyone back,” Meckler said.

Per the release, Parler’s executive committee is looking for a permanent CEO to lead the social network.

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Gizmodo has reached out to Parler to ask for additional comment on its relaunch but we have not heard back. We’ll make sure to update this blog if we do.

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Parler has become infamous for its role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, which saw insurrectionists enter the Capitol building to try to overturn the presidential election. GPS data demonstrated that at least several users of Parler appeared to have managed to get deep inside the Capitol building. The platform, which is scarcely moderated, was also home to chilling death threats against politicians and tech CEOs as well as calls for a new civil war.

In the release, Parler claims to have more than 20 million users and affirmed that the service is only available to current users at the moment. New users will be able to start signing up for accounts next week. The Verge reports that Parler’s old posts appear not to have returned with the relaunch, but that high-profile users like Fox News host Sean Hannity were posting again.

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Gizmodo staff tried logging into Parler to confirm this, but we were not able to log in to existing accounts or create new accounts.

Parler did not reveal who was providing its hosting services, only saying that its platform is “built on robust, sustainable, independent technology.” In January, the social media network started receiving services from domain name registrar Epik, which is famous for hosting other deplatformed and abhorrent sites such as Gab, the Daily Stormer, and 8chan.

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Just because the social network is back online—for now—doesn’t mean it has a clear path to survival. Its app is still not available on Apple or Google’s app stores. In fact, the link for the app on Parler’s website includes instructions on how to sideload the app on Android.

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Parler is also being investigated by the House Oversight Committee for offering former President Donald Trump a 40% stake in the company if opened an account while he was in office. The committee chair has also asked the FBI to investigate Parler.

Good Lord, It’s Only February

Illustration for article titled Good Lord, Its Only February

Photo: Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket (Getty Images)

HellfeedHellfeedHellfeed is your bimonthly resource for news on the current heading of the social media garbage barge.

It’s called bipartisanship: Both major political parties have some bad ideas for reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the foundational internet law that shields websites from lawsuits over user-generated content or their moderation decisions.

Democrats in the Senate have introduced the “SAFE TECH Act,” which would expose website operators to greater legal liability on issues like ad fraud, stalking, and harassment, as well as clarify that companies like Facebook are not immune to foreign lawsuits for enabling war crimes or genocide. It’s well-intentioned but has numerous flaws, including overly broad language that could hold virtually any company that takes payments online legally liable for the actions of their customers and inflict massive collateral damage on the web. Other provisions could bog down website operators in frivolous lawsuits over moderation decisions, like racists suing to get their accounts back.

Republicans aren’t in a position to push any kind of bill through Congress right now, but they haven’t disappointed with the asinine proposals. GOPers have continued their long-running attacks on Section 230 and kept pushing legally nonsensical reforms to punish tech companies for supposedly discriminating against conservatives. But Sen. Ron Johnson took the cake in late January by bucking his party’s direction and instead called for an end to anonymity online.

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Illustration for article titled Good Lord, Its Only February

Screenshot: Twitter

Never mind the Constitution or anything! Christ.

It’s been a hot minute since our last edition of Hellfeed, so here’s your rundown of some of the biggest developments of the last few weeks.

Facebook’s Oversight Board issues first rulings

In case you missed it, Facebook has become a little controversial lately—you know, over little things like serving as a vector for conspiracy theories and massive disinformation campaigns, hateful propaganda, and election interference, not to mention enabling at least one genocide—and discussions over its moderation choices have become a tad bit… heated.

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So it set up an Oversight Board, a supposedly independent court of academics, legal experts, politicians, and civil rights activists that depending on who you ask is either designed to whitewash Facebook’s decisions or a Pandora’s Box potentially outside the company’s control. In late January, it issued its first five decisions on matters ranging from a post in Myanmar taken down as hate speech to a post with a quote attributed to Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. In four out of five cases, the Oversight Board ruled against Facebook’s mods.

Facebook isn’t just one of the world’s richest companies, but one of its biggest communications networks. That puts the Oversight Board in the awkward position of being seen as competing for legitimacy with norms and laws on speech that vary significantly from nation to nation (and, obviously, within them). Whether this is yet another step towards corporate dystopia, an overblown debate about policies at one company, or just Facebook pomp and circumstance, at least one of its upcoming decisions will have major ramifications.

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The board is now debating whether to restore Donald Trump’s ability to post after he incited the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, and it’s entirely possible the board will decide to let him back on. Republicans who have long relied on a strategy of playing the refs are taking it seriously. According to the New Yorker, conservative groups lobbied the company in May 2020 in an attempt to stuff the Oversight Board with right-wing mouthpieces, and Trump personally called Mark Zuckerberg to complain about its choice of members.

One important factor here is research showing that a relative handful of accounts with huge followings are disproportionately successful at spreading lies and disinformation—such as conservatives pushing Stop the Steal, the election fraud conspiracy theory that ultimately culminated in the Capitol riots. Other research has shown that rather than bubbling up through grassroots posts by random users, election disinformation was primarily spread via an organized propaganda campaign waged by Trump, his political allies, and the right-wing media and amplified via traditional mass media. Twitter’s post-riot ban wave against Trump and his sycophants resulted in an immediately noticeable drop in hoax claims of election fraud, early research found. Finally, for all the talk of Trump’s Twitter account, his Facebook megaphone may have been as or even more important.

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This is all to say that if the Oversight Board rules in favor of Trump, Facebook is going to have a real mess on its hands. A decision isn’t expected for weeks or months.

In the meantime…

Twitter isn’t bothering with the red tape and has reiterated that Trump is permanently banned, forever, even if he somehow becomes president again, and with no recourse to appeal to a panel of wonks.

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Trump is reportedly spending a lot of his time writing out insults on paper and asking remaining staffers to tweet them for him. Let’s move on, shall we?

Parler will be up any day now… yep… any day now… just you wait

Parler, the right-wing Facebook clone where many Trump supporters issued death threats against members of Congress while organizing and later livestreaming the Capitol riots, was driven offline last month after Amazon Web Services canceled its hosting contract and Google and Apple removed its app from their respective stores.

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Its executives, such as former NRATV blowhard Dan Bongino, have continually insisted that Parler will return any day now. It hasn’t, but it did fire CEO John Matze in some kind of feckless internal power struggle and is now facing a House Oversight Committee investigation of whether it tried to literally bribe Trump into joining.

Influencers are horrible

Instagram celebrities in Dubai are behind a gargantuan underground network in abusive animal smuggling, per a report by Bellingcat that is worth a read:

The use of social media platforms to trade in exotic animals, and the dangers of ‘cub-petting’ industries, are well-documented. But the direct link of celebrities and influencers to these practices is not. By posing with lion and tiger cubs and tagging these accounts, celebrities advertise a network engaged in the online trade in exotic animals to millions of followers. Some of these animals are brought out for photo shoots several times a month when still young, and end up being kept as a pet in private homes.

Apart from potential legal issues and the well-being of the animals themselves, the trade in exotic animals puts already threatened wildlife populations at risk of poaching.

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Gamestonks

There may soon be multiple movies in development about r/WallStreetBets, the Reddit board that realized the power of crowds to carry out the same kind of reckless financial engineering done by hedge funds every day and deployed it to impressive effect over a couple of weeks.

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Posters on r/WallStreetBets organized to pump up the stocks of several ailing or unimpressive companies, like Gamestop and BlackBerry, in an effort to fleece short-sellers that had placed major bets against those companies. Other major Wall Street players quickly realized what was happening and got in on the resulting speculative frenzy, with GameStop shares peaking at $483 before promptly crashing and other targeted companies following a similar pattern. For reasons that are simultaneously incredibly stupid, very predictable, and partially due to Elon Musk, completely unrelated things like joke cryptocurrency Dogecoin got pumped, too.

The fiasco spelled disaster for stock-trading app Robinhood and is now the focus of a vaguely threatening Securities and Exchange Commission investigation focusing on market manipulation. But while it took everyone by surprise, it’s not exactly unprecedented. Stock-pumping efforts on online message boards have been around for over two decades, and it’s not like major Wall Street firms aren’t in the business of screwing with the economy to turn a quick buck.

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TikTok, WeChat to probably be just fine

President Joe Biden’s administration has asked courts to halt Trump’s orders threatening to essentially blacklist TikTok, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, and Chinese messaging app WeChat from U.S. app stores.

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To recap, last year the Trump admin ordered TikTok to sell off either a controlling or major stake to a U.S. or be put on Commerce Department blacklists. It mostly justified this with babble about national security risks and censorship, but it was clear that the White House’s real interest was taking hostages in the U.S.-China trade war and shaking down a Chinese company to look tough on communism (and the leading contender for the coerced deal conveniently happened to be Trump’s cronies at Oracle). The WeChat ban was purely punitive and would have cut off millions of Americans of Chinese heritage and expats from their relatives abroad.

This whole scheme fell apart as the elections approached and it became clear Trump was not going to remain in office, and there’s never been any real expectation that Biden was particularly interested in pursuing it. It’s hanging in the air for now, but it seems pretty unlikely that the apps are safe for now.

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Twitter is rebranding itself

Perhaps eager to rebrand after the last four years (and under pressure following a failed shareholder revolt led by hedge fund goons last year), Twitter is rapidly rolling out new features and considering changing its business model. That includes an Instagram stories knockoff, buying out a Substack competitor in a pivot to monetized newsletters, the introduction of a weird community-operated fact-checking platform, and an audio chat feature cloning snobby Silicon Valley app Clubhouse. (Facebook is also cloning Clubhouse.)

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This week, news came around that Twitter is considering offering premium features via paid subscriptions and allowing users to tip each other in cash.

Instagram threatens to sue the hell out of OGUsers

According to Vice News, Instagram has taken the unusual step of announcing it has publicly identified pseudonymous members of OGUsers, a group of cybercriminals that hack, extort, and scam their way into controlling accounts with millions of followers. The company said it has issued cease and desist orders to the people in question, threatening lawsuits if they do not comply and provide additional information on possible co-conspirators.

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Detritus of the week

If social media has made you sick in the head, please take the time to hoot and holler at this ridiculous article on the Federalist asserting that Snapchat Discover is poisoning our precious youth’s minds with shows about polyamory and witchcraft.

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The ban list

  • Twitter banned MyPillow, the pillow company, after its pro-Trump CEO Mike Lindell got banned and cleverly decided to start tweeting conspiracy theories from the corporate account.
  • Chat app Discord terminated r/WallStreetBet’s channel after the Gamestonks fiasco drew attention to an abundance of hate speech there, but later seemed to concede the ban was poorly executed and helped bring the server back online.
  • Facebook algorithms banned an “overtly sexual cow” (decision since overturned).
  • Twitter told Project Veritas, a right-wing group that goes “undercover” to produce deceptively edited videos and stage hoaxes, to go fuck itself.
  • QAnon is so toxic it’s getting banned on platforms we’ve never even heard of, like TikTok clone Clapper.
  • Clubhouse has now been banned in most of China after it briefly slipped past the notice of state censors.

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QAnon Now Getting Banned On Platforms We’ve Never Even Heard Of

Illustration for article titled QAnon Now Getting Banned On Platforms Weve Never Even Heard Of

Screenshot: Clapper/Google Play Store (Fair Use)

QAnon, the sprawling far-right internet conspiracy theory that asserts the entire Trump presidency was secretly dedicated to waging a shadow war against an omnipresent cabal of Satan-worshipping, pedophilic Democrats, celebrities, and bankers, hasn’t exactly been the belle of the ball lately.

After QAnon adherents joined riots at the Capitol that killed at least five people on Jan. 6, its world was rocked by the revelation that Donald Trump was not, in fact, planning on launching a coup and arresting Joe Biden on Inauguration Day. Purges of QAnon content on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have intensified to varying degrees in recent months, forcing them to congregate on encrypted messaging apps like Telegram, as well as sites and apps either more welcoming to fringe fascist weirdos or caught off-guard by a surprise influx. Among those were “free speech” enclaves like Gab, a site primarily popular with supremacists; Parler, a Facebook/Twitter clone for conservatives that has since been driven totally offline; and Clapper, a similar knockoff of TikTok popular with right-wingers that we only just learned about because it was apparently also infested by—and has now been forced to ban—QAnon.

“We take this matter very seriously,” Edison Chen, CEO of the company we’ve never even heard of before, told the Verge on Thursday. “After investigating, we decided to take action to remove and ban accounts regarding QAnon and mis-info about vaccines… which are against our mission.”

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“From today, if additional users were to post QAnon-related content, it will be removed,” Chen added. “We have zero tolerance about QAnon.”

QAnon promoters using hashtags banned on other sites like #WWG1WGA and #thestorm had managed to accrue tens of thousands of followers on Clapper, according to the Verge, with one supporter of QAnon-loving Representative Majorie Taylor Greene having nearly 30,000 followers. Clapper appears to have been barely mentioned in media reports before it absorbed an influx of QAnon people, which is pretty bleak.

Here’s a TikTok video summarizing the overall vibe of Clapper, if you must know more.

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Chen had previously told the Verge that while the company never set out to attract conservatives migrating from other wings of the web, it made sense that they were drawn by its promise of less moderation:

“There are lots of conservatives and political people,” Chen told The Verge. “I think they feel less censorship here and they’re kicked out from the other social media platforms. So they come to us, and it brings some opportunity to us but [it] also comes with some challenges.”

… Chen said that Clapper did not set out to be a right-wing conservative political platform, and that the company wants to highlight ordinary users’ lives. “Today’s social media platforms push most traffic to big creators while the creator in the middle and the normal user don’t get the opportunity to speak and be seen,” Chen said.

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(Clapper has released a video denouncing the Jan 6. insurrection and helped the FBI identify one of the rioters, according to the Verge, and said it will expand its moderation team from 10 to around 20, as well as audit all million or so videos on the site for the newly banned content.)

Anyhow, let this be a lesson of sorts to aspiring social media developers: If you don’t have any kind of plan in place to deal with these people, they will come in droves. And that will probably be the first thing anyone learns about your company. Whoops!

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Parler, Which Somehow Failed to Bribe Trump, Facing House Investigation of That

Illustration for article titled Parler, Which Somehow Failed to Bribe Trump, Facing House Investigation of That

Photo: Hollie Adams (Getty Images)

Parler, the social media utopia for people born too late to sign up for Vichy France, reportedly tried to entice Donald Trump into joining by offering him a hefty taste of its operation. Now the House Oversight Committee is investigating.

Parler billed itself as a “free speech” alternative to mainstream sites for conservatives obsessed with the idea Facebook and Twitter were out to censor them. Or at least it was, until the barely-moderated site lost its Amazon web hosting and was booted from Apple and Google’s app stores after Parler failed to do anything about rampant death threats and numerous members were implicated in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.

According to a recent report by BuzzFeed News, over the summer of 2020 Parler began negotiating a deal with Trump proxies that would give the president a 40% slice in the company in exchange for him opening an account. They resumed in November, after Trump went down in the elections. Documents obtained by BuzzFeed show that Parler’s representatives were the ones who first put the prospect of equity on the table. Trump was president at the time, meaning the arrangement would have likely been tantamount to a bribe. (BuzzFeed identified Trump campaign officials as negotiating on behalf of the Trump Organization in yet another example of how Trump’s White House, campaign, and business interests have always been part of the same grift.)

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This would have also covered the time period where Trump reportedly considered registering a Parler account under the cringeworthy handle “Person X,” because he’s been censored so much as leader of the free world or whatever.

According to Ars Technica, House Oversight and Reform Committee chairwoman Representative Carolyn Maloney has roped the potential bribery attempt into the committee’s ongoing inquiry into Parler’s role in the Capitol insurrection and made a request for an FBI investigation.

Maloney demanded in a letter addressed to the company’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wernick that the company disclose its ownership, adding that the discussions between Trump proxies and Parler “reportedly occurred while President Trump was still in office, which experts have warned raise legal concerns regarding anti-bribery laws.” She also demanded a list of documents and records by Feb. 22, including anything related to the proposal:

  1. A capitalization table showing individuals and entities with direct or indirect ownership interests in Parler, and a shareholder register maintained by you or any third-party on your behalf;
  2. A list of all individuals and entities who have or had any control over Parler;
  3. A list of Parler’s creditors which hold or held a debt of at least $10,000, including the type of debt funding, amount owed, maturity, and applicable interest rate;
  4. All agreements, including but not limited to consulting, service, or business agreements, that Parler has with any Russian individual or entity;
  5. All documents and communications referring or relating to proposed or completed financing, gifts, or investment in Parler directly or indirectly by any Russian individual or entity; and
  6. All documents and communications referring to [or] relating to a proposal to provide President Donald Trump with an ownership stake in Parler.

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Maloney’s letter is, as of right now, a request, but the committee could later issue subpoenas obligating Parler’s owners to hand the documents over.

The never-consummated deal was reportedly the brainchild of former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, who was demoted in July 2020; he was later arrested in a standoff with police over allegations of domestic abuse and suicide threats. Four sources confirmed to BuzzFeed that Parscale and Alex Cannon, one of Trump’s campaign lawyers, met with now-ousted Parler CEO John Matze and two of the company’s shareholders: NRATV host turned Facebook windbag Dan Bongino and Wernick. Parscale told BuzzFeed that Trump “was never part of the discussion” and the meeting was “just one of many things the campaign was looking into to deal with the cancel culture of Silicon Valley.”

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Talks were quickly shut down by White House lawyers who recognized it could put the president in legal jeopardy, according to BuzzFeed. But they were renewed in November, after Trump lost the election. A December document obtained by the site outlined the 40% deal as providing half of the equity up front to the Trump organization and the remainder maturing over the course of two years of awful Trump posts. Parler, always a bastion for unconditional, unquestioning Trump fealty, then sought to entrench its darling status among his supporters by having the president give it most-favored status among his social accounts. BuzzFeed reported:

As part of the agreement, Parler wanted Trump to make it his primary social network. According to the documents, Trump would have had to post all his social content — including daily posts, video, and livestreaming — on Parler for at least four hours before putting it on any other platform.

As part of the deal, Parler also asked that Trump link back to Parler when posting to other social media sites or emailing his supporters, and to allow the company to use his email lists to promote its platform. In addition, Parler wanted Trump to make introductions to any potential investors or advertisers.

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However, discussions became untenable and dissolved after Parler was wiped off the web by Amazon, Apple, and Google, which coincided with Trump’s bans on Twitter and Facebook as well as his rapid spiral into political toxicity.

Wernick told BuzzFeed that its reporting was inaccurate, but he didn’t specify any specific factual error.

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Parler’s promotional strategy has relied heavily on conservatives with huge social media audiences like Bongino (who has 4.35 million Facebook followers) spreading the word that mass censorship of right-wingers is imminent. It’s also toyed with greasing palms at least one time prior: Parler offered a $20,000 prize to any liberal pundit with at least 50,000 followers willing to join the site and engage in debate with its horrible users, but the pot never appears to have been paid out.

Parler has yet to return in the form of anything other than the digital equivalent of a “Get well soon!” card. Navigating to its URL shows a “Technical Difficulties” page featuring messages of support from various conservatives. Matze was fired last week in some sort of feckless power struggle, with him on the one side and Dan Bongino and billionaire investor Rebekah Mercer on the other. Matze said he encountered “constant resistance” to his vision of “product stability” and was turned down by Mercer in his suggestion to purge the site of domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

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In a Facebook video, Bongino said anyone who believed Matze’s assertions was an “imbecile,” and that the former CEO had made bad decisions which delayed the site’s return. Last week, Bongino said the site could be operational again as soon as Feb. 8, a date that came and went without any apparent change in the situation.

Matze is trying to distance himself from Parler’s negotiations with Trump, despite filing court documents in the company’s lawsuit against Amazon Web Services asserting their account was only terminated to prevent Trump from joining.

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The ex-CEO claimed in an interview with Axios on Sunday that he didn’t want the equity deal with the president to go through because Trump “might have bullied people inside the company to do what he wanted,” which of course overlooks that fawning loyalty to Trump was kind of Parler’s whole thing. Matze also suggested that Trump could have sought revenge by leading an exodus of his supporters from Parler if the deal didn’t go as planned.

Trump Team Bargained for Ownership Stake in Parler if the President Made an Account: Report

Illustration for article titled Trump Team Bargained for Ownership Stake in Parler if the President Made an Account: Report

Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

An account in exchange for an ownership stake in the company. That’s the deal Parler reportedly offered then-President Donald Trump to make the online haven for deplatformed right-wingers and extremists his primary social network.

The Trump Organization, which negotiated on behalf of the president, was offered a 40% stake in Parler if Trump made an account on the platform, though nothing was ever finalized, according to documents reviewed by Buzzfeed News and four sources familiar with the deliberations that spoke with the outlet. The talks began sometime last summer and then sparked up once more in November after Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, ostensibly so that he’d have another online soapbox on which to blare (and profit off of) his election fraud conspiracy theories. Per Buzzfeed News, it’s not clear how much Trump personally participated in these negotiations.

But even though nothing ultimately came of the deal, just by entertaining those discussions the Trump Organization could be in for some serious legal headaches. The whole mess almost certainly runs afoul of anti-bribery laws. It’s also triggering flashbacks to when Trump tried to strongarm Microsoft into giving the U.S. treasury a cut of any TikTok deal it made.

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Turns out, when you put a corrupt businessman in charge of a country, he abuses his power to try to make a buck. Who woulda thunk?

According to the outlet, Trump’s representatives conspired with Parler to help the platform compete with mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The logic goes that if Trump posted his bullshit on Parler first before sharing it on other platforms, Parler served to profit off that exclusivity while also giving him a direct line to some of his staunchest supporters that had already been kicked off everywhere else online.

Parler bills itself as “the world’s premier free speech platform” unshackled by the so-called censorship and oppressive moderation policies of other platforms. Or at least, that’s what it claimed to be back when the platform was still functioning. It’s been down since early January when Parler was booted from Amazon’s web services, as well as Google and Apple’s app stores, for failing to enact meaningful moderation policies that would keep users from posting the kind of violent content that reportedly helped fuel the attack on Capitol Hill last month. While Parler has since found a new web host—Epik, the domain name registrar behind other extremist cesspools like Gab and the Daily Stormer—the site’s remained little more than a bulletin board for a handful of defiant messages from Parler’s admins and their chosen few right-wing pundits.

During a meeting at the White House last year, former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was the first to suggest that Trump get an ownership stake out of the deal with Parler, according to a source familiar with the negotiations that spoke with Buzzfeed News. Four sources told the outlet that Parscale and Trump campaign lawyer Alex Cannon met with then-Parler CEO John Matze and shareholders Dan Bongino and Jeffrey Wernick at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida to discuss a potential deal. According to Parscale, Trump was never in the picture.

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“The president was never part of the discussions,” he told BuzzFeed News. “The discussions were never that substantive. And this was just one of many things the campaign was looking into to deal with the cancel culture of Silicon Valley.”

After the election, Trump’s team revisited the idea, according to two people familiar with the matter, but negotiations with Parler soured after pro-Trump insurgents launched a deadly raid on the Capitol Building in an attempt to overthrow the election results. Before the deal fell apart, Parler offered the Trump Organization a 40% stake in the company, according to a December document reviewed by Buzzfeed News and two sources with direct knowledge of the talks. Half of that stake would be forked over immediately after sealing the deal, while the other half would be “doled out in tranches over the 24-month period of the agreement.” In exchange, Trump would agree to post all of his online content on Parler at least four hours before posting it anywhere else. Parler also asked that Trump shout out Parler whenever he posted on other social media platforms or emailed his supporters, give Parler access to his email lists for promotional purposes, and introduce the company to potential investors or advertisers.

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Wernick confirmed to the outlet that Parler had been in talks with the Trump Organization about setting Trump up on the platform, but said the former president wasn’t involved in these discussions. He also disputed Buzzfeed News’ reporting, though didn’t go into specifics about what information he claimed was inaccurate.

“We have spoken to several people about potential stakes in the company for producing certain things,” Wernick said.

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Scott Amey, general counsel of the nonpartisan watchdog Project on Government Oversight, told the outlet that the news warrants further scrutiny and “an immediate criminal investigation.”

“While then-president Trump bragged that ethics rules didn’t apply to him, bribery laws do apply, and courts have held that Trump’s social media posts constituted official business while he was in office,” he said. “His posts were a preferred method for the White House to communicate with the public. If the offer included anything of value, and Trump planned to post on a social media platform while he was still in office, that would almost certainly be illegal, and he should be held accountable.”

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Parler did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

Surely you didn’t really expect the Trump drama to be over now that he’s left the White House, right? These likely won’t be the last under-the-table dealings that surface from his tenure, and all we can do is hope that they all see their day in court.

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[Buzzfeed News]

Parler Cancels Its Own CEO

Illustration for article titled Parler Cancels Its Own CEO

Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP (Getty Images)

Parler, the social media network for right-wingers who had already successfully alienated their family and friends on other sites, has canned its CEO John Matze.

Under Matze’s tenure, Parler surged in membership courtesy of conservatives obsessed with the idea a shadow cabal of liberal tech elites wants to censor them on other sites and under the impression opening a new account somewhere else was a form of protest. After the barely-moderated site was flooded with death threats against Democratic legislators and implicated as one of the main venues where the January 6 Capitol building insurrectionists organized and livestreamed their failed coup attempt, Parler’s app was banned from Apple and Google’s app stores, and Amazon yanked its web hosting. Its lawsuit against Amazon is all but being laughed out of court and the House Judiciary Committee has asked for the FBI to investigate it. The site has yet to return in any form other than a pathetic “Technical Difficulties” page which includes letters of support from people like Sean Hannity. Needless to say, things are going well over there.

Matze, now the ex-CEO of Parler, claimed in a letter obtained by Fox Business that the company’s board is “controlled” by conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer (one of Parler’s major financial backers) and that he “did not participate in this decision.” He added that the site was merely days from returning online at the time he was fired.

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“I understand that those who now control the company have made some communications to employees and other third parties that have unfortunately created confusion and prompted me to make this public statement,” Matze wrote. He added that he had encountered “constant resistance to my product vision, my strong belief in free speech, and my view of how the Parler site should be managed,” such as “product stability” and increased content moderation.

Though Parler marketed itself as a free-speech site, it always had rules—highly selective ones against things like nudity and swears that conveniently seemed to be enforced mainly against left-wing trolls. It had a bizarre and opaque moderation system in place where reported posts were vetted by a jury of other members (not exactly a brain trust). Matze told the New York Times earlier this month that he had informed Mercer the site would never get back online if they didn’t put in new tools to ban domestic terrorists, white supremacists, and QAnon conspiracy theorists; he said he got “dead silence as a response.”

One of Parler’s major investors, thrice-failed political candidate and former NRATV host Dan Bongino, more or less confirmed that the site will never ban those people.

Per CNN, Bongino said in a Facebook video claimed the “CEO’s vision was not ours,” and Matze was being untruthful, is “no white knight in this story,” and only an “imbecile” would believe him.

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Bongino claimed that Parler could have been back up in a week if the board had simply “bent the knee and followed the ridiculous Apple edicts to become a heavy moderation site to the left of Twitter. That’s not what we’re gonna do.”

“We don’t want garbage on our site either and we took the proper steps to do that, but we are a free speech site and will remain as such,” Bongino added. “And that’s why it’s taken so long to get back up.”

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Hopefully, it takes a lot, lot longer.

Dominion Tells Facebook, Parler, And Other Sites to Keep the Receipts

Dominion Voting Systems is taking some of the most vocal election fraud conspiracy theorists to court over their toothless claims in a string of billion-dollar defamation lawsuits. But with social media platforms purging far-right commentators and cracking down on election misinformation among other long-overdue…

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