Read Facebook’s Internal Report on How Badly It Screwed Up Stopping ‘Stop the Steal’

Riot police clash with pro-Trump rioters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Riot police clash with pro-Trump rioters outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP (Getty Images)

BuzzFeed has posted the entirety of internal Facebook documents outlining in detail the results of the company’s investigation into its role in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, during and after which at least five people died.

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The report, which was first reported in detail by BuzzFeed last week, found that Facebook played a key role in the explosive growth of the “Stop the Steal” movement, a group of diehard Donald Trump supporters that rallied around the ex-president’s conspiracy theories about his 2020 election loss. Members of the movement, alongside overlapping groups such as QAnon, stormed the Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the vote.

The authors assessed that Facebook failed to recognize that groups such as Stop the Steal and the Patriot Party were part of an “adversarial harmful movement” and thus only moderated associated Groups and Pages in a “piecemeal” fashion. Facebook also conceded that its focus on fake and “inauthentic” activity blinded it to harm being organized on the site by people under their real identities. The lack of a coordinated, sitewide response came despite months of warnings from Facebook staff that Groups on the site were becoming vehicles for extremism.

According to BuzzFeed, the authors of the report uploaded it to Facebook’s internal message boards last month, where it was widely circulated among and read by staff. But after BuzzFeed’s report last week, Facebook yanked it from circulation with the official explanation the authors “never intended to publish this as a final document to the whole company” and had only “inadvertently” made it accessible to employees outside a working group on the issue.

So BuzzFeed posted the whole report on Monday. It describes confusion at the company whether the Stop the Steal circus “was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election, or whether it was protected free expression by users who were afraid and confused and deserved our empathy.” The first Stop the Steal group created on the night of the election contained “high levels of hate and violence and incitement (VNI) in the comments,” the authors wrote that it “wasn’t until later that it became clear just how much of a focal point the catchphrase would be, and that they would serve as a rallying point around which a movement of violent election delegitimization could coalesce.” By the time Facebook got around to deleting that first group on Nov. 5, BuzzFeed wrote, it had swollen to 300,000 members and spawned innumerable copycats.

The report noted evidence that white supremacists, hate groups, and militias were involved in coordinating the Stop the Steal effort both on and off Facebook. It also found that a relatively small number of people were clearly trying to supercharge the movement by flooding the site with invites to related Groups, a tactic known as growth hacking: “30% of invites came from just 0.3% of inviters,” according to the report, and many of these “super-inviters” were admins on other related Groups, clearly indicating coordination between them.

“We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation,” the report added. “After the Capitol Insurrection and a wave of Storm the Capitol events across the country, we realized that the individual delegitimizing Groups, Pages, and slogans did constitute a cohesive movement.”

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Facebook implemented limits on the number of invites that individual users could send, but the report notes this was clearly ineffective and Groups were “regardless able to grow substantially.” Furthermore, there were high levels of interaction between the users engaging with Stop the Steal content the most, adding to the evidence. These amplifiers posted significantly more hate speech and threats of violence than even the rest of the Stop the Steal movement, driving it to more extremes.

The Facebook report also name-drops specific far-right activists that Facebook failed to rein in, such as Ali Alexander, one of the main organizers of the rally preceding the failed insurrection who has a long history of working with extremists such as the neo-fascist Proud Boys. It also mentioned the Kremer sisters, who run the event’s official host Women for America First and one of whose names appeared on the rally permits.

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“The terms Stop the Steal and Patriot Party were amplified both on platform and off,” the report states. “Ali Alexander and the Kremer sisters repeated slogans at rallies, and spread them through super Groups like Women4Trump and Latinos for Trump. The Kremer Sisters were admins of both Women4Trump, and the original Stop the Steal Group. After January 6th, Amy Kremer confirmed on platform that she was an organizer for the Stop the Steal rally that precipitated the Capitol Insurrection.”

“Ali Alexander worked on and off platform, using media appearances and celebrity endorsements,” it continued. “We also observed him formally organizing with others to spread the term, including with other users who had ties to militias. He was able to elude detection and enforcement with careful selection of words, and by relying on disappearing stories.”

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The authors wrote in their key findings that Facebook’s “early focus on individual violations made us miss the harm in the broader network,” messy moderation tools made it hard to count how many strikes each Group was racking up, and the company has “little policy around coordinated authentic harm.”

Joan Donovan, the research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told BuzzFeed that Facebook appeared to have been caught off guard because it was more focused on the type of hoaxes, spam, and interference operations that it bungled during the 2016 elections.

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“In 2016, you had to engineer lots of fake engagement and stories because the networks were not mature enough,” Donovan said. “It’s only after you have four years of MAGA and the Trump caravan and the anti-vaxxers meeting up with the militia groups during the pandemic that you start to see these networks become agile, extensible, and adaptable to the moment.”

“…There is something about the way Facebook organizes groups that leads to massive public events,” Donovan added. “And when they’re organized on the basis of misinformation, hate, incitement, and harassment, we get very violent outcomes.”

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Read the whole report at BuzzFeed here.

Man Who Swears He’s ‘Not a Dumbass’ Arrested for Attempting to Murder the Internet

Illustration for article titled Man Who Swears He's 'Not a Dumbass' Arrested for Attempting to Murder the Internet

Photo: Robyn Beck / AFP (Getty Images)

A Texas man who, according to court documents, recently stated that he is definitely “not a dumbass,” is now potentially facing decades in prison for plotting an alleged terrorist attack to “blow up” the internet.

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Seth Aaron Pendley, 28, was taken into custody by the FBI on Thursday, after attempting to procure what he thought were explosives from an undercover agent in Fort Worth, Texas, a federal affidavit shows (the bombs were, in fact, fake). According to authorities, Pendley wanted to use C-4, a powerful plastic explosive, to target an Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center in Ashburn, Virginia.

Pendley’s target, Ashburn, is home to over 100 data centers and is the site where a majority of the so-called “Cloud” exists. The arrestee allegedly stated in online chats that he wanted to “kill off about 70% of the internet” and, thereby, annoy “the oligarchy” and, naturally, the deep state.

An apparent Trump supporter who claims he was in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 during the Capitol insurrection, Pendley recently implied in online chats that the ugly riot that killed five people hadn’t gone quite far enough. On MyMilitia.com, a rightwing website that ostensibly helps connect people to regional and local militias, Pendley used the screen name “Dionysus” to write a number of increasingly disturbing posts, the feds allege. In one, he wrote:

I feel like we all went into this with the intentions of getting very little done. How much did you expect to do when we all willingly go in unarmed. Let me tell you what I think (knowing going to touch some nerves.) For weeks I had prepared to show up at the capital [sic] as strapped as possible. The whole time I had high hopes that SOMEONE would understand.

In another post, he let it be known that he was not your run-of-the-mill terrorist:

I’m not a dumbass suicide bomber but even if I only have a handful of fellow patriots standing beside me I will happily die a young man knowing that I didn’t allow the evils in this world to continue unjustly treating my fellow Americans so disrespectfully.

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The posts aroused the suspicions of a “concerned citizen,” who later gave screenshots of his comments to the FBI.

Afterward, the feds ascertained Pendley’s email address and issued a search warrant for his Facebook while also subpoenaing the subscriber records connected to his Gmail account. From there, the government appears to have conducted surveillance of Pendley’s home in Wichita Falls, Texas, and also infiltrated his communications with an informant and, later, an undercover agent.

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During a conversation with both the informant and agent, Pendley laid out his masterful plans and nuanced political philosophy like so:

The main objective is to f*** up the Amazon servers. There’s 24 buildings that all this data runs through in America. Three of them are right next to each other, and those 24 run 70 percent of the Internet. And the government, especially the higher ups, CIA, FBI, special sh**, they have like an 8 billion dollar a year contract with Amazon to run through their servers. So we f*** those servers, and it’s gonna piss all the oligarchy off.

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In his apparent crusade to end the world wide web and thereby piss off the powers that be, Pendley has accrued a federal charge of maliciously attempting to destroy a building with an explosive. If convicted, he faces 20 years in prison.

House Republican Falls for Joke Article by ‘Dick Scuttlebutt’ at Hearing on Extremism in Military

Representative Pat Fallon of Texas at Wednesday’s hearing.

Representative Pat Fallon of Texas at Wednesday’s hearing.
Screenshot: YouTube / U.S. House Armed Services Committee (Other)

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing with expert testimony on extremism in the U.S. military after dozens of veterans and at least two active duty troops were involved in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. Republicans on the panel seemed more interested in debunking the need for such a hearing at all, with one apparently hoodwinked by a military satire site.

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The George Washington Program on Extremism has identified at least 33 of the Capitol insurrectionists as having a military background, including 31 veterans, one current member of the National Guard, and one Army reservist. The GOP has a long tradition of downplaying the terror threat posed by violent far-right extremists—perhaps out of wariness that the ideological trail could lead back to the party’s positions or rhetoric, or just as a reflexive response to any criticism of conservatives whatsoever. Per Politico, Republicans on the committee, including ranking member Mike Rogers, shot down the idea the armed forces aren’t doing enough to root out white supremacists, fascists, neo-Nazis, and other extremists.

“We lack any concrete evidence that violent extremism is as ripe in the military as some commentators claim,” Rogers said during the hearing, according to Politico. “While I agree with my colleagues that these numbers should be zero, this is far from the largest military justice issue facing our armed services.”

Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher said there was an “absence of data” and the subject of the hearing was “wild suppositions based on our ideological priors.” Georgia Rep. Austin Scott digressed toward the GOP obsession with so-called “cancel culture,” fretting that some may “lose their jobs and other things simply because of a Facebook post or some other post that was made when somebody was mad.” And Texas Rep. Pat Fallon challenged witness Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff for the Southern Poverty Law Center, with a completely falsified claim that the anti-racist organization had classified the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion as hate groups.

Per Military.com:

“Yes or no question, has your organization named the American Legion as a hate group?” Fallon asked Brooks.

“I don’t believe so,” she replied.

“I found it, and it did,” Fallon replied. “Were you aware they named the VFW as a hate group?”

“Not in our current census, no,” Brooks answered.

The SPLC maintains a database of racist and bigoted hate groups, which has sparked ire among Republicans who consider some of those groups to merely be cultural conservatives (uh huh). However, the SPLC has never classified the VFW or American Legion, nationwide groups of former service members that organize veterans’ support and other charitable work, as hate groups or anything else. Fallon instead appears to have gotten that idea from a site called Duffel Blog that runs military-themed joke articles, such as one claiming Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is rooting out “weak-ass posers who lack the extreme ideologies of Iran’s ‘totally radical’ warfighters” and another titled “Retired general on Pepsi board vows to win War on Thirst.”

In 2017, Duffel Blog ran an obviously made-up article alleging that SPLC President J. Richard Cohen had declared the two veterans’ organizations to be hate groups because they hold “radical, extreme-right-wing ideals such as freedom, safety, and family values.” Said article also mentioned that Cohen wrote the declaration from a “corporate think-tank steam room, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Moscow) was seen relaxing in the nude.”

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The byline on the article was “Dick Scuttlebutt,” who can be safely assumed is not a real person.

The post, which was re-upped on the Duffel Blog site on Wednesday, wasn’t exactly cutting-edge satire. But it was at least fairly obvious satire, particularly if one read past the headline. Duffel Blog is also well-known in the military community as sort of heavily armed counterpart to The Onion, so mistaking it for reality is an especially embarrassing blunder for a Republican on the Armed Services Committee. (Previous feathers in Duffel Blog’s hat have included punking Politifact into reporting the military had offered seven Guantanamo Bay detainees to anyone with information on the location of captive troop Bowe Bergdahl and Gizmodo into believing the Army was replacing bayonets with tomahawks.)

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Extremism in the military, despite Republicans’ protestations to the contrary, is a very real and well-evidenced threat. Polling by the Military Times in 2020 of 1,630 active-duty subscribers found more than 36% of respondents, and more than half of minority service members, reported witnessing examples of white nationalism/supremacy or ideologically-motivated racism in the military. Those numbers had increased significantly in recent years. Internal Pentagon surveys from 2017 released earlier this year found nearly a third of Black service members had experienced racial discrimination, harassment, or both in the preceding 12 months. These issues appear to be exacerbated by a command structure disproportionately composed of white males.

In 2018, a Coast Guard officer with prior Marine Corps service was arrested for allegedly stockpiling weapons in a plot to kill Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats. In 2020, three veterans in Nevada were charged with felony conspiracy and terrorism over an alleged plot to attack Black Lives Matter protesters in Las Vegas, while a U.S. Army private was charged for providing information on his unit and its defenses to neo-Nazis he believed would coordinate an attack with al-Qaeda. The same year, Gizmodo reported on a former recruiter for terroristic neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen that had joined the Navy, resulting in his administrative separation.

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The Pentagon has acknowledged far-right extremists with military experience are a “threat” due to their “proven ability to execute high-impact events,” and it’s begun implementing programs to screen recruits for any involvement. The Defense Department has also begun assembling databases of domestic extremist groups it believes are trying to recruit current or former troops. According to the Military Times, some troops haven’t been impressed by efforts so far, reporting recent stand-downs with officers on the topic of extremism weren’t being taken seriously by trainers or were cursory at best—though others said their commanders held substantive sessions.

“DoD officials repeatedly claim that the number is small, [yet] no one truly knows,” Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of American University’s Center for Security, Innovation, and New Technology, said during the hearing, according to Politico. “No serious plan can be built without defining the scope of the problem.”

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Fallon’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment by Gizmodo on this story, but we’ll update this post if we hear back.

Encrypted Chats, Parler Posts Indict Proud Boys Leaders for Capitol Rioting

A member of the Proud Boys speaks to the media at a gun rights rally near the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 2021.

A member of the Proud Boys speaks to the media at a gun rights rally near the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 2021.
Photo: Ryan M. Kelly (Getty Images)

The FBI has amassed social media posts and encrypted text messages that implicate four senior members of the Proud Boys in a Jan. 6 plot to storm police barriers at the U.S. Capitol and stop members of Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.

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In a superseding indictment on Friday targeting leaders of the notoriously violent far-right fraternity, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C. alleges three Proud Boys chapter presidents and another member were among the mob of “Stop the Steal” rioters that overran police and eventually forced its way inside the Capitol. In some cases, charging documents allege, the members moved ahead of the crowds.

Prosecutors have offered up online posts from as far back as November and up to the day of the siege to show crimes committed by the defendants were planned well in advance in what courts call a “criminal conspiracy.” Text messages, including many from an encrypted channel used exclusively for Washington, show Proud Boys members issuing orders and giving each other advice, such as “cops are the primary threat,” interlaced with mentions of “plans” that now lend credence to conspiracy charges.

The same Proud Boys members, prosecutors say, would later lead accomplices across the western lawn of the Capitol where police were overpowered before the building was finally breached.

Proud Boys chapter presidents Ethan Nordean, 30, of Seattle, who’s also an Elders chapter member (and calls himself “Rufio Panman”); Zachary Rehl, 35, of Philadelphia; and Charles Donohoe, 33, of Kernersville, North Carolina are all named as co-conspirators, in addition to Joseph Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, Florida, who is listed as a “self-described organizer of certain Proud Boys events.”

The four defendants now face six counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding and destruction of government property and aiding and abetting.

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Prosecutors first point to a Parler post by Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman (referred to only as such in the indictment). His Dec. 29th message made public the Proud Boys’ plans to “turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th,” as well as the decision to “be incognito” so that “smaller teams” could “spread across downtown.”

The charging documents go on to detail events as the unfolded that day, describing key moments of the siege and how the Proud Boys played a pivotal role:

The Proud Boys gathered in numbers at around a quarter till one near Peace Circle, where Pennsylvania Ave. and First St. meet. A police barrier is overrun on the western perimeter moments after. Footage of the breach was captured by several cameras, including that of right-wing media personality Elijah Schaffer. According to prosecutors, Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, and Donohoe were part of the mob that forced its way past police guarding a pedestrian walkway.

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The fences and other obstacles erected by police on the western lawn proved nothing more than security theater. The crowd easily overcame them and the police continued to lose ground, retreating eventually to the west steps. Nordean “positioned himself near the front of the crowd as these events took place,” prosecutors said.

Inside the building, Vice President Mike Pence was convening a joint session to certify the Electoral College vote and name Joe Biden president-elect. Outside, a violent crowd bent on reversing the outcome surged. Police now vastly in the minority watched as crowds chanting, some to lynch the vice president, smashed windows and rammed open doors.

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Prosecutors say three of the accused—Nodrean, Biggs, and Rehl—seized the opportunity to get inside. In a self-shot video as the mob reached the west plaza, Biggs announced: “we’ve just taken the Capitol.”

Social media posts written by the Proud Boys now provide evidence in their name. Donohoe, 33, the president of a North Carolina chapter, wrote for instance: “We stormed the capitol unarmed,” adding: “And we took it over unarmed.” Prosecutors also use posts prior to the breach to help establish intent: “It’s time for fucking War if they steal this shit,” Biggs wrote on Nov. 5. Rehl, days after mentioning a “a big rally” on Jan. 6, wrote he was hoping “the traitors who are trying to steal the election” are killed by “firing squads.”

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The group crowdfunded online more than a week in advance to pay for members’ travel and buy new paramilitary gear, including radio equipment. Some of the group would use Zello, an app that emulates walkie-talkies over a cell network.

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The FBI obtained numerous messages from encrypted chat groups that included Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, Donohoe and “a handful of additional members.” Two days before the event, Donohoe is seen warning members in the chat: “Everything is compromised and we could be looking at Gang charges.” “Stop everything immediate,” he says, “This comes from the top.” But roughly an hour later, another member, unidentified in the charging documents, calls for handheld radios to be passed out to pick which channels to use.

A separate encrypted Proud Boy channel called “Boots on the Ground” was created for communication in Washington, the indictment says. There, members were instructed by Biggs to “avoid getting into any shit” on the eve of the event. “Tomorrow’s the day,” he said. The word “plan” is used multiple times. Members are also told that “cops are the primary threat” and to remain covert, not displaying their colors.

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When the group finally reached the Capitol building that day after 2 p.m., prosecutors say fellow Proud Boy member Dominic Pezzola, 43, smashed a window using a riot shield he’d ripped from the hands of a police officer. Rioters poured inside and forced open a door for the crowd. Biggs accompanied three other Proud Boy members, William Pepe, Joshua Pruitt, and Gilbert Garcia inside. A message is dropped in the Boots on the Ground channel moments later: “We just stormed the capitol.”

Some walked the halls while others lingered around in the rotunda before going back outside. A message shortly 3:30 p.m. informed the group: “We are regrouping with a second force.”

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Five people died in the clashes, including Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt, who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, and Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who succumbed to injuries the following day.

More than 300 people have been charged so far in connection with the Capitol breach. As many as 100 more may be indicted, officials say.

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Parler Drops One Lawsuit Against Amazon, and Files Another

Illustration for article titled Parler Drops One Lawsuit Against Amazon, and Files Another

Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

Alleged domestic terrorist haven/free speech network Parler has bowed out of its antitrust lawsuit against Amazon. For a blessed moment it seemed we might get a break from conservative bitching and moaning about unfairness. No such luck.

In January, following the storming of the capitol, major tech companies rushed to cut ties with the short-lived (alleged!) insurrectionist hub, including its erstwhile web host, Amazon Web Services. This led Parler to file an ill-conceived suit, asking a judge to force AWS to reinstate the platform, arguing that Amazon had violated antitrust law by giving an unfair advantage to Parler’s “competitor” Twitter, one of the thousands of platforms that also relies on AWS. Amazon, like every other legitimate business, has terms and conditions around the use of its services, and the host of death threats floating around Parler were deemed to be in violation of said terms of service. A judge denied Parler an injunction against Amazon, finding, among other things, that the company was unlikely to win the suit and was unable to prove its claim that keeping the site online was in the public interest. Further undermining Parler’s already paper-thin case was that Amazon had apparently been warning the platform about violating content in the weeks leading up to the riots.

Now, in a 66-page complaint published by NPR, Parler’s staking a new case on 15 counts including defamation, and unlawful business practices. Its long tale of victimhood casts Amazon as a “bully” and itself a “victim of Amazon’s efforts to destroy an up-and-coming technology company through deceptive, defamatory, and bad faith conduct.” The thrust of the defamation argument seems to be Amazon’s termination email which Amazon allegedly “leaked” to Buzzfeed, which, according to Parler, makes “false allegations” that Parler was (in Parler’s terms) “used to incite, organize and coordinate the attack on the Capitol.” Parler claims Amazon did not have, and still has not provided, any evidence.

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Here are a few samples of the evidence Amazon provided in a legal filing. Amazon said that it had flagged these to Parler over the weeks leading up to the attack on the Capitol:

  • “We are going to fight in a civil War on Jan.20th, Form MILITIAS now and acquire targets.”
  • “Fry’em up. The whole fkn crew. #pelosi #aoc #thesquad #soros #gates #chuckschumer #hrc #obama #adamschiff #blm #antifa we are coming for you and you will know it.”
  • “Shoot the police that protect these shitbag senators right in the head then make the senator grovel a bit before capping they ass.”
  • “This bitch [Stacey Abrams] will be good target practice for our beginners.”
  • “This cu** [United States Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao] should be… hung for betraying their country.”

Amazon Web Services claimed that in the days following the insurrection, it talked to Parler about its failed efforts to do something. From its filing:

On January 8 and 9, AWS also spoke with Parler executives about its content moderation policies, processes, and tools, and emphasized that Parler’s current approach failed to address Parler’s duty to promptly identify and remove content that threatened or encouraged violence. In response, Parler outlined additional, reactive steps that would rely almost exclusively on “volunteers.” AWS continued to see problematic content hosted on Parler. During one of the calls, Parler’s CEO reported that Parler had a backlog of 26,000 reports of content that violated its community standards and remained on its service.

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In Parler’s new complaint, it says that it in fact “quickly removed any arguably inappropriate content brought to its attention.” Guess they just don’t agree on this one!

There is no merit to these claims. AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow,” an AWS spokesperson told Gizmodo.However, as shown by the evidence in Parler’s federal lawsuit, it was clear that there was significant content on Parler that encouraged and incited violence against others, which is a violation of our terms of service. Further, Parler was unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which coupled with an increase in this type of dangerous violent content, led to our suspension of their services.”

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Parler was unavailable for comment by publication time.

While the company was offline, Parler’s leadership reportedly bickered over the site’s ideology. Co-founder and CEO John Matze claimed that he’d advocated for intervening in white supremacist, terrorist, and QAnon content—and was subsequently fired. GOP megadonor and Parler’s apparent main source of funding, Rebekah Mercer, brought on Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, who’s been a lot more gung-ho about pushing the narrative that tech companies are conspiring to silence speech. Today, NPR reported insiders’ claims that the company even snatched back all of Matze’s shares, though given that Parler has been removed from app stores and no major tech companies seem to want to touch Parler with a ten foot pole, the value of said shares is questionable.

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Interestingly, Matze also wondered this aloud on Parler last week:

Illustration for article titled Parler Drops One Lawsuit Against Amazon, and Files Another

Screenshot: Parler

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Gizmodo reached out to Matze via LinkedIn and will update the post if we hear back.

Parler returned in mid-February, hosted by SkySilk, with some preemptive community guidelines declaring that Parler “will not knowingly allow itself to be used as a tool for crime, civil torts, or other unlawful acts.” That said, Parler will not moderate “on the basis of the opinion expressed,”whatever that means.

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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.”

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.

Twitter Clarifies That Trump Can’t Just Run for President Again to Get His Account Back

Illustration for article titled Twitter Clarifies That Trump Cant Just Run for President Again to Get His Account Back

Photo: Tom Pennington (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s account is dead, kaput, slain, slaughtered, drawn and quartered, left out to rot and never coming back, according to Twitter.

Twitter addicts are willing to do some frankly disturbing things to get back their accounts after a ban, including switching to alt accounts that also end up banned, launching doomed lawsuits, and chaining themselves to the company’s headquarters. One particularly notorious provocateur even ran for office, apparently in the hopes that being elected would somehow trap the company in a “gotcha” scenario where they would become retroactively eligible for the special treatment Twitter affords to public figures. None of those zany schemes usually pay off, and it would seem they’ll be just as much of a waste of time if Trump attempts them.

During an interview with CNBC on Wednesday, Twitter chief financial officer Ned Segal clarified that the company will never allow @realDonaldTrump to return, even in the dystopian scenario where Trump somehow manages to facehug the nation again in 2024 and inject himself into another term in office.

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“Former President Trump was banned,” Squawk Box host Becky Quick asked Segal. “If he came back, ran for office again, and was elected president, would you allow him back on the platform?”

Segal responded that, “the way our policies work, when you’re removed from the platform, you’re removed from the platform, whether you’re a commentator, you’re a CFO, or you are a former or current public official.”

“Remember, our policies are designed to make sure that people are not inciting violence, and if anybody does that, we have to remove them from the service and our policies don’t allow people to come back,” he added.

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Segal added that Trump’s ban on Jan. 8for inciting riots at the Capitol that killed at least five people and nearly sparked a constitutional crisis—did not actually harm the company in any measurable way, as outraged conservatives warned it would.

“We added 40 million people to our DAU [daily active user count] last year, and 5 million last quarter,” Segal said. “In January, we added more DAU than the average of the last four Januarys, so hopefully that gives people a sense for the momentum we’ve got from all the hard work we’ve done on the service.”

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Trump is now facing trial in the Senate after the House voted to impeach him for a second time over the Capitol riots. While he can no longer be removed from office—as voters already did that—a conviction in the Senate could bar him from holding any federal office in the future . Republicans in the Senate currently appear poised to let Trump off the hook a second time.

But as far as Trump’s infamous account is concerned, it’s over. Totally over. Just so long as some mischievous sex-having teens don’t recite his name three times in front of a dark mirror, a dog doesn’t dig up the ex-president’s cursed iPhone, Jack Dorsey and the entire Twitter moderation team don’t all view a hexed Pepe at once, or some hedge fund guys from the 80s don’t take over Twitter and think reinstating @realDonaldTrump could juice short-term returns. Yep. Over.

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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.

Rep. Matt Gaetz Staffer Cheered On Capitol Rioters Via Parler as They Overran Police

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Brent Stirton (Getty Images)

As police struggled futilely to fend off a wave of rioters outside the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, Joel Valdez, an aide to Congressman Matt Gaetz, made his way to the rooftop of his boss’s office building across the street on Independence Ave. Surveying the mob as it surrounded the complex, he captured a five-second video with his phone and posted it to Parler—the now-defunct social network where some supporters of President Trump are reported to have openly planned an insurrection for weeks.

“From the top of the Capitol office buildings, WE HEAR YOU LOUD AND CLEAR!” Valdez posted, adding the hashtag “#StopTheSteal”.

Illustration for article titled Rep. Matt Gaetz Staffer Cheered On Capitol Rioters Via Parler as They Overran Police

Screenshot: Parler / Wayback Machine

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Metadata from Valdez’s video, which Pro Publica published last week but did not connect to Gaetz’s press assistant, reveals it was taken at roughly 1:14 p.m. ET that day. The rioters had by that time already breached at least three police barricades and forced officers back onto the Capitol steps where they were violently engaged, according to a timeline of events reported by the New York Times.

Gaetz’s chief of staff, Jillian Lane Wyant, disputed that Valdez’s video depicted him cheering on the mob. Valdez could not have known, she said, that the rioters would break inside the Capitol building.

“A staff member in our office posted on his personal Parlor [sic] account about the President’s rally before the Capitol had been breached or anyone was harmed,” Wyant said in an email. “He also immediately amplified President Trump’s call on social media for those in attendance to go home. He regrets that the post has been misinterpreted as support for violence by some. It was not.”

Valdez’s Parler account can still be viewed via the Wayback Machine and does not appear to show that he amplified Trump’s call for the rioters to disperse. His Twitter account is currently protected and cannot be reviewed. His post cheering on the Capitol mob was seen by Parler users more 58,500 times as of January 10. It’s unclear how many users saw it the day of the attack.

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Valdez did not respond directly to a request for comment. According to his LinkedIn page, he began working for Gaetz in January 2020 and previously worked for the Trump re-election campaign as a “War Room Analyst.” He was also once a member of the right-wing group Turning Point USA.

Illustration for article titled Rep. Matt Gaetz Staffer Cheered On Capitol Rioters Via Parler as They Overran Police

Screenshot: Parler / Wayback Machine

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As Gizmodo previously reported, some of Parler’s users were among the mob of rioters who made their way deep inside the Capitol building the day of the deadly siege. While the social network was taken offline by Amazon days after, nearly all of its posts and videos were downloaded by the hacker @donk_enby prior to the takedown.

Amazon said it terminated its hosting contract with Parler because the company was unable to identify and remove posts by users that called for the “rape, torture, and assassination” of elected officials, police officers, and others, according to a court filing last month.

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Last month, Gizmodo was able to map out the locations of nearly 70,000 Parler videos, including 618 taken in and around the Capitol the day of the attack. Others contain GPS coordinates linked to police stations and military bases. Unlike most of its competitors, the social network failed to automatically remove location data from its users’ video posts.

Correction: An early version of this article identified Joel Valdez as “Joey” in the first paragraph. We regret the error.

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