Democracy’s Big Threat: The Tech Extremism Behind January 6

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Jan. 4, 2022

When Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump from their platforms and Amazon moved to deplatform the popular pro-Trump social media site Parler almost a year ago following the January 6 attack on the Capitol, it seemed like a watershed moment. Days after the siege, Apple and Google also temporarily blocked access to Parler after the social media app famously surfaced as an online hotspot for planning the assault on Congress. Then, news reports broke that Trump’s representatives had tried but failed to broker a deal while he was still in office that would have given the former president a substantial financial stake in Parler once he left the White House.

The centrality of digital data in the narrative of January 6 implicates social media and tech companies across the board. But it is not coincidental that the political unrest leading up to the assault on the U.S. Capitol took place against a backdrop of explosive growth in the so-called “alternative tech” or “alt-tech” movement that sprang up from the right during Trump’s presidency. Although Parler’s reach appeared to be smaller than its competitors’, Amazon's move to deplatform the social media site on January 10, four days after the Capitol attack, sent shockwaves through the tech industry. It also prompted new calls in Congress for reform of internet governance regulations. Yet, nearly one year later, there are still many unknowns about how online content factored into the attack.

The last year has subsequently seen a rare convergence between public concern over content moderation on social media platforms, Congressional scrutiny of tech platforms, corporate backlash, and hacktivist action against right-wing alt-tech media sites like Parler and its predecessor, Gab. After the attack and Parler’s temporary shutdown, millions of digital refugees migrated from Parler to Gab, another alt-tech platform. A hacktivist publicly leaked 70GB data grabbed from Gab users. A few months later, in September, hackers publicly exposed sensitive data held by Epik, an internet-hosting company well-known for servicing far-right extremist websites such as the Daily Stormer.

Now it even appears that Donald Trump’s soon-to-come social media site, Truth Social, is also facing headwinds from multiple directions. On December 6, 2021, officials with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) indicated that they are seeking more information about the business deal that will underwrite the launch of Trump’s platform later this year. The special purpose acquisition company formed to take Trump’s Truth Social platform public, Digital World Acquisition Company (DWAC), noted in an early December filing that the SEC had also requested information about the merger deal between DWAC and the Trump Media and Technology Group that would reportedly raise hundreds of millions for Trump’s new alt-tech venture.

All this might seem to suggest that the right-wing alt-tech media industry is experiencing a significant market correction. But while it would be tempting to think that the appetite for social media platforms that sell themselves as “censorship free” alternatives to mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook is declining, nothing could be further from the truth. It could be years until lawmakers and tech industry leaders take on the challenges posed by alt-tech sites that promote right-wing extremist content, and by then it may be too late for American democracy.

The reality is Parler, Gab, and other alt-tech media maintain outsized influence on a right-wing social movement that is increasingly intertwined with efforts to undermine democratic institutions and intimidate and overthrow legitimately elected officials. The clearest evidence of this, of course, is how Parler and other alt-tech sites contributed to the viral popularity of the #StoptheSteal campaign and contributed to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. The mob assault shook the very foundations of the country. That day’s violence and the tech industry’s response to it reignited public debate over how tech companies operate and the impact of social media content-moderation policies on polarization, extremism, and political violence in the United States. That debate is now playing out in Congress, through a House Select Committee investigation into the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

Data-driven investigations into how Parler operated before Amazon took it offline offer clues as to what happened on January 6, and why. For the last six months, New America’s Future Frontlines program and researchers from Arizona State University and the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University have been digging into publicly available Parler data to see whether there are any discernible patterns of manipulation and coordinated influence campaigns that contributed to the attack.

We set out specifically to learn more about the interplay between niche platforms like Parler, mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and real-world social networks. What we found was disturbing. Our unique insights tell us that the alt-tech movement that sprang up just after Trump first took office in 2017, and spawned Parler, will impact future elections and, more broadly, democratic institutions in the United States. There are good reasons to be skeptical of competing claims made by all three tech companies that their platforms were no more or less culpable in spreading false, misleading, and violent content linked directly or indirectly to the #StoptheSteal movement.

Our research and data shows that Parler merits deeper scrutiny, still. Whether by neglect or by design, the original 1.0 version of Parler was coded and managed in a way that made it exceedingly vulnerable to the use of bots and other types of coordinated inauthentic behavior to spread falsehoods about the 2020 election. There is a lot still to uncover about how influencers on the platform like Devin Nunes (a former U.S. representative from California) and other members of Congress may have profited directly or indirectly from the monetization schemes on the platform. With more than 1 million videos and 1 million image posts to review there is also a lot more to learn about what types of messages were amplified and resonated with Parler users in the lead up to the January 6 attack. Any insights gained on that front will surely be useful going forward into the coming 2022 election cycle and likely beyond to the presidential election in 2024.

What we’ve learned about Parler tells us there similar sites like Gettr which was recently launched this fall by Trump’s former advisor Jason Miller could be just as problematic if not more. Assuming Trump’s team is able to successfully navigate federal regulators’ scrutiny, the prospective launch of Truth Social is even more concerning given the troubling pattern of intransparency from platforms like Parler about how and why content is managed the way it is on the site. If you thought things couldn’t get any worse after the Capitol attack, think again. As alt-tech platforms continue to proliferate, the road ahead to the 2022 midterm elections will likely be very rocky and there may not be much road left at all before we get to the presidential election in 2024.

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