On August 6, 2018, Alex Jones finally got deplatformed.
The conspiracy theorist behind the popular Infowars site had been pushing the bounds of acceptable speech for many years. His belief that the massacre of 20 children and 6 educators by a deranged shooter at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was a “false flag” operation involving “crisis actors” is perhaps the most offensive of Jones’s theories, leading to defamation lawsuits from some of the parents of victims. But what finally led to Jones’s removal from major social media platforms was his tendency to celebrate and endorse violence, in direct conflict with platforms’ terms of service.
Apple moved first, removing five of Jones’s six shows from their widely used podcast index. While Apple was not hosting Jones’s content, their decision to de-index him had a significant impact, opening the floodgates for other platforms to take action. Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify deleted much or all of his content the same day, citing a variety of reasons. Facebook noted that Jones had previously been suspended from the platform for 30 days, pointing to a “repeat offenders” policy as the reason he could be removed from the platform. Spotify had removed individual episodes of Jones's show a week earlier, but defended the decision to completely ban it based on hate speech and incitement to violence. The deplatforming that most hurt Jones was likely YouTube’s—his channels had 2.5 million subscribers and his videos over a billion combined views. While many platforms quickly followed Apple's decision on August 6th, Twitter allowed Jones to remain, finally banning him a month later. (This sequence of events is a great example of what evelyn douek calls the “domino effect”—mainstream platforms often make controversial decisions in near-unison in a scramble not to be the odd one left out.)
Deplatforming reduced the reach of Jones’s Infowars website—a New York Times analysis reported 1.4 million daily views of the Infowars site and videos during the three weeks before the ban and only 715,000 daily views in the three weeks post-ban. But deplatforming Alex Jones didn't silence him—it just sent him to Gab. And Parler. And his own video streaming site, Banned.Video.
Jones’s deplatforming was a signature event in the growth of what we might call “alt-tech”. Much as the alt-right has attempted to rebrand racist nationalism and neo-Nazism in a more acceptable guise, alt-tech platforms represent a slick, modern version of the old racist social media, hosted on sites like Stormfront. While Stormfront, which still exists despite sustained efforts to pull it offline, looks like a 1990s-style bulletin board system, alt-tech sites mimic contemporary social media sites, with an ideological twist. They promise to offer free speech, uncontrolled by the gatekeepers of Silicon Valley. Indeed, Parler—an alt-tech Twitter alternative started in 2018—advertises this on its front page, saying “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” (This promise often isn’t borne out in reality as Parler regularly bans trolls who hold opposing viewpoints.)
The logic of alt-tech platforms is simple: they exist to provide a parallel online space for individuals, ideas, and causes that are outside the boundaries of speech permitted on mainstream social media platforms. Not all communities that have been deplatformed and found other ways to exist online should be considered alt-tech; Switter, for instance, is a Twitter alternative on Mastodon for sex workers who’ve been deplatformed due to anti-sex trafficking legislation FOSTA/SESTA. We use the alt-tech term to refer to platforms that offer a promise of uncensored speech, which exist specifically to give a space for far-right, nationalist, racist, or extremist points of view, and which harbor a broad sense of grievance that speech has been “censored” for failure to be “politically correct.” Many, but not all of these alt-tech sites are far-right communities: Kaitlin Tiffany documented an alt-tech community for Trans-exclusionary Radical Feminists who were thrown off Reddit during the same purge that eliminated r/The_Donald.
There is no one set of technical affordances that describe the alt-tech space because providers are working to replicate every part of the tech universe. Consider Hatreon, the bluntly named alt-tech alternative to crowdfund site Patreon—it has been down since 2017 when Visa stopped processing payments for them, but the name makes the mission quite clear. Similarly, alt-tech sites replicate the functionality of YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and even payment processing systems like PayPal or Square.
It’s worth taking a close look at alt-tech platforms right now given Donald Trump's recent suspensions from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other mainstream social media platforms. On January 6th, President Trump held a “Save America” rally in Washington, DC, where he urged his followers to march on Congress to protest the certification of electoral college votes for the 2020 election. Some of those followers stormed the Capitol, vandalizing and looting the building, forcing Congress to flee their chambers, and ultimately resulting in at least five deaths. Asked by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to condemn the riot, Trump released a video on Twitter and Facebook that repeated his unfounded claims about election fraud and expressed encouragement and solidarity with the rioters. Twitter and Facebook allowed the video to stand, with warnings, for a few hours before removing the posts and banning the president for incitement to violence. These bans were announced as temporary suspensions, though Twitter banned the president permanently on Friday “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Facebook plans on banning the president until at least after inauguration.
This is not the first clash between the president and mainstream social media platforms. The president and many of his supporters believe that mainstream platforms are biased against conservative points of view. (Some scholarly research suggests the opposite, showing that mainstream platforms serve as a more powerful echo chamber for right-wing points of view than they do for left-wing perspectives.) As platforms have gotten more aggressive about labeling the president’s statements as falsehoods, Trump has struck back, issuing an executive order that aims to strip platforms of Section 230 liability protections if they restrict or remove access to content ... i.e., if they label his tweets. The president later vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act in part because it failed to overturn Section 230 protections as he had demanded. (Congress overrode his veto.)
What happens if other mainstream platforms follow in Twitter’s footsteps and permanently deplatform Donald Trump? It seems likely that Trump would establish a presence on an alt-tech platform, just as Alex Jones did when Infowars was deplatformed. The CEO of Gab, Andrew Torba, has been actively recruiting Trump to the platform since it was founded, and announced on the day Trump was suspended from Twitter that he was in contact with the president's media team. Tech journalist Kevin Roose speculates that deplatforming Trump will limit Trump’s appeal to a narrow, ideologically insular audience, constraining his reach and power.
Perhaps. But it's complicated: as prominent figures like Jones are forced onto alt-tech platforms, they bring their userbases with them. Gab’s CEO claims that his service's userbase has expanded 120 percent in the 24 hours after Trump’s Twitter suspension. That’s impossible to verify, but consistent with the rise in popularity of other alt-tech platforms, like Parler, which had roughly 500K daily active users in late October, but rose to almost 3 million after the 2020 U.S. presidential election and has since stabilized to around 2.3 million users a day. In fact, the alt-tech space may be poised to develop into a significant and influential part of the media ecosystem, especially if Trump is forced into it. Research from Harvard has shown the unique reach and power of Trump’s social media presence, and though it will inevitably be diminished as he leaves office, his sizable influence would likely significantly accelerate the development of the alt-tech space.
It’s not just people who get deplatformed: so do platforms. Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Gregory Bowers maintained an active profile on Gab where his bio was filled with anti-semitic statements, and where he posted the infamous phrase “Screw your optics - I'm going in” before killing 11 worshipers. Companies that provided payment services, domain names, and web hosting to Gab terminated their relationships, and Gab was offline for several days until it could find a domain name registrar and web host willing to provide them with services. Gab also found itself exiled from the decentralized internet community Mastodon. In July 2019, Gab began using a forked version of the open-source Mastodon code to run its site. Mastodon issued a statement opposing Gab’s values, and makers of important Mastodon clients blacklisted the Gab site, making it unreachable for their users. Gab has also been unable to create a mobile app as both the Apple App and Google Play stores have rejected Gab on the grounds that it supports hate speech. Similarly, Parler was removed from Amazon’s cloud services and the Google and Apple app stores in the days after the Capitol riot.
Not only is it hard to keep an alt-tech site on the internet—it’s even harder to make money from it. Gab is supported by user subscriptions (the site is free, but subscriptions give access to premium features) and donations/investments. Parler has been pursuing an investor-backed model, launching ParlayAds, an ad network that claims to be less restrictive than Facebook and Google. However, a major investor in Parler is Rebekah Mercer, a prominent conservative donor, which suggests that her investment might be ideologically motivated rather than purely based on financial interests.
Understanding the alt-tech space in terms of ideology helps explain the decisions some players in the space make. TheDonald.win is one of several community sites that broke away from Reddit when the company banned the notorious pro-Trump community, r/The_Donald. These .win sites—communities.win—are bare-bones, with no attempts at monetization, but host active discussions about Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and various conspiracy theories on a system that looks like Reddit. It’s unclear how much it costs to host such a site but it's possible it's being run purely as a service to users by a small group of likeminded admins and sponsors. Other sites clearly have broader ambitions—in addition to its Twitter-like core site, Gab has launched GabTV as an alternative to YouTube, and the Dissenter Browser, a forked version of the open source Brave browser. (Which may ultimately bring Gab into the crypto logic paradigm, as Brave is based around an attention token that rewards users for reading and writing.)
Deplatforming bad actors from mainstream social media—whether they are conspiracy theorists like Jones or soon-to-be-ex U.S. presidents—likely limits the spread of their ideas. However, it could also lead to insular echo chambers, filled with only the most devoted extremists, a dynamic that could lead to further radicalization and extremism. A recent study (pre-print) found that conversation on TheDonald.win is significantly more toxic than the conversation on its predecessor, r/The_Donald. Understanding the trade-offs of deplatforming, and looking for ways to combat extremism on alt-tech platforms will be crucial as the space develops.
The New York Times reported that Gab and Parler were used to help rally rioters to the Capitol on January 6th, which has substantially increased the media and research scrutiny of conversations that take place on these platforms. However, these platforms are significantly harder to study than mainstream platforms. Twitter maintains an API that researchers can use to download and analyze tweets. Gab on the other hand has no such interface. Pushshift—an amazingly ambitious one-man social media monitoring project—maintains an index of the site for researchers, but fights an uphill battle against Gab’s attempts to block its data collection tools. Similarly, security researchers reportedly scraped 70 terabytes of posts from Parler before it was taken down, which may enable research on the platform’s role in Capitol unrest. However, scraping is a challenging research technique that requires significant technical effort to perform and in this case the researchers even had to hack the platform to archive the data. In other words, by deplatforming toxic communities and sending them towards the alt-tech ecosystem, we may be reducing their influence, but also losing our ability to study their conversations.
This points to a larger lesson. Building a healthy social media ecosystem will be full of tradeoffs, and it’s important to understand and highlight them, not because the changes are necessarily wrong, but because examining and responding to tradeoffs will be crucial to ensuring well-meaning changes don’t cause us to take one step forward and two steps back. Alt-tech presents powerful questions about speech online. Is it better to exile toxic speech from popular platforms if it risks making communities even more extreme? If toxic speech becomes harder to study and track? How do we ensure that deplatforming toxic speech isn’t weaponized to silence any dissenting point of view? These questions are beyond the scope of this post, but are worth considering as this space develops.
Ethan Zuckerman is Associate Professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Director of the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, and the 2020-2021 Visiting Research Scholar at the Knight First Amendment Institute.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci is a research fellow at the Knight Institute.