Listening to right-wing influencer Dan Bongino this week, it would be easy to think that the end is nigh for Facebook and Twitter and that soon we’ll all be using alternative social networks like Parler, Gab, Rumble, and MeWe.
Of course, Bongino, as an investor in Parler, has a vested interest in getting people to join these new platforms, where his worldview is welcomed with open arms. But since Bongino is one of Facebook’s top performers, there is little chance that he’ll be giving up a platform where he has 4 million followers any time soon.
Despite Bongino’s rather disingenuous pronouncements that people should leave Facebook and Twitter for Parler, it’s clear that there has been a significant spike in users checking out these so-called “free speech networks.” And while these networks don’t pose a danger to the dominance of the mainstream platforms, their growing numbers are creating a right-wing echo chamber where users are exposed to more extremist views and the possibility of being further radicalized.
In the wake of the presidential election, Facebook and Twitter have clamped down on election misinformation, leading figures like Bongino, conservative radio host Mark Levin, and Fox News host Sean Hannity to claim that these networks are biased against conservatives, when the reality is that the platforms are simply labeling misleading posts. Conservative voices continue to top lists of the best-performing content.
Topping the list of alternative networks is Parler, seen by some as an alternative to Twitter. The Nevada-based company, founded in 2018 by software engineers John Matze and Jared Thomson, announced Thursday that its membership had almost doubled since the election, from 4.5 million to 8 million.
This has been driven by figures like Bongino, as well as Levin, and Fox News presenter Maria Bartiromo, who tweeted last week that she was quitting Twitter, and her followers should join her on Parler. A week later, Bartiromo has not quit Twitter, but she now has more followers on Parler (1 million) than she does on Twitter (886,000).
As well as offering a home to figures like Alex Jones, who is banned from all mainstream platforms, Parler has become a new hive of activity for the Stop the Steal movement, as well as QAnon followers.
There is also MeWe, seen as an ad-free alternative version of Facebook, that has become a major anti-vaxx forum. It has added a million new users in the last week, the company said.
Gab, which has been banned from Apple’s and Google’s app store for hosting extremist content, claimed in an email to users on Wednesday that its traffic for the last week was almost the same as for the entire month of October.
“Gab isn’t growing because of ‘celebrity’ endorsements, sponsorships, or big paid advertising budgets, but rather from the most powerful form of advertising on the planet: word of mouth,” Andrew Torba, Gab’s CEO claimed in the email.
Finally, Rumble, a conservative alternative to YouTube founded in 2013, has been on a “rocket ship” of growth according to its CEO Chris Pavlovski, and its app has been at the top of the app store charts this week.
Despite this influx of users, the number of views (sorry, the number of “rumbles”) on the videos on Rumble’s homepage number in the low thousands, compared to the tens of millions of views for videos on YouTube’s homepage.
Rumble is not going to replace YouTube any time soon, but it is becoming part of a right-wing echo chamber that helps amplify and reinforce the beliefs its users hold.
And that shift is already happening.
On Wednesday night, Pavlovski tweeted that for the first time, Parler was now sending more referrals to his website that both Facebook and Twitter combined.
In the world of Parler, Gab, MeWe, and Rumble, users who left Facebook and Twitter because their posts about the election being stolen were censored, will find an entirely new world, with ample “evidence” to back up their beliefs.
Take, for example, a video posted by MMA star Tito Ortiz that claims to show a “poll worker” in Colorado tearing up a ballot for Trump. The video was actually created by a TikTok user who has admitted on Facebook that the video was a joke.
On Parler however, it has been viewed over 1 million times, without any labels from moderators to indicate that the video is fake.
The danger of this shift to these smaller platforms is not just that users will have those beliefs reinforced, but that they will be exposed to other ideas, such as those promoted by militia and boogaloo communities, and be further radicalized.
“The risk in a mass migration to smaller, fringe platforms is that they do not enforce the same guidelines as older, more established platforms, meaning there is potential for not only echo chambers to form, but for extremist groups to make use of these spaces to organize offline activity or to promote more extreme material and beliefs than they might on larger platforms,” Ciarán O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told VICE News.
Here’s what else is happening in the world of disinformation.
Facebook cannot stop the “Stop the Steal’ movement
Last week Facebook removed a viral “Stop the Steal” group that gained over 360,000 members in under 34 hours, making one of the fastest-growing groups in the platform’s history.
But almost immediately, alternative groups with almost identical names appeared up. Now, a week later, new research shows the scale of the problem on the platform.
There are now at least 78 public “Stop the Steal” public groups on Facebook, according to extremism researcher Marc-André Argentino. The three biggest groups have 103,000, 52,000, and 10,000 members respectively, and 11 of the groups have generated 1.7 million interactions between them.
And this is just the part of the problem that is visible: many of the founders of the original “Stop the Steal” movement have created a private Facebook group, where they continue to spread the kind of misinformation that got the public group shut down.
The Biden campaign blasts Facebook for failing to call their man president-elect
On Wednesday Reuters reported that Facebook and Google were going to extend their political ad bans for another month, a move designed to stop campaigns from spreading misinformation targeted at voters. The report cited an email from Facebook to advertisers in which the company said that “while multiple sources have projected a presidential winner, we still believe it’s important to help prevent confusion or abuse on our platform.”
In response, senior adviser to the Biden campaign Megan Clasen blasted Facebook for what she saw as its failure to openly call the election for her employer.
So is Facebook failing to say that Biden won the election? Well, no.
On Saturday when multiple media outlets called the race for Biden, the company put a notification at the top of Facebook and Instagram that said “Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 US Presidential Election.” And it has also been putting this information in labels alongside posts from President Donald Trump as well as in its Voting Information Center.
So what about the letter? “I think there was a little nuance lost in the email sent to advertisers,” one Facebook source told VICE News.