Much of the conversation revolves around plans for large-scale violence in Washington, DC, on Inauguration Day on January 20th, particularly a planned protest against the Million Militia March that is being organized that day.
A common theme in the discussions is asking potential protesters to forget about the concurrent protests in various state capitals of the country and to focus their efforts on sacking thousands of armed insurgents in Washington. Some share recipes for making, concealing, and using improvised explosives and homemade weapons.
“Do not take part in armed protests in state capitals before the inauguration! Possible sinister conspiracy by the radical left to take away gun rights!” A telegram on the far right in the chat room reads.
One of the problems with this migration to more secure platforms is that it becomes more difficult for law enforcement agencies, journalists, and surveillance organizations to keep track of their activities and plans.
“Now that they’ve driven us off the main platforms, that doesn’t mean we’re going away, it just means we’re going to places they don’t see,” commented a Telegram user on a refugee channel from Parler’s right-wing platform, which was briefly dismantled this week.
An October profile of Telegram’s extremist channels by Vice’s Tess Owen showed how Telegram has become the platform of choice for white nationalists. “Telegram makes a lot of sense to these groups,” she notes. “The app allows users to upload unlimited videos, pictures, audio clips and other files. The founder has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting user data from third parties, including governments.”
Some high profile right-wing extremists have announced they will make Telegram their main base for operations. Joey Gibson, the founder and leader of the Patriot Prayer team responsible for a number of violent protests on the west coast, recently announced that he would be moving his show to Telegram after his website was taken down. “Fascist censorship is increasing,” he complained.
Channels dedicated to right-wing extremist groups like the Proud Boys and Parler refugees have seen a huge increase in participants. And the tenor of the discussions has become increasingly violent and openly extremist. One post discussed how Trump supporters can be radicalized into neo-Nazi beliefs.
Other platforms are also gaining new customers on the far right. QAnon cultists have shifted their organization to SMS chains. White nationalist-friendly platform Gab claims it has seen a significant surge in new users too.
The migration makes it clear that deplatforming can primarily get rid of extremists, and its greatest impact is to limit extremists’ ability to recruit and radicalize vulnerable targets on mass mainstream platforms.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI deputy director, told Schecter he feared shutting down platforms like Parler could be a “double-edged sword”.
“We had all this success with ISIS: We removed their command post, but we also took the opportunity to see the next lone wolf. We are forcing them into the dark corners of the Internet,” said Figliuzzi.
As terrorism expert JM Berger noted on Twitter, the discussion about deplatforming is being treated as a panacea that solves problems rather than a tool in combat that can be strategically applied. “One way is to corral extremists on platforms where they can be tracked but cannot reach large audiences,” he wrote. “Regular gentle cleanups to keep audiences small, but not so much pressure that they are forced to innovate.”
At best, deplatforming is a kind of band-aid approach to a deeper systemic cancer in the political landscape. Furthermore, the officials currently holding positions of authority within the system can escape guilt for failing to stop the spread of right-wing extremism and only force the problem into the lap of social media platforms – which have long since taken action this week overdue.
For example, it is already a federal crime to share bomb-making prescriptions online. It is also a federal crime to advocate the murder of civil servants or otherwise threaten them with violence. However, what started out as a few disgruntled voices on the edge of the internet – and therefore easy for law enforcement to ignore – has, in large part, become a massive tide because these laws are only selectively and easily enforced.
Deplatforming is a blunt tool. It works best – as we saw not only with Trump’s Twitter and Facebook ban, but even earlier with the social media bans that turned Milo Yiannopoulos from a central figure in the rise of the alt-right to a marginal crank, the still desperately trying to reach a mass audience from limited platforms – when key media figures spewing disinformation and bigotry are removed from large platforms that allow them to reach a mass audience. Disrupting this flow is indeed important in order to limit the spread and recruitment of extremist ideologues.
It works less well when it comes to actually distorting extremism itself. As we’ve seen, right-wing extremists – whose frenzied ideologies fuel their resolve – have proven themselves extremely ingenious in bypassing the obstacles created by deplatforming. The smaller platforms also offer a greater space to bring your extremism to violent levels and then to organize it.
As we have seen over the years, extremist groups become most dangerous when forced into these hidden spaces, in large part because their activities become more difficult to monitor, but also because they are more likely to become even more radical. Combating this level of extremism requires engagement from all levels of society – government, law enforcement, media, faith communities, even mass culture – to take the threat seriously and respond appropriately.
This means first of all applying and enforcing the laws already contained in the books. Sharing bomb-making plans or hanging Nancy Pelosi becomes a major stumbling block when the people who do so are behind bars – as federal law mandates – and when the people who share neo-Nazi belief systems are in hoping to recruit mainstream conservatives for the terrorists and insurgents they are.
Until that happens, we are tied into a political landscape in which right-wing extremists are organizing to stop inaugurations, execute liberal politicians, commit acts of terrorism domestically, and destroy American democracy, regardless of how shrunken their platforms have become.