Efforts by Facebook and Twitter to squash claims from President Donald Trump and others of electoral fraud are hitting a big obstacle: The messages are running wild on smaller fringe networks popular among the far right — then boomeranging back onto the mainstream platforms.
Extremist groups, white nationalists and conspiracy theorists — some claiming ties to QAnon, which alleges a so-called deep-state plot to undermine Trump — have taken to encrypted messaging apps and online message boards.
There, they promote viral videos of unproven voter fraud, urge supporters to ready their guns in support of Trump and push anti-Semitic and racist claims about election officials, according to POLITICO’s review of multiple Telegram channels, 4Chan discussions and conversations on Parler, a social network favored by more mainstream conservatives.
Such discussions have skyrocketed on these alternative platforms since the Nov. 3 election, creating a safe harbor for those pushing claims of fraud and a venue to push for real-world action.
The fringe forums also have acted as staging grounds for coordinated misinformation campaigns targeting the major social networks, as well as repositories for extreme content, initially posted on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, that was later removed from those platforms, based on POLITICO’s review.
That highlights the limits of the social networking giants’ expanded efforts to stop election misinformation in its tracks. Groups banned from Facebook, Google and Twitter for spreading falsehoods are moving to other venues and are finding that people who are eager to believe their narratives are not far behind.
“Fringe networks have become central to how extreme groups mobilize online,” said Nahema Marchal, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project. “They’ve attracted hordes of people who think the major platforms are censoring them.”
Many of these forums — including Telegram channels dedicated to militias and the Proud Boys, a far-right hate group — had already garnered a significant number of new members over the last 18 months as Facebook, Twitter and Google banned many extremist groups from their platforms.
But in the days following the Nov. 3 election, these Telegram channels saw a flood of new members — a roughly 20 percent increase across the 40 channels that POLITICO followed since the election. There were roughly five times as many posts, almost all about vote fraud, on both Telegram channels and 4Chan message boards compared with before the vote, based on POLITICO’s analysis of 40 Telegram channels and thousands of 4Chan conversations. MeWe, another alternative social network favored by the far-right, also became one of the most downloaded apps on online stores in the last week.
It’s part of a larger outflux of people from mainstream sites to a variety of platforms promising fewer, if any, restrictions on content.
The app for Parler, a network favored by conservatives, was downloaded roughly 1 million times during the week ending Nov. 8, based on statistics from Google and Apple. That’s compared with just 150,000 downloads throughout all of 2019, according to AppFigures, a company that tracks smartphone apps
“Facebook and Twitter’s suppression of election information was a catalyst, causing many people to lose their trust,” John Matze, Parler’s chief executive, wrote to his network’s users on Wednesday, adding that 4.5 million people had created accounts since Nov. 6.
Parler has been the site of much less extreme content than some of the others, driven more by well-known media personalities and politicians like Sean Hannity and Ted Cruz rubbing shoulders with Trump loyalists who have peppered the network with the #StopTheSteal hashtag and pleas for people to donate to Trump’s legal challenges across the country. But far-right groups are also present on the platform, which prides itself on refusing to impose standards on users or posts, and their messages are echoing there.
On Telegram and 4Chan, a network of online message boards where users post anonymously, extremists stand out more prominently.
On Telegram, militia groups, white nationalists and QAnon supporters swap updates on the latest voter fraud allegations and spread calls to take up arms to protect Trump’s presidency. Similar conversations litter 4Chan. In one instance, several 4Chan users openly discussed preparing for violent confrontations with left-leaning antifa groups who they allege aim to attack planned “StopTheSteal” protests in battleground states. Facebook has taken down some, not not all, pages advertising some of these protests.
"Extremist activity is starting to pick up. We’re seeing a lot of ‘standby’ rhetoric," said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which tracks online misinformation. "I would expect to see a possible uptick in localized violence."
A rising tide of chatter
As Americans headed to the polls last week, POLITICO tracked conversations within 40 Telegram groups, as well as thousands of individual discussions on 4Chan, to determine how widespread election-related misinformation was shared in the outer reaches of the web.
After major news organizations unanimously announced Biden’s victory on Saturday, POLITICO also followed the spread of voter fraud falsehoods on Parler, including conversations around hashtags like #StopTheSteal, #Trump2020 and #Election2020.
Though not comprehensive, the analysis shows the growth of an alternative social media ecosystem, devoid of fact-checking and other constraints, where conspiracy theories quickly gain ground and the most extreme views find large online audiences.
Collectively, the Telegram channels — some with names linked to white supremacists, QAnon conspiracy theorists and militias — had more than 120,000 members spread across the country and included thousands of posts with election updates since the polls opened on Nov. 3.
Many of these discussions mimicked those on the more mainstream networks where voter fraud misinformation continues to grow, despite companies’ efforts to clamp down.
Yet on fringe networks, there has been little, if any, questioning of the accuracy of people’s claims. And racist and hate-filled narratives, including anti-Semitic attacks against election officials in Arizona and Pennsylvania, have gone viral.
Unlike Facebook, Google and Twitter, Telegram, 4Chan and Parler have not imposed any restrictions on election-related falsehoods or calls for violence.
As mail-in ballots were counted in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, for instance, a Telegram channel with more than 15,000 members included posts of multiple videos of people allegedly voting several times and suspected Democratic Party operatives spoiling ballots in battleground states. Some of the same videos showed up on Facebook and Twitter but were labeled or taken down. On the fringe networks, they carried no disclaimers that the videos could be false.
Other groups with names associated with either white nationalism or alt-right groups also saw multiple posts attacking the so-called antifa left-leaning movement and promoting cellphone footage of people alleging voting irregularities.
In one, which was initially posted on both Facebook and Twitter, a man showed a computer screen listing names of registered voters in Michigan, including a dead man named William Bradley, who was born in 1902 and supposedly registered to vote with a mail-in ballot. “A lot of Biden voters are born in the early 1900’s in Michigan. Interesting. By the way, Mr. Bradley died in 1984,” the man said in the video.
State officials debunked the allegation, saying a ballot cast by a man with a similar name had initially been incorrectly recorded. “No ballot for the 118-year-old Mr. Bradley was ever requested, received or counted,” the Detroit Department of Elections said in a statement.
In another post, associated with the Proud Boys movement, Telegram users called on people to head to local voting counting centers to stop Democratic Party officials from fraudulently removing Republican votes, with one saying: “You’ll see at least 10s of thousands of these people arm up and make a damn good attempt at it.”
There is no evidence that such fraud has occurred, and a review of local media reports in Arizona, Michigan and Pennsylvania showed that gun-carrying protesters made up a small minority of voter fraud demonstrators.
“There is only one solution when your government officials are in bed with marxists. Voting won’t remove them,” said another anonymous message in a white supremacist Telegram channel, posted on Nov. 11.
Shuttling between platforms big and small
On the alternative platforms, the specter of Facebook, Google and Twitter is never far away.
Among 4Chan discussions about potential voter fraud — a topic that has garnered thousands of posts since Nov. 3 — anonymous users shared screenshots of now-deleted Twitter and Facebook updates that alleged widespread rigging of the vote count. Others linked directly to YouTube videos that purportedly showed officials either spoiling ballots or filling them in illegally. Some of the videos received hundreds of thousands of views.
On Parler, users similarly uploaded Facebook messages, Twitter posts and YouTube videos associated with voter fraud narratives — despite the network’s effort to persuade conservative social media users to abandon the mainstream platforms.
This tactic of borrowing heavily from the social media giants helped ensure that election-related misinformation could still circulate even if Facebook, Google and Twitter removed the original posts from their sites, according to Marchal of the Oxford Internet Institute.
“There’s a lot of cross-platform activity, it allows the content to remain online even if it’s removed elsewhere,” she said.
Such promotion is a two way street.
In a Telegram channel called “US Voter Fraud 2020” that has more than 8,000 members, a user posted a selection of viral anti-Biden memes consisting of fake photos of the president-elect promoting voter fraud and urged others to repost them on the more mainstream networks like Trump-focused groups on Facebook.
In 4Chan discussions after the election, anonymous users also stoked conspiracy theories, including QAnon claims that Trump loyalists will purge global elites around the world. Others promoted rumors that WikiLeaks was about to publish evidence of voter fraud, and called on people to share it widely across the web. “A great awakening is upon us. Share with as many as you can — even if you don’t plan on investigating it yourself,” one user posted.
Such tactics of developing online content in fringe networks that can then be shared more widely online have become a hallmark of far-right groups in both the United States and Europe, but has taken off at a new level in the past week and half.
Chloe Colliver, head of digital policy and strategy at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism and misinformation, said her team has seen a significant increase since Nov. 3 in calls for violence in fringe social networks and invite-only extremist message boards, with some individuals sharing specific locations for planned rallies in support of Trump.
So far, she said, such rhetoric was limited to a vocal minority, and not led to confirmed cases of real-world violence. But the groundwork is being laid.
“We’re getting to a stage where trust and credibility are at all-time lows and the conservative social media ecosystem is in full-throttle mode,” Colliver said. “The fringe networks are fueling both of those narratives.”
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