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Life after Parler

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Bloomberg

Greetings from Kartikay on Bloomberg's cyber team. In the run-up to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Donald Trump’s most radical supporters had been consolidating their power on social media. A litany of sub-groups like the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and various regional militias had congealed into a united front, using platforms like Facebook, Parler and Gab to coordinate their efforts.

Now, it’s a lot harder. Not only did Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. finally black out Trump and dispose of groups and key hashtags used to fuel violence, but web hosts and security providers pulled the rug out from under Parler, the more permissive, right-wing alternative to Twitter.

The next question is: With their three most popular venues purged and their leader muted, will the radical pro-Trump supporters reconvene on other smaller social media platforms, or splinter back into the factions they came from?

Social media's hate speech crackdown gave rise to a multitude of smaller services. For example, MeWe has seen more than 1 million users sign up since Trump was kicked off Twitter, and ranked as high as fourth on Apple’s app store since November. Its political pages include groups sympathetic to QAnon, such as the Great Awakening and the Empowered Citizen Institute’s Great Awakening Patriots, a group that’s been banned from Twitter. Other sites, like CloutHub, are attempting to replicate the Parler model, and could in fact replace Parler as the social medium of choice for the far-right. Two of the most popular hashtags on the platform have been banned by Facebook: #StopTheSteal and #WalkAway.

Many people have headed to Telegram, an instant messaging forum based in London. In the days since Parler servers were taken down, dozens of new Telegram channels have helped fill the void. Among the most popular channels is Parler Lifeboat, now home to more than 16,000 people seeking community and refuge until, they hope, Parler returns.

But such channels offer little evidence of organization – after spending the last three days on Telegram, I didn’t encounter anyone sharing dates, times or venues of future demonstrations. Sometimes, dozens if not hundreds of messages passed without any common discourse.

Other smaller outlets offer more explicit opportunities to hold the far-right Trump coalition together. On the website MyMilitia.com, groups are categorized by state. One user named Carl H B called for unity: “Each area of operation should be under the command of a military trained leader,” he said in a post dated Jan. 8. Another militia member with the username Blackjack advocated for the formation of a national organization and annual meetings in mid-July when national leaders could be elected.

In the days leading up to inauguration, it’s likely these groups will remain active. On the sites 8Kun and 4Chan, gorilla warfare tactical guides are widely circulated. And it’s not hard to find plots to rig murderous, modified bulldozers or treatises on “the happening,’’ a coded reference to a second American civil war.

But after Trump returns to civilian life, the future of his movement is uncertain. Some social media researchers are hopeful that the president's departure from office results in a dispersal of his followers. Others are preparing for Trump to continue fueling the fire of online conspiracy theories about the 2020 election.

“Far right extremism is going to carry forward aggressively even after Trump is out of the picture, even if he's banned from platforms,” said Jared Holt, research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “He gave groups inertia, but like inertia once they get rolling, it takes time to slow down.” Kartikay Mehrotra

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