Online fragmentation: what you need to know about alternative social media platforms

March 2021
 by Tom Whitley

Online fragmentation: what you need to know about alternative social media platforms

March 2021
 By Tom Whitley

Recent months have seen the rise of alternative social media platforms. While many people are still getting to grips with TikTok, Reddit, Twitch and Discord, in the fast-paced online landscape these are now becoming the old kids on the block. The new kids are transforming the ways that social content is regulated, politicised and monetised.

The digital shadows of these new companies, and of the individuals they attract, are obscured by the complexity and fragmentation of online spaces. These alternative platforms, as they seek to acquire new users, are not incentivised to tackle the proliferation of misinformation and dangerous conspiracy theories online.

With new platforms come changing digital risks, so it is important to understand the characteristics of each platform. With that in mind, we’ve put together a synopsis of seven of these emerging platforms.

Parler

Parler has gained a reputation as a free-speech safe haven for those who have been censored by the social media giants. A microblogging platform founded in 2018, it has been portrayed as a right-wing doppelganger of Twitter with a significant base of Trump supporters.

Producing ‘parleys’ instead of tweets, and ‘echoes’ instead of retweets, the app has been downloaded more than 11 million times since launch. Parler was forced offline by Amazon Web Services for allowing inflammatory posts about the Capitol Hill riots, but was reportedly hacked and archived before the shutdown, with incriminating geolocational data made publicly accessible.

No longer reliant on Big Tech, Parler returned in February 2021 with a new interim CEO, Mark Meckler of the Tea Party Patriots movement. It is now reportedly using a California-based cloud service provider called SkySilk.

Gab

Another increasingly popular platform for the far-right is Gab, in which users post ‘gabs’ with minimal risk of censorship. An alleged haven for neo-Nazis, white supremacists and antisemites, Gab promotes itself as a free-speech platform – but some see this as merely a shield for its alt-right ecosystem.

Since the riots on the Capitol, Gab’s registered users have more than doubled to around 3.4 million, with an 800% jump in traffic to the website – a spike that forced the CEO to order emergency servers to support the new flood of activity. Gab has been banned by more than 25 service providers, and was rejected from both the Google and Apple app stores for violating hate-speech policies. As of January 2021, Gab hosts its own servers, renting hardware in an undisclosed data centre.

Clubhouse

Clubhouse may be a true innovator in this arena, as an audio-based app that lets users listen to conversations in chatrooms, with an invitation model to attract new users. Currently still in beta, the app has already gained popularity following appearances from high-profile celebrities including Elon Musk and Kanye West. The exclusivity of its invitation model has somewhat limited the surge in far-right and conspiratorial voices, but Clubhouse faces its own challenges surrounding privacy and harassment.

Once a chatroom discussion has ended, there is no official recording and no way to recover the audio files. However, in February 2021, Clubhouse confirmed to Bloomberg that it had suffered a data spill, with a user streaming audio to another website. While the app has installed new safeguards to prevent conversations from being streamed again, Clubhouse can expect further privacy challenges.

The perceived exclusivity of the platform creates some ambiguity over who is listening to conversations on the app. While conversations are not open to the general public, if they are opened publicly within the app they can be listened to by all users.

An audio-based app will be difficult to monitor, and thus difficult to censor. As such, Clubhouse recently went viral in mainland China, with the audio format allowing for unregulated debate on political issues. In response, the app was blocked by China’s online censors in February 2021.

Rumble

Rumble is a long-established video platform which recently became popular in response to the increase in content moderation on YouTube, with a surge in user growth since the US election. Rumble’s top trending creators include conservative political commentators Dinesh D’Souza, Dan Bongino and Sean Hannity.

Unlike on YouTube, ad revenue is unnecessary to make money on Rumble, so the risk of being demonetised (where YouTube deems your videos unsuitable for advertising) is removed. On Rumble, creators are paid if their videos receive high viewership and positive ratings. Rumble has limited moderation, and videos claiming electoral fraud and coronavirus conspiracies have not been removed from the site.

MeWe

MeWe is an ad-free social network that has drawn comparisons to Facebook, but with a greater focus on privacy. In similarity to the recent migration from WhatsApp to Signal, MeWe gained 2.5 million new members in the first week of January 2021 as users sought better data security than Facebook offers. MeWe now claims to have reached a total of 16 million members.

MeWe has welcomed conservative members with open arms, and there are no policies banning misinformation, which is categorised as ‘opinion’, so QAnon content has emerged and proliferated. However, there are also MeWe groups for supporters of green parties and non-political groups for the arts. Groups cannot be promoted on MeWe, and it does not use newsfeed algorithms, meaning members consume content in chronological order.

CloutHub

CloutHub is a microblogging app with functions including groups, news aggregation and livestreaming. Despite its currently small size (approaching half a million downloads to mobile devices), CloutHub markets itself as “the people’s platform” for users engaged in political, social and community activism. Vocal in its opposition to perceived censorship by Big Tech, CloutHub is enjoying a surge in interest (including from Parler refugees).

The rightward turn of CloutHub may be fuelled by endorsements from prominent conservatives including Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs, former Washington Times editor John Solomon, actor Kevin Sorbo and former Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson.

DLive

DLive is an online video-streaming platform popular with gamers. It operates a cryptocurrency-based donation model to finance content anonymously. In 2019 it was purchased by BitTorrent, owner of the blockchain platform TRON.

DLive was used to broadcast the Capitol riots, with some users making over $2,000 from streaming the attack. DLive takes 25% from every donation, 5% of which is redistributed to other DLive users via a staking system – a model attractive to far-right extremists. A computer science professor at Elon University identified 56 extremist accounts that raked in a combined total of $465,572.43 from April to October 2020.

In addition to a deal with Felix Kjellberg (known online as PewDiePie), who spent years fighting YouTube’s content policies, right-wing influencers including Anthime Gionet and Nick Fuentes have also flocked to DLive. The app has over a million downloads according to Google Play, with a similar estimated figure on iOS.

As Big Tech regulates itself or is regulated by governments, we expect to see a continuation of this migration of alternative perspectives to peer-to-peer, impenetrable online islands.

What concerns do the new platforms raise?

The proliferation of niche platforms creates new reputational and legal concerns, as each app has its own distinct technical, commercial and political characteristics. Existing in a red ocean marketplace, many of the new platforms have thrived in part by promising less regulation and censorship. Others are changing the nature of social network privacy. Clubhouse’s audio-based model, for example, raises new challenges in preventing harassment and defamation.

Big Tech’s monopoly on social media may be waning, but lessons will have been learnt from Parler’s recent battle with Amazon Web Services. New platforms will rely less on major tech firms and may eventually persist on peer-to-peer networks, protected by encryption, with content immutable on the blockchain. Monitoring for defamation and disinformation in these impenetrable spaces will require expertise and innovation.

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