When sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ban users for violating their terms of service, those individuals often don’t leave social media altogether. Instead, many of these digital deportees flock to alternative sites to meet their online social demands.
Known broadly as “alt-tech,” sites like Gab, Parler and Rumble are best known as harbors for far-right netizens, providing more lax content moderation than their mainstream counterparts. To supporters of these sites, the platforms are seen as bastions of free speech in an online environment dominated by a handful of suppressive corporations. To critics, they willingly house bigotry, antisemitism and white supremacy — with Gab’s founder even openly expressing such views online.
Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci, a research fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure, notes that the Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing misinformation regarding safety protocols and vaccines created increased political and public pressure on mainstream platforms to moderate their sites’ content more aggressively. Coupled with pressure to remove content supporting or spreading misinformation about the Jan. 6 insurrection, sites like Facebook and Twitter removed heaps of predominantly right-wing users, many of whom have since found refuge in alt-tech platforms.
“It’s basically just a supply and demand problem at the end of the day,” Rajendra-Nicolucci said. “As mainstream platforms have more restrictive policies or are more aggressive about enforcing them, there are more people that are kicked off of them, and those people need places to go.”
Even though alt-tech users frequently oppose what they perceive as unfair content moderation by Facebook and Twitter, Rajendra-Nicolucci notes that individuals with fringe or extremist beliefs often self-censor on these platforms, hoping to remain under the radar of mainstream platforms’ moderation in order to reach a larger audience.
“There’s an inherent moderating influence in that way,” he said. “But once they’re kicked off and they have their own space, they really can kind of do as they see fit. And a lot of times for people who’ve been kicked off, that means that they’re going to be more extreme.”
Indeed, research suggests that while deplatforming individuals and communities deemed toxic significantly decreases their reach, the resulting communities formed on alt-tech sites tend to be even more vitriolic than on the original platforms.
While these alt-tech platforms have seen significant growth in recent years, far-right online gathering spaces have existed for decades. Often cited as the internet’s first hate site, Stormfront was launched November 1996 as an online forum for and in support of neo-Nazis.
“Stormfront.org existed far before alt-whatever,” said Paige Treebridge, associate professor and co-director of Divergent Design Lab at DePaul. “Stormfront has been online forever, and it’s been a safe place to be an outright Nazi or a Klansperson and chat with other people just like that. This is not a new thing.”
4chan, another long-standing hub for the far-right, has seen itself at the center of several controversies since its inception in 2003. More recently, the site served as the origin of QAnon — a widespread conspiracy centered on false claims that a cabal of Satanic, child-eating pedophiles are in control of world governments.
“It takes an echo chamber like 4chan for people to just accept that at face value,” said Darren Linvill, lead researcher at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub. “QAnon certainly grew on Facebook and Twitter, and it took a lot for the mainstream platforms to crack down on it, but it had to be born in a dark corner of the web.”
Alt-tech expands far beyond social media, though. GiveSendGo, a crowdfunding site founded in 2014 as a response to GoFundMe removing controversial fundraisers, has hosted campaigns to fund Kyle Rittenhouse’s legal defense, the legal defenses of several individuals indicted in the Jan. 6 insurrection and recently for Canadian protesters opposing the nation’s Covid-19 mandates even as other crowdfunding sites removed these fundraisers from their platforms.
Most importantly for the alt-tech ecosystem, the phenomenon has expanded into web hosting.
As mainstream domain registrars and web hosting services have begun shutting their doors to platforms consisting of predominantly far-right users, one company, Epik, has provided services for a litany of alt-tech sites. Epik has partnered with Gab, Parler, 8chan, BitChute, Patriots.win (formerly TheDonald.win) and The Daily Stormer, registering their domains and hosting the sites even as similar companies have increasingly closed their doors to the platforms.
Rajendra-Nicolucci notes how reliant the alt-tech sphere is on services provided by companies like Epik.
“It’s crucial for these alt-tech platforms, because without a web host, they’re not able to be on the internet itself,” he said. “It’s providing that crucial infrastructure service of just being able to put things on the internet.”
With services like Epik’s available to alt-tech platforms and the First Amendment providing the right to free speech in the U.S., detractors of these online communities are unable to eliminate these sites.
“Once they have an alternative site, [critics] can’t go to a Facebook or a Twitter and say, ‘hey kick this person or this group off,’” Rajendra-Nicolucci said. “That’s when they start going to the infrastructure providers like AWS or Cloudflare and say ‘hey, you need to stop providing services for these people.’ But if that works, then these sites just turn to their own alternative infrastructure providers. So at that point, it’s really difficult for people who want to see people removed from the internet to do anything about it.”
Still, while alt-tech platforms are often able to remain online, their success continues to pale in comparison to their mainstream counterparts and their growth has significantly slowed in the last year.
Linvill suggests that alt-tech’s traditionally low moderation policies — a core tenet of the online ecosystem — bears some responsibility for the companies’ slow growth.
“Most Americans, they might not say it out loud, but they want the rules,” he said. “The rules mean that there’s all kinds of stuff you don’t have to engage with — you’re not going to get attacked and screamed at with profanity. It’s like, you may complain about the speed limit, but do you really want to live in a world without speed limits?”
Donald Trump — who has been on Rumble since June 2021 — is set to release Truth Social, his own social media platform, on Monday. While Trump has claimed Truth Social will be able to compete with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, Linvill suggests the site’s inherent partisan nature is likely to significantly restrict the platform’s success.
“It’s entering an already crowded space,” Linvill said. “There’s only so many devoted conservative social media users that only want to talk about conservative politics. Most social media users want cat memes and funny video clips as 90 percent of their media consumption, and politics is 10 percent. The percent that just want to sit around and talk about conservative politics is really small. I think it’ll be about as successful as Trump Steaks.”