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Why it's harder for the far right to organize underground

Researchers see one bright spot as far-right extremists turn to private and encrypted online platforms: Friction.

Between the lines: For fringe organizers, those platforms may provide more security than open social networks, but they make it harder to recruit new members.


Catch up quick: The online far right is moving away from mainstream social networks and onto both right-wing-welcoming networks like Gab and privacy-friendly platforms like Telegram and Signal, due largely to the collision ofthree events:

  • Public social media activity left a trail that's been exposing the identities of a growing list of Capitol rioters.
  • The far right is exiting large social networks, either as a political statement or under force of a ban, as tech platforms crack down on extremists.
  • WhatsApp botched the rollout of a new privacy policy, confusing and worrying a massive number of users of all political stripes who then went looking for alternatives.

The catch: As the fringe right burrows underground, experts say it will quickly learn how much harder it is to organize there than on wide-open channels like Facebook and Twitter.

Here's why:

1) Every added step is a chance to lose a follower.

  • Having to download apps and go through steps to verify their identities is bound to dissuade people from joining, said Matt Mitchell, a technology fellow at the Ford Foundation.
  • And when a platform goes down — as an extended Signal outage Friday illustrated — it cuts off the intake entirely.

2) You don't always know who you're talking to. It can be trivially easy in some cases for outsiders to infiltrate private online groups — something not lost on extremists.

  • "We're seeing more recognition among groups on platforms like Telegram, Gab and MeWe that there are security researchers, law enforcement officials and journalists in these groups," said Bryce Webster-Jacobsen, Director of Intelligence at cyber intelligence firm GroupSense.

3) You can still be deplatformed even on private or semi-private forums.

4) Out of sight, out of mind. Experts say domestic terrorists face a similar problem that groups like ISIS have faced after being deplatformed: recruiting gets harder.

  • When images and videos are removed from more public platforms, it becomes more difficult for hate groups to draw in fresh members.

Yes, but: Research shows thatwhen fringe groups are banned from mainstream platforms, the bans often push bad actors to even darker parts of the web, where the conversation becomes even more toxic.

  • That means that while far-right groups may have a harder time drawing in fresh blood than they did on mainstream social networks, the ones that do show up could be more dedicated to the cause.

What's next: The scrutiny (and channel deletions) now rising among the alternative platforms could create smaller and even more radical splinter groups.

  • "You have one fire to take out and instead you made 500 burning embers," said Mitchell.

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