The Alternate Actuality of Fringe Apps


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Following last week’s mob at the Capitol, Facebook, Twitter and Reddit closed accounts where people spread false reports of election fraud or planned the attack. Some of the discussions about conspiracy theories and potential violence have shifted to lesser-known fringe websites and apps like Gab, Telegram, and 4chan.

I spoke to my colleague Sheera Frenkel about the risk of driving people off the mainstream internet and what she sees from online conversations about possible further violence.

Shira: How are these lesser known networks like Gab or Telegram?

Sheera: Sometimes, like in Telegram groups, it can feel like disorganized family group text with people talking about each other. But the conversations usually got out of hand. There is a lot of profanity.

And while these online forums usually say they are havens for people to express their opinions, there is a lot of intolerance to ideas that go against groupthink. If someone says something in the comments like, “Let’s be open to the possibility of Joe Biden being installed as president,” that person is being assaulted verbally.

Is it counterproductive for mainstream social networks like Facebook to close down groups discussing conspiracy theories or planning violence? Does it make people angry and push them somewhere else online?

It’s complicated. It helps to oust conspirators and extremists from Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter, which have been fertile ground for them to recruit mainstream followers. But yeah, when people move to fringe websites there are fewer ways to turn them away from extreme beliefs.

People who study extremist movements say that the moment someone starts to believe in a conspiracy theory or terrorist propaganda is the most effective time for someone to step in and have a conversation about it.

If your cousin asks on Facebook if dead people voted in the elections, you can chat about the evidence that those claims are not true. That probably can’t happen when making false claims of electoral fraud on sites where almost everyone else agrees.

What have people been discussing on these lesser known networks since the Capitol attack last week?

The Capitol Breach encouraged people for what might come next. I have seen a debate among these marginalized groups about whether people should try to disrupt the opening process or, and this is becoming more common, they should wait their time. It is important for people to understand that even if the initiation continues without incident, there is a danger of more violence.

(Also see Sheera’s interview on The Daily podcast about the online organization after the Capitol attack. And my colleagues at the New York Times Opinion have an analysis of people who have been cut off from mundane Facebook postings over time have switched to sharing inflammatory views.)

From your coverage of the Islamic State and far right groups in AmericaWhat Have You Learned Are Effective Tactics Against Extremism?

One lesson from ISIS is that combating extremism requires coherent action against online and real-world behavior. Tech companies backed by the US government worked together to kick ISIS off popular social networks. This went hand in hand with initiatives in the Muslim world to deradicalize the people and military measures against ISIS.

Experts say fighting extremists in America can’t just be a social media ban. It takes expertise, funding, and a commitment to reaching people in schools and elsewhere in their community to counter these beliefs.

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Sheera also wrote an article with Jack Nicas and Mike Isaac about the reasons behind the recent surge in new people using Telegram and Signal messaging apps that allow users to communicate using encrypted means. This technology garches the content of messages or phone calls so that no one but the sender and recipient can access them.

Whenever people draw attention to themselves with encrypted technology, it is an opportunity to look at the good and the harm. Many pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong organized themselves by telegram, in part to avoid detection by the authorities. However, terrorists and child abusers also use encrypted technology to hide their traces.

Because of the dangers, law enforcement agencies have been asking for years that tech companies create a way, called a back door, so they can peek into encrypted messages or dig into encrypted iPhones. But security and privacy experts say there is no way you can let good people access encrypted technology without bad people misusing it.

“The moment you create a back door, oppressive governments have an opportunity to spy on journalists or pro-democracy activists,” Sheera said. “I use encrypted apps every day to speak to sources.”

Jack previously wrote about the benefits of having a messy middle ground between encryption absolutists and law enforcement agencies.

This includes law enforcement agencies focusing on targeted forms of intelligence gathering, including hacking encryption on a case-by-case basis – which the police often do – and duplicating traditional investigative techniques when they cannot access every digital flotilla.

Some technologists have also said that in all circumstances it may not be appropriate to use encryption to offset the drawbacks.

Muji, the cat, hid in the ceiling at La Guardia Airport for 11 days before being reunited with her owner. Here’s the intricate rescue mission that involved Abby the tracker dog and canned tuna.

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