Mainstream social platforms have made substantial policy changes in recent months as misinformation, disinformation and social unrest have all recently reached new peaks. Twitter, Facebook & Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit and others have updated their moderation policies, some leading to a ban of President Trump, himself.
Users have responded with their virtual feet, many choosing to walkout on one or many of these mainstream platforms and migrate to more niche platforms. Take Parler, for instance, a niche platform started in 2018 and the new chosen home of many right-wing users who disagreed with the mainstream social platform policy changes, especially Twitter. Parler added 4.5 million users in the week after the election and was the #1 app in the Apple app store by November 8. After some users of the platform were tied to the attack on Capitol Hill, Google and Apple removed it from their app stores, and two days later the app went offline when Amazon Web Services shut down their hosting account. The shifts have been unprecedented and chaotic, and both consumers and brands find themselves trying to navigate uncharted waters.
Which platforms are expanding and which are contracting? Where are specific groups shifting?
Recent data from Alexa, who measures the popularity of websites across the internet, shows that since the election, mainstream platforms have remained mostly flat, whereas longer-standing alternative platforms have seen pretty wild rises and falls, and new (or new to the broader public) niche platforms have seen dramatic jumps in engagement.
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Here are some of the specific things that we have seen driving these shifts in engagement:
The Qanon faction is on the move.
We have seen an 80% reduction in Twitter posts from the Qanon faction, undoubtedly influenced by Twitter blocking more than 70,000 accounts associated with the far right conspiracy theory. Conversely, we’ve seen a 1,400% increase in posts from the faction on anonymous web forums like 4chan and 8chan, as well as growth on Facebook and Instagram.
Parler rose, fell, and will likely rise again.
As noted, Parler saw incredible growth post the election and after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Factions we were seeing most active on Parler include Fringe Extremists and QAnon Conspiracy Followers. Then, it went dark.
As of January 18, Parler was back up (although not totally live) and is now leveraging hosting support from Russian-owned tech firm DDoS-Guard, also associated with 8kun and other platforms owned by the Russian government.
Existing niche platforms grow amidst mainstream platform policy changes.
MeWe, an alt-tech social media and social networking service popular among naturopathic activists, including anti-vaxxers, and among American conservatives due to its light approach to content moderation, saw an increase in activity post the election, but the app gained 110,200+ new installs in the U.S. on the weekend Parler was removed from app stores. The app has since been adding over 20,000 new members per hour and claims to have a total of 16 million users.
Gab is an American alt-tech social networking service known for its far-right user base (including some extremists) and its popularity with conservatives. Gab is a haven for extremists including neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right, and it has attracted users and groups who have been banned from other social networks. The site reported seeing more than 10,000 users joining every hour in the days after policy changes began going into effect on Twitter.
Rumble, an online video-themed social media platform favored by conservative users, claims that users will “never be censored for political or scientific content.”
8kun & 4chan are entirely anonymous message boards where users discuss politics, conspiracy theories, entertainment, and gaming. These anonymous users are generally bonded by nihilism, hostility, and trolling, and the boards are often home to some of the darkest misogyny, racism, homophobia, racism, white supremacy, conspiracy theories, and calls for violent action on the internet.
New niche platforms are launching and capitalizing on the moment.
FirstSocial was created on January 9 as a direct result of Parler going offline, and the platform quickly grew to between 50k – 60k active users within just a few days. The platform largely serves as a right-wing echo chamber, with many users expressing support for President Trump and amplifying conspiracy theories about the election.
Online factions need three things to run influence campaigns:
- Develop narratives.
- Amplify those narratives.
- Distribute them to the mainstream.
Spaces like Gab, MeWe, etc provide the necessary tools for these factions’ continued success in spreading propaganda. The spike in usage of messaging platforms like Telegram and Signal will be temporary. Most users are experimenting and will either settle on platforms with a social experience, like Gab, MeWe, or Parler, if it returns, or will migrate back to Twitter and Facebook.
Performative internet warriors are making a lot of noise in public Telegram channels, but these channels are disorganized and chaotic. These users are highly-engaged online and committed to spreading propaganda, but they need an audience to be successful. Over time they’ll follow their audience back to niche or even mainstream social media sites.
How do brands measure potential risk with these platforms? How should they be responding…or not?
Many businesses are wondering whether they should develop a presence on these new and niche platforms? Should they engage when their brand is mentioned…especially when seeing calls for boycotts?
This is currently uncharted territory, but engaging with emerging and upstart niche platforms is likely to cause more harm than good. As mentioned above, these groups need an audience in order to further amplify their narratives, and that audience currently lives on more mainstream social media sites. Engagement with upstart platforms is likely to cause reputation damage, particularly given the degree of racist and extremist content these platforms allow, along with the founders of these platforms using more mainstream sites (like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram) to shame companies that pursue legal action against them. Additionally, before establishing a brand presence on these platforms, it’s important to understand what the platforms represent and whether or not this aligns with your brand values.
Understandably, many brands are grappling with how to determine the risk factors associated with each emerging platform. It’s likely that many of these platforms will be unable to find hosting services or adequate funding to stay live for an extended period of time, and it’s also worth noting that many of their own users are unsure how long the platforms will exist. Those expecting to be banned from Twitter have widely shared their usernames for a plethora of additional platforms, unsure of which will succeed: