"Free speech" networks and anti-semitism
JP Morgan cancelled Kanye West’s bank accounts following his anti-semitic remarks today.
Over the last few years, a raft of “free speech” social networks have emerged as an alternative to the content policies enacted by companies like Twitter. They take very public anti “cancel culture” stances. But what does that really mean?
Using observer accounts, I took a peek at each of the main ones to see how this particular piece of news went down. Here I will issue a content warning: posts on these sites, including those run by mainstream political operators, are extremely disturbing.
Truth Social is owned by the Trump Media and Technology Group, which in turn is chaired by former President Donald Trump. There, an account with over 50,000 followers (10% of its Daily Active Users) states:
Truth Social has around 2 million users.
Gab was founded in 2016 as the first right-wing alternative social network. The founder (who has 3.7 million followers) writes:
In response to a post that asks "who runs JP Morgan Chase?" hundreds of users respond with some variation of "the Jews".
Gab has around 4 million users.
Minds was founded in 2011 and originally built on top of Elgg, the open source social networking framework I co-founded. While it was originally created as an alternative to surveillance capitalism, its anti-banning stance caused it to provide a home to white supremacists banned from mainstream networks in the wake of the January 6 insurrection. (Indeed, Trump had invited its founders to the White House alongside the founders of the networks listed above in 2019.)
Over there, a popular post states:
Minds has over two million users.
GETTR is another conservative Twitter clone, this time founded by a former Trump aide. Here the anti-semitism is less overt, although a few comments from fringe accounts did talk about “the satanic Jews”, which was a trope on the other networks.
GETTR also has around 4 million users.
Parler, which also emerged during the Trump era, is hopelessly unusable. I couldn’t figure out how to search for content on it, when it even managed to log me in.
Parler claims to have a million users, but I don't know how.
It’s not a partisan statement to say that I find these comments to be utterly chilling both in terms of their content and their effective endorsement by large-scale backers that include the former President of the United States.
I’m also deeply unhappy with how my open source code was used to build Minds. I don’t believe its founders to be anti-semites, but I do think that tolerance of this kind of hatred is not anything approaching the virtue that they think it is. While these sorts of hateful ideas can certainly be countered by better ones, it’s also certainly true that alternative social networking sites have been used to plan undemocratic insurrections and hate crimes that led to real harm.
Mainstream social networks, particularly Facebook, are not off the hook here: banning anti-semitism does not absolve you of complicity in genocide elsewhere. Twitter also has its fair share of discoverable posts that espouse anti-semitic tropes. But these other networks are remarkable for their concentration: whereas these ideas are a tiny fringe on Facebook and Twitter, they’re how these other networks support themselves. You go to an alt network because you’ve been banned - or you’re worried you will be banned - from a traditional one. This concentration of extremists is why much of the insurrection was able to be openly organized on networks like Gab.
The Southern Poverty Law Center noted as such in its The Year in Hate & Extremism Report 2021:
Hate groups and other extremists do not solely rely on mainstream social media platforms to spread their message — they are increasingly using “alt-tech” platforms that are often advertised as “free speech” alternatives to places like Twitter and Facebook. On these platforms, users don’t have to worry about content moderation. These include video platforms like Bitchute and Odysee and social media sites like Gab.
And there does seem to be a growing, violent movement lurking here. Incidents of antisemitism in America hit an all-time high in 2021. I’m certain that this is in no small part because overtly racist town squares have become easier than ever to be a part of. These networks have millions of users, are growing, encourage real hate crime, and have ringing endorsements from people who have held the highest office in the land. We overlook them as sideshows at our peril.