The rise of far right ‘Alt-Tech’

As deplatforming has increased, far-right activists have moved across to alternative social media platforms. Should we be worried? Possibly, says Joe Mulhall. In October 2021,…

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Chapter : The rise of far right ‘Alt-Tech’

As deplatforming has increased, far-right activists have moved across to alternative social media platforms. Should we be worried? Possibly, says Joe Mulhall.

In October 2021, the former chief spokesman for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, Jason Miller, travelled to Europe for a meeting. At lunchtime on Tuesday 21 October, at the Spreegold restaurant in Berlin, he was joined by several other figures.

These included Lutz Bachmann and Siegfried Daebritz from the German anti-Muslim group PEGIDA, well-known anti-Muslim agitator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson) from the UK and Matthew Tyrmand of the US-based far-right activist group, Project Veritas. They met, according to the far-right website Gateway Pundit, to plan the “defence of the West”.

Left to Right: Lutz Bachman, Jason Miller, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, Siegfried Daebritz and Matthew Tyrmand

Jason Miller had travelled across the Atlantic to encourage some of the best known far-right extremists in Europe to join his new social media platform, GETTR. A few weeks later Matthew Tyrmand, his international co-ordinator, described the purpose of GETTR as a “right platform for ideas to proliferate and to win in the battle of ideas and help save western civilisation”.

Before the meeting had even ended, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon made a video encouraging his supporters to join the new social media app: “I’ve asked lots of questions today to know that it is going to be a free speech platform that we can all use, so watch this space.”

In another message on his Telegram channel, he said: “I’m loving this platform. No censorship, seamless, and big things coming down the road. The future is brighter at Gettr. A real alternative to the censorious far left echo chamber known as Twitter.”

By 22 December Yaxley-Lennon had accrued 50,000 followers on the new platform, rising to 100,000 by 4 January, 150,000 by 14 January and by February this year he had reached over 180,000 followers. This was in addition to his 155,000 followers on Telegram and 28,000 subscribers on the video sharing platform BitChute. In one GETTR livestream he excitedly said: “Just watch the numbers continue to rise on the alternative platforms, we’re getting our voice back.”

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While significantly less than the one million followers he had on Facebook back in 2019, Lennon’s rapid growth on alternative social media platforms begs the question whether so-called ‘alt-tech’ has finally become a genuinely viable option for the deplatformed far right?

What is Alt-Tech?

In recent years far-right activists and movements have been faced with an increasingly important problem: namely, being hugely dependent on internet platforms while not being in control of them. For most of the postwar period far-right activists were actively marginalised from mainstream discourse, making it difficult for extremists to reach large audiences.

For this reason, the far right were enthusiastic early adopters of the internet, quickly seeing it as an opportunity to disseminate their ideas while bypassing the gatekeepers of the mainstream media. The subsequent advent of social media afforded them previously unimaginable opportunities: not just the dissemination of information to huge new audiences, but also providing a means by which to network within a movement and across ideological and national boundaries.

However, following numerous waves of deplatforming and increasingly effective content moderation practices on the more mainstream social platforms, far-right activists once again found themselves being marginalised from public debate.

What are these new platforms?

With this increasing marginalisation, far right figures began to migrate to alternative and usually smaller platforms, but still eventually finding themselves removed or falling into obscurity. The solution appeared obvious, if not simple: they needed to create their own alternative technologies that they used and also controlled.

The result is that there are now broadly three categories of social media platforms used by the far right.

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The first are mainstream platforms: those that are widely used by all across society, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube and TikTok. While these platforms all have an extremism problem, they generally have terms and policies that prohibit extreme and discriminatory behaviour, even if they don’t always enact them as consistently as necessary. Where possible the far right want to remain on these platforms, as they afford huge audiences beyond existing supporter bases. This is where they want to propagandise and recruit.

Next are co-opted platforms: those not created for or by the far right, but which have become widely used by them, either because of loose policies, a lack of moderation, or a libertarian attitude towards deplatforming and content removal. Most notable is Telegram, which is an enormous social media app with over one billion downloads globally. Due to its consistent failure to remove extremist activity, it has become a crucial hub for the contemporary far right. The danger for the far right with these platforms is that they may eventually choose to clean up their act and remove illegal or harmful content, making them insecure homes in the long term.

The final category is bespoke platforms: a growing group of platforms, created by the far right or by people consciously courting extremists. Many of these are essentially clones of major platforms, but featuring little or no moderation. The best known are Gab, BitChute and most recently, GETTR.

For some on the far right, particularly those who have been widely deplatformed, alt-tech platforms are replacements, as close to a straight swap as they can manage. Gab and GETTR replace their deleted Twitter accounts, while BitChute or Rumble replace their lost YouTube channels.

However, for many of these people, alt-tech is supplementary. They use an array of platforms simultaneously and for different purposes. Take the fascist group Patriotic Alternative (PA), for example. Before a recent set of bans, they used Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to propagandise and recruit, while simultaneously employing Telegram, BitChute and DLive for organising or presenting more extreme content. The group used a range of platforms simultaneously and for different purposes, with activists consciously adopting a different tone for each.

Patriotic Alternative and Free Speech – HOPE not hate
Leader of PA Mark Collett with Deputy Leader Laura Towler (real name Laura Melia, née Tyrie)

The problem with Alt-Tech

While not new (the far-right Reddit alternative Voat was launched back in 2014), the creation of alt-tech and bespoke far-right platforms has not, generally, been successful. Most have had short lifespans and soon collapsed, or lapsed into semi-dormancy. Even the ones that have survived have suffered from far-right ghettoisation.

Part of the appeal of social media for the far right was the ability it afforded them to attack victims, as well as troll “normies”, plus propagandise and recruit new activists. While their own platforms provide a safe-haven of sorts, the possibility of unmoderated speech is not enough of a reason, in itself, to continue to engage.

Other issues are more practical in nature, reflecting the quality of the platforms themselves. The polish of mainstream services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has ultimately made the general user picky and impatient when it comes to competing platforms; the user experience on alt-platforms is noticeably worse than mainstream alternatives.

There is also the issue that even so-called ‘free speech platforms’ invariably have to remove some illegal speech. While many often don’t, the ones that are looking to attract larger and (somewhat) more mainstream audiences will begin to do so, at which point their core users may begin to feel betrayed.

All of this is compounded by the issue that a well-constructed platform is of no use if the domain name is seized or its hosting is shut down. That’s why a question remains: who controls the infrastructure services on which the modern web relies? That still remains a hurdle for the many in the extreme right.

A viable option?

However, while many of these issues remain a problem, the last few years have seen the emergence of a far more viable alternative online space for far-right activists. Whether it is video sharing platforms such as BitChute or Odysee, or Twitter clones like Gab or GETTR, the quality, reliability and user experience has increased dramatically.

Prominent figures such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who already possess an international following, have managed to build up significant followings on these alternative platforms. Yaxley-Lennon regularly livestreams on GETTR to thousands of people all over the world, something not possible since being deplatformed by Twitter in 2018.

Thankfully most other UK far-right groups and individuals have continued to struggle to build large audiences on alternative platforms, especially the thuggish anti-Muslim group Britain First, which once had more than two million likes on Facebook but now have under 2,000 followers on GETTR.

While debates continue to rage about the efficacy of deplatforming, it is still the case that the far right will reach far fewer people on alt-tech platforms than they did on major social media outlets. However, over the last few years, the alt-tech online space has developed rapidly and is becoming an increasingly viable alternative – something that should worry us all.


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