While former President Donald Trump’s new social media network, Truth Social, may end up becoming a “Big Failure” rather than the “Big Tent” it set out to be, alternate social media platforms for conservatives are on the rise.
Truth Social is not the first of its kind, but it highlights a disturbing trend. Right-wing communities as well as others are increasingly turning away from mainstream media and to alternative social media and search engines, partially due to influence from celebrities, such as Joe Rogan, promoting them, according to the New York Times.
Alternate social media platforms, meaning social media platforms outside of the mainstream, typically with little to no censorship and favored by American conservatives, such as Gab, Parler and Telegram, have seen an upswing in usage in the year since the January 6 Insurrection.
This is particularly troubling, since sites like Parler helped to enable this event in the first place. By creating echo chambers, or as Arizona State University Professor Candace Rondeaux and Ben Dalton, an open-source fellow in New America’s Future Frontlines program, call them, “hothouses,” these platforms enable users to discuss and share fringe (and potentially dangerous) political ideas. This encourages them to only become more intense as they spur each other on and remain free of moderation from “Big Tech,” who these users feel serves the American political left, not the right-wing.
For example, on a recent episode of Rogan’s podcast, he promoted the use of DuckDuckGo when he encouraged his listeners to use it to find out information about deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine and “vaccine-related injuries,” which he claimed he could not find on Google. But encouraging listeners to find facts outside of the mainstream is not unique to Rogan. Other influential conservative podcasters, such as Ben Shapiro, have even claimed that Google is “actively suppressing” results that do not conform to a leftist agenda.
Countless alternate social media platforms have popped up online in the past several years, serving various functions. From Twitter clones like Truth Social, to chat rooms like Telegram to search engines like DuckDuckGo, those on the fringes and the right who want to can access an entirely different internet, with entirely different information, than those on the mainstream and the left do.
For example, when you look up information about “Plandemic,” a viral conspiracy theory that promotes COVID-19 misinformation, or a doctor often cited due to her COVID skepticism, Dr. Judy Mikovits, on Bing or DuckDuckGo, an average of eight results out of the first ten results on those engines directly promote mis or disinformation, such as the first result being a link to Mikovits’s website. Search engines like DuckDuckGo promote conspiracy theories by making some of the top search results websites that advance those theories instead of disavowing them. This is unlike sites such as Google, which mostly has different results. Google has one result out of the first ten that promote the “Plandemic” theory, with the first result being a link to Science.com, which directly debunks it. This, to conspiracy theorists, is unacceptable, and so to DuckDuckGo they go.
So what are the options? To let dangerous people back into the mainstream without shame or to shove them into dark corners of the web where they only enable and encourage each other?
The key to the solution has to lie with mainstream search engines and hosts, such as Bing, which hosts DuckDuckGo. They must be more responsible and accountable by more strictly monitoring the content on alternate social media sites and search engines that can create their own algorithms using their tools.
It’s easy to blame mainstream social media websites and others, and some of the blame definitely does lie with them, and not doing enough before the January 6 Insurrection to put a stop to dangerous ideals and the zealous communities that have formed around them.
Google, Amazon and Apple all could have taken action such as banning Parler from having a spot in their app stores long before an insurrection was attempted and people lost their lives. When Rogan and Spotify had a controversy about Rogan’s place on the platform earlier this year, Spotify should have followed through with removing him and moderating the content on their site. It is not Spotify’s responsibility to give him a soapbox. Without access to such a mainstream platform, Rogan will still have listeners, but it will be harder for him to reach those who are not already fans. There’s no changing the past, but these companies must be better in the future.
By putting continual pressure on the above, but also by applying pressure to websites like Bing, which hosts these alternate search engines and provides them with the tools to build their algorithms and websites, while remaining generally unscathed in the eyes of the public, the conversation and situation can hopefully begin to change before more events like the January 6 Insurrection happen in the future. The damage is already done. When you have massive celebrities such as Rogan promoting the use of DuckDuckGo, they cannot just disappear overnight. Tech companies must practice heavy moderation, as well as put pressure on and continually disavow and sever ties with influencers promoting misinformation.
These platforms already exist, and the past can’t be rewritten. The internet of the left and the internet of the right are already here, and we have to work with what we have.
Thank you so much for this informative and relevant article. I liked your proposal that the solution to fighting misinformation and online group hyperpolarization significantly relies on the hosts and controllers of social media and search engines regulating the content shared on their platforms. I would further like to add a few points concerning the influence of the internet on partisan polarization, and its use for spreading misinformation, particularly focusing on propaganda, conspiracies, and misinformation.
Because voters make their decisions based on the knowledge of the aspiring candidates, the type of information they receive is very cardinal. That’s what makes framing, rhetoric, and news very important aspects when talking about democratic politics. Furthermore, as Robert Dahl explains, democracy relies on citizens airing out their preferences and having a free platform to share them. The internet and social media have enhanced our ability to communicate and share information quickly and conveniently. Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect that Social media and the internet positively promote democratic debate and discussion. However, as highlighted in your blog, the internet has also become a growing threat to democracy. Particularly, the group polarization it causes as well as the speed and reach with which misinformation can spread.
The internet, to a large extent, has contributed to the current hyperpolarization. When citizens with similar opinions on political, cultural, or economic issues group up on social media group chats or pages, their opinions are reinforced and radicalized. Hyperpolarization also gives way to ingroup vs outgroup, ‘us’ vs ‘them’ context, which could lead up to a status threat and create a favorable environment for a populist leader to rise. The echo chambers formed on social media breed people’s bias to receive information that they agree with – confirmation bias. Cognitive biases – limitations in our rational reasoning – and heuristics – mental shortcuts in our judgment – like the Status quo bias( the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude) and Bandwagon effect( taking the side of the majority) respectively, affect our perception of information. Because of the difficulty, and time resources of rational and analytical thinking, people often fall prey to these cognitive biases and heuristics. These also spill over to influencing people’s belief in misinformation, fake news, and conspiracy theories.
Since the 2016 election, the internet has been used as a tool for misinformation and fake news. Websites and Social media platforms have been flooded with hate speech and inaccurate stories about political aspirants in an attempt to delegitimize them. This threatens the democratic norm of mutual tolerance – the idea that as long as our rivals play by constitutional rules, we accept that they have an equal right to exist, compete for power, and govern – as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt discuss in their book How democracies die. This sort of cancel culture has been seen across both political actors in the United States, as you indicated, but is more common among the Republican party. For instance, Pro-trump websites, and Facebook group chats spread conspiracy theories that Hillary Clinton was involved in child sex trafficking ( Pizzagate Conspiracy). In 2020, these websites and pages spread rumors that the 2020 election was stolen. Amongst the democratic camp, theories of Donald Trump’s dealings with Vladimir Putin were also shared. The propagators of this fake news and misinformation do so with intentions of either making profit – by attracting crowds to their websites – or discrediting the opposition, Nathaniel Pesily notes.
The spread of conspiracy theories has also been championed by the internet. Conspiracy theories – attempts to explain the ultimate causes of significant social and political events and circumstances with claims of secret plots by two or more powerful actors – have become effective tools in influencing people’s political perceptions. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones took advantage of the internet and established his website INFO WARS, where he shares his conspiracy theories. From the website he has been able to make a profit and was instrumental in the 2016 elections, spreading anti-democratic party conspiracies, with a vast majority of his audience being white conservatives. The shifted focus of conspiracy theories to cultural and environmental issues has boosted their acceptance and popularity, especially in the post-materialistic society we now live in.
In times of uncertainty, feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, or unexplainable tragedies coupled with low levels of analytical thinking, people are vulnerable to listening to any information that makes them aware and guarantees them safety. As such, the presence of narcissistic people, people that perceive they have a high level of knowledge and understanding or people that like to see casual relationships in things tend to make up conspiracy theories either for self-glory/benefit, or hidden political agendas. In some cases when the government is not transparent and does things in secrecy, people are more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Cognitive biases and menstrual heuristics are also factors that lead people to accept conspiracy theories and misinformation. In addition, conspiracy theories belong to a monological set of beliefs, which means they are often supported by other conspiracies, and belief in one, may lead to belief in others.
The internet, conspiracy theories, fake news, and misinformation have become part of the fabric of our lives – they are here to stay. We need to find sound ways to adapt to it, while still upholding principles and norms for democracy. Apart from the responsibility of the regulation of shared information by hosts of social media and search engines, fake news and misinformation can be spotted, and conspiracy theories avoided by the following:
The government being transparent and accountable in all its dealings.
Being aware of the different cognitive biases and mental heuristics that affect how we perceive information.
Investigating the source of new articles, comparing them with other reliable sources, and questioning the author’s bias and motives.
Being rational and critical in our thinking process, whenever we come across information.
By making the pursuit of accurate, correct information their own, citizens can be alert enough to avoid being misled. Distinguishing misinformation and correct information enables citizens to have the correct facts on which to base their political decisions and promote sound political debate. The government must provide a robust civic education of democratic principles that will awaken the will of citizens to defend them, and develop a sense of belonging to a society in which the essential preferences of everyone are rightly respected.
Douglas, K. M., Uscinski, J. E., Sutton, R. M., Cichocka, A., Nefes, T., Ang, C. S., & Deravi, F. (2019). Understanding conspiracy theories. Political Psychology, 40(Suppl 1), 3–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12568
Levitsky, Steven,, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. First edition. New York: Crown, 2018. Print.
Dahl, Robert A. On Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.
Persily, Nathaniel. “The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet?” Journal of Democracy, vol. 28 no. 2, 2017, p. 63-76. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0025.