Since the deadly riots at the US Capitol on 6 January, social media platforms associated with the ‘Alt-Tech’ or ‘alternative technology movement’ have experienced an unprecedented influx of users. While some Alt-Tech platforms such as Parler were quickly taken offline, others like Gab have remained open, welcoming users banned from Twitter in the wake of the permanent suspension of Donald Trump and crackdowns on QAnon communities.
Prior to the events of 6 January, the Alt-Tech – both a right-libertarian tech movement and the platforms it has developed – was a somewhat obscure phenomena at the fringes of the web. Often plagued by technical difficulties and separated from the larger online community, the Alt-Tech built their business model around social media users who were banned from larger platforms like Facebook or Twitter. They court “users who are conservative, liberal, libertarian, nationalist and populist […] who are seeking alternative news media platforms like Breitbart.com, DrudgeReport.com, Infowars.com.”
The Alt-Tech appeals to these users, as their platforms tend to have close to no content moderation, with restrictions on posting generally limited to baring child abuse material, threats of violence, or the doxing of other users. As such, the Alt-Tech has become increasingly popular among the far-right and conspiracy communities like QAnon, with some scholars going as far as to call it a digital support infrastructure for the far-right.
The Potential Threat – Gab as a Space for Temporarily Embarrassed Revolutionaries
Prior to the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, fears of violent riots planned online at and around the event ran high. A platform that provides a space for users banned after the 6 January riots to gather and discuss could potentially be dangerous. As the BBC reported, Gab was used to distribute a flyer calling for armed rallies before the inauguration of Joe Biden. Yet, an open social network like Gab or Twitter “cannot replace the sense of authenticity and exclusivity created by […] forums”– at least not in the publicly accessible spaces we examined. In the largest groups on Gab, users seemed to be trying to steer clear of calls to action.
We analysed the top posts in popular pro-Trump and QAnon Gab groups. Many of these have grown rapidly following the Capitol riots, some now with more than 200,000 members. What we found is that the users overwhelmingly rejected and cautioned against taking action before or during the inauguration on 20 January. For this, the users offered a range of – sometimes interconnected – arguments.
One claim was that the riots on 6 January were a ‘false-flag’ by left-wing groups, namely antifa (short for anti-fascist activists), in order to make Trump and his supporters look bad. The false flag narrative fed into baseless claims of a ‘stolen election’ being peddled by the US President. It also allowed subscribers to avoid coming to terms with the failures of their movement, and avoid responsibility for (the failure of) their actions on 6 January, such as the death of a Capitol Police officer from injuries sustained during the riot.
Following this line of argument, highly rated posts in different groups warned against attending rallies between 16-20 January. While these warnings were posted by different users who used pictures with different layouts, the text was broadly identical:
“ATTENTION! There are NO CONSERVATIVE GROUPS hosting armed rallies at ANY capitol in ANY state or the U.S. Capitol from January 16-20th. These are false flags created by the paid actors of those trying to destroy us. DO NOT ATTEND THEM! THIS IS A SET UP!”
Another argument that QAnon followers offered for inaction was met with cheerfulness and anticipation: Many posts assumed that the inauguration would be the day of the mass arrests of democratic politicians, eagerly awaited by QAnon followers. Posters pointed to the large National Guard presence at the Capitol as supposed evidence for this theory. Another user linked to 4chans /pol/-board and posted pictures of the fence and barbed wire around the Capitol. According to the 4chan post, the barbed wire and the location of the bolts holding the fence together, suggested that it was used to lock people in, rather than locking people out. The increased security at the Capitol, rather than a response to the events of 6 January, was for many Q followers a sign of the impending arrest and internment of the president elect and members of congress, whom they believe are part of a paedophile cabal. Thus, as their logic goes, patriots need not get involved but should instead let the army do their work, as is pointed out repeatedly.
Aside from ideologically grounded arguments, other factors, too, might play a role in the apparent lack of mobilisation on Gab.
The Banal Reality – Gab is at the Limit of its Capacity
For one, the platform itself seems overwhelmed with the increase in users and is suffering significant issues in terms of accessibility and loading speeds. As one user noted: “I can’t get a God damn profile pic to save on this app.”
In addition to issues with Gab’s accessibility, the platform has a spam problem. Numerous users have complained about very active spam bots impersonating conservative politicians and members of the Trump family in order to market collectable coins with President Trump’s face on them.
Lastly, Gab users are acutely aware that they are being monitored. Some even warn about this explicitly in their posts. And even if the possibility of surveillance is not spelled-out, the numerous media stories about rioters on 6 January doxing themselves by stating their names, filming themselves or uploading videos to their social media accounts might have acted as a cautionary tale for Gab users. Even those who were be prone to violence might have become hesitant to coordinate and plan in openly accessible groups, choosing instead to do so on other closed platforms and channels.
Jordan McSwiney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research focuses on the far-right, with an interest in their ideology, organising practices, and use of technology. Jordan’s research has been published in Information, Communication & Society and Journal of Australian Political Economy.
Greta Jasser is a research associate at University of Hildesheim, and PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany. She researches far-right and misogynist online networks, with an interest in technology, platforms, affordances and ideologies.
Dominik Hammer is a PhD student at the Technische Universität Dresden. He researches eugenics and constitutional courts, as well as antidemocratic thought and conspiracy theories.