The storming of the US Capitol on January 6 shocked the nation and laid bare the dangerous consequences that online radicalization poses to American democracy. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in his Senate confirmation hearing on February 22, declared that domestic terrorism would be his “first priority.” But the implications of the Capitol riot will be felt well beyond the Justice Department and the halls of Congress. Corporate America is also coming to grips with the gravity of potential threats emanating from obscure corners of the Internet, which can carry substantial risks to their operations and reputation.
Mainstream social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, have gradually instituted policies to clamp down on violent and hate speech. This process accelerated following the January 6 attack as lawmakers, journalists, and the general public scrutinized websites that facilitated the planning, coordination, and livestreaming of the incursion. Twitter and Facebook banned, or “de-platformed,” President Donald Trump. Twitter and Facebook also removed large swaths of users, with Twitter reportedly suspending more than seventy thousand accounts. Both companies increased their monitoring of far-right hashtags and groups on their platforms. Google and Apple swiftly banned Parler—a social media site popular with far-right extremists—from their app stores, and Amazon cut off hosting infrastructure to it.
However, monitoring and, where necessary, de-platforming this type of speech can create unintended consequences. As advocates of violent extremism of all types are pushed out of mainstream digital platforms, they often move to more marginal applications and websites that have emerged to fill the void. This presents a challenge for companies that want to make sure their employees, counterparties, brand ambassadors, and even clients aren’t tainted by links to online extremist communities.
Recent news investigations have reported on the migration of extremist users to platforms like Gab, Parler, and MeWe, which tend to mimic Facebook and Twitter. Violent and racist chatter has also ballooned in the messaging apps Telegram and Signal, which are particularly opaque in their use of encrypted messaging and private messaging boards. Research firm App Annie reported that Telegram jumped from 110th to fifth in a list of most downloaded apps in the wake of the Capitol riot and Trump’s de-platforming. MeWe—which was not even listed in the top 1,000—moved to twelfth. Signal jumped from 750th to first.
Monitoring these new, less centralized platforms can be like a game of whack-a-mole. Websites crop up and then go dark, only to emerge on a different webhosting service. Parler has reemerged and is now hosted by another webservices company. The website TheDonald.win, which was used to plan the January 6 insurrection, was temporarily shut down before rebranding as Patriots.win.
Extremists also meet on the Dark Web, which is loosely defined as a collection of websites that are not indexed by search engines and are anonymous for its users. This part of the internet is most notoriously known as a marketplace for illicit goods, such as stolen information, black market drug sales, and child pornography.
The Implications for Your Organization
The new social media landscape has serious implications for organizations seeking visibility into extremist behavior that could threaten their business, people, and reputations. Locating and deciphering potential danger signs lurking on obscure social media platforms is now a critical element of risk management. With experienced and agile investigative support, you can spot these hazards before they taint your organization. We detail four scenarios below:
A Trained Eye to Help You Navigate This New Environment
Understanding the reach of this new social media environment may seem daunting, but an experienced and sophisticated investigative team can help navigate it and mitigate your risk. The key to many modern investigative techniques is combining the use of sophisticated database tools with experienced human analysis. It is no different with the rapidly changing social media landscape.
Social media analysis tools are slowly beginning to incorporate these new platforms into their search capabilities but are usually one step behind the curve. Many of these platforms are also purposefully constructed to limit the effectiveness of keyword searches in order to preserve anonymity and limit external monitoring. Here is how a well-trained human eye can play a decisive role:
Social media is changing, and not necessarily for the better. Rather than be caught off guard, firms should seek to get ahead of the next news cycle by taking steps to identify the hidden risks of an increasingly opaque and dangerous digital landscape.