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Across The Internet, A Game Of Whac-A-Mole Is Underway To Root Out Extremism

Mar 16, 2021

As big tech companies "deplatform" domestic extremists, the far-right is innovating around this clampdown by embracing and in some instances creating novel technologies, experts say.

Mainstream companies such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter were already policing their services before the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, but they accelerated their efforts following the riot. It has led to an exodus of extremists to new platforms and the growth of "alt-tech," a term used to describe the sort of clone technology created by extremists to get around "deplatforming." The techniques are not particularly sophisticated but show a resourcefulness among those who have been marginalized by the mainstream companies.

Nick Fuentes, one of the most prominent young far-right extremists in America, is a key example of this trend. The 22-year-old has been kicked off multiple sites for livestreaming a pro-Trump podcast that regularly features racist and anti-immigrant screeds. After the livestreaming website Twitch banned him, he moved on to another video streaming platform called D-Live. He was then kicked off that website, despite its reputation as a permissive and loosely policed site.

So, Fuentes developed a new space for himself, a workaround held together by duct tape and alligator clips. Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University, examined the source code and found that he was streaming on YouTube and then secretly running it into his website, to appear as if it was his own platform. But that was eventually blocked as well.

"I think Nick Fuentes, with his youth and his tech savvy, is emblematic of a whole new generation of white supremacists who have sprung up really from the online space," said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism. "We have a whole new generation of extremists that we didn't have before. ...We know there are a lot of young people online in white supremacist networks."

One of those young people Fuentes inspired was Christian Secor, a 22-year-old UCLA student from Costa Mesa, Calif., who was arrested after allegedly entering the Capitol on Jan. 6. Federal prosecutors say Secor followed Fuentes online and founded a far-right student group on campus inspired by him.

Undeterred by the insurrection or from being blocked from several mainstream companies, Fuentes returned on what appeared to be his own homegrown streaming platform with a live chat.

This month, Fuentes nodded to the new tech platform he was using to get around traditional livestreaming providers.

"We're going to survive off of the platforms. ... We're entering a totally new chapter in the movement in this country and on the Internet as a whole," Fuentes said.

The struggle to stay online isn't just about the movement or the messages — it's also about money.

Squire did a deep dive into the money raised by far-right personalities and found that over a nine-month period ending in January, Fuentes raised $113,000 through his online videos. This money was paid to Fuentes during daily streaming sessions on D-Live, she explained. Another far-right personality who goes by the username Baked Alaska and is facing charges in the Capitol riot probe raised close to $20,000 during the same period.

Fuentes was banned from PayPal and then deprived of his fundraising source at D-Live when he was kicked off. But with his new platform he is already raising funds again from donations and selling merchandise.

While deplatforming hasn't completely stopped the flow of extremist content online, it has helped marginalize extremists.

"Deplatforming works excessively well, especially if you consider that one of the main purposes of the alt-right and other far right individuals, while they're on social media, is to attract new members," said Deen Freelon, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill who studies digital media and politics. "So if you remove somebody from a major social networking site where they can recruit people who are already members of the movement, that actually in a significant way reduces their capacity to do that."

But that may not be enough to halt extremists from reaching audiences.

Fuentes and his supporters recently held an in-person conference in Florida. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona was the keynote speaker, bringing what started in the virtual world into real-world networking.

This merging of new tech and old-school techniques to build a movement poses new challenges for those seeking to counter ideas once seen as confined to the dark corners of the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Following the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Big Tech companies accelerated deplatforming. That is the process of permanently removing extremists from their sites. But those extremists are quickly adjusting to this clampdown. NPR investigative correspondent Tim Mak has more on the so-called alt-tech and how young extremists are adapting to this new era. And just a note for our listeners - this story does contain details that some will find offensive.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Alt-tech is a term used to describe the sort of clone technology that is being used by extremists to get around deplatforming. The techniques are not particularly sophisticated but show a resourcefulness among those who have been marginalized by mainstream companies. A prime example of this transition is the story of Nick Fuentes, one of the most prominent young far-right extremists in America today.

HEIDI BEIRICH: I think Nick Fuentes, with his youth and his tech savvy, is emblematic of a whole new generation of white supremacists who have sprung up really from the online space.

MAK: That's Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

BEIRICH: So we have a whole new generation of extremists that we didn't have before, and we know there are a lot of young people online in white supremacist networks. They talk about their age and so on.

MAK: Fuentes livestreams a pro-Trump online show called "America First," and his segments have included racist comments like what you're about to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "AMERICA FIRST")

NICK FUENTES: You know, if Blacks have a grievance against America, I get it. But then go somewhere else. Or better yet, if you have a grievance against America, then why is it offensive when I don't consider you a full American? Why is that hateful?

MAK: His ideas are important to hear because they did help drive some of the actions during the Capitol riots. One of the young people arrested after the events on January 6 had founded a student group at UCLA inspired by Fuentes. Fuentes originally used livestreaming site Twitch, but he was banned from that, so he moved on. After the insurrection, Fuentes was kicked off of DLive, a livestreaming video service that was already considered a very permissive platform. So Fuentes developed a new platform for himself, a novel solution held together by duct tape and alligator clips. Megan Squire is a professor of computer science at Elon University studying online extremism.

MEGAN SQUIRE: Well, I looked at the source code. Long story short, he had rigged up a system where he was secretly streaming on YouTube. So he had this website that looked like it was his. That's why the quality looks so good.

MAK: Fuentes was forced offline for a few days after his jerry-rigged YouTube system was halted. Then he came back online with a solution. Here he is streaming again this month on his own platform.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUENTES: Well, initially, it was a struggle even to get back on a livestream because, you know, to be honest, I've been working on a streaming alternative for about a year.

MAK: And last week, he nodded to how important this new technology is to his survival and his movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUENTES: The sky is falling, right? And we're hanging on for dear life. And we're going to survive off the platforms. We're entering a totally new chapter in the movement and on the Internet as a whole.

MAK: But it's not just about the movement. It's also about the money. DLive was one of the key places where people like Fuentes could raise funds. Squire did a deep dive into fundraising by alt-right personalities and found that over a nine-month period, Fuentes managed to raise $113,000 through daily streaming sessions. A user by the name of Baked Alaska who livestreamed the Capitol attack raised close to $20,000 during the same period.

SQUIRE: It's mostly small donations, but there are megadonors in this community. There are guys that just give thousands and thousands of dollars.

MAK: Fuentes was banned from PayPal, then his source of fundraising at DLive. But with his new platform, he's already raising funds from donations and selling merchandise. So is deplatforming just a hopeless, endless game of whack-a-mole in the broader spread of domestic extremism? Here's Deen Freelon, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill who studies digital media and politics.

DEEN FREELON: Deplatforming works excessively well, especially if you consider that one of the main purposes of the alt-right and other far-right individuals on social media is to attract new members. So if you remove somebody from a major social networking site where they can recruit people, that actually in a significant way reduces their capacity to do that.

MAK: But that may not be enough to fully halt the momentum of extremists like Nick Fuentes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We want Nick. We want Nick.

MAK: Fuentes and his supporters recently held an in-person conference in Florida...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FUENTES: This is a truly special event.

MAK: ...Promoted heavily online, bringing what started in the virtual world into real-world networking. Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar was the keynote speaker. This merging of new tech and old-school techniques to build a movement poses new challenges for all those seeking to counter his ideas.

Tim Mak, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.