Despite a crackdown on social media content that calls for violence, posts about conspiracy theories continue to proliferate on both fringe alt-right sites and mainstream platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
A report from the non-partisan nonprofit Advance Democracy found that four of the five most popular tweets about the inauguration between January 15 and 18 promoted conspiracies about COVID-19 and/or the election. The organization conducts public-interest research and investigations.
"As these false claims spread unchecked, it provides the fuel for other potential violence across the nation," said Advance Democracy President Daniel J. Jones.
Snap, Twitter, Facebook and other sites took down President Donald Trump's accounts in the days after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. Twitter alone shut down 70,000 QAnon-related profiles on Jan. 11 and companies including TikTok and YouTube introduced new restrictions on content. Parler, the social network where many Trump backers gathered, was removed from the Apple App Store, the Google Play Store and Amazon Web Services, where the site was hosted. It has partially returned reportedly with the help of a Russian-backed internet service provider.
But conspiracies related to QAnon are still building across mainstream platforms, several of which say that President Trump will begin a second term this week following a string of arrests. And many of these conversations are also going on in fringe platforms like GreatAwakening.win, TheDonald.win and 8kun.
"Trump isn't going anywhere," states a top post on GreatAwakening.win, a sister site of TheDonald dedicated to QAnon.
Jones wants legislatures and platforms to do more to stem the spread of disinformation. But the attack at the Capitol has highlighted the difficulty officials will have drawing a line between speech that incites violence and muzzling political expression. While social media sites have been more aggressive, it's not something they can easily stamp out.
Far-right conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec's Twitter account saw the most engagement among users posting about Wednesday's inauguration, Advance Democracy said.
"They are instituting thought vetting for the troops guarding inauguration to make sure they aren't conservative," a tweet on Jan. 17 read. "This isn't about national security. Understand where it's all going."
Advance Democracy's report finds that Posobiec's posts about the inauguration "are consistently conspiratorial in nature."
Skeptics of the content moderation crackdowns following Jan. 6 said the statements and company policies came too late. Conspiracy theorists have been gathering online for years, culminating in a siege that reflected planning on platforms that did little to moderate them. It also speaks to looming problems for these sites about the growth of misinformation and their role in allowing it.
Karen North, a USC Annenberg professor of digital and social media, said that private companies maintain a legal right to make their own decisions over censoring and content moderation through Section 230. They might make decisions because of political pressure or to maintain "the kind of community they want to foster and cultivate."
Talking or posting about conspiracy theories is not illegal, North said. But it's important to watch these conversations online.
"Social media often has the opportunity for the authorities at least to keep an eye on the discussion and make sure that it doesn't go astray," she said.
Meanwhile, social media platforms are preparing to take down content on Inauguration Day. Snap has created a committee to conduct "regular proactive sweeps" of its platform and TikTok has updated community regulations around Biden's swearing-in.
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The popular podcast mobile app Breaker will get a second life in Los Angeles.
Three-year-old Maple Media will use Breaker - the 10th most-downloaded podcast app on iOS in 2020 - to help amplify its podcasting presence.
Breaker is a podcasting platform that hosts over 700,000 shows. It competes with the likes of Apple Podcasts, and aims to help users discover podcasts based on what their friends like.
Earlier this month, Breaker appeared to be shutting down when Twitter absorbed its employees. But, the company formerly based in San Francisco was resuscitated over the weekend after a 72-hour negotiation session. In the end, Breaker agreed to sell its website, technology and social media handles to Maple Media for an undisclosed amount.
Backed by private equity firm Shamrock Capital, Maple Media owns a portfolio of more than 150 mobile applications that reach over 40 million users monthly, according to the company.
When Breaker's CEO Erik Berlin and CTO Leah Culver "decided to join Twitter to help build out a new product for them, it was a natural fit for Erik to turn to us. What was most important to him, his team and investors was to see Breaker thrive," said Maple Media CEO Michael Ritter.
The deal came together over the weekend, Ritter said.
With podcasts growing ever more crowded, Maple believes it can help solve "the discovery challenge in podcasting: creators want to find an audience, and audiences are seeking out new shows." To do so, in the coming weeks it will launch a program to allow creators and brands to promote podcasts across its podcast apps Breaker, Player FM, Podkicker and its social media platform We Heart It.
The podcast industry brought in about $1.3 billion in 2020, according to research firm Omdia. Although that figure is less than what one blockbuster film can make, the space has attracted significant investment of late, driven largely by expectations of growth. Omdia forecasts industry ad revenue could triple by 2025 and that listenership could grow to two billion, up from about 800 million listeners in 2019.
Spotify, Apple and Amazon have all been ramping up their podcasting footprint. In December, Amazon acquired L.A.-based podcast studio Wondery for a reported sum of over $300 million.
Launched in 2017, Maple Media's business model is to acquire apps with a loyal following, then grow that user base and improve the app's monetization, said Ritter.
Operating them collectively is cheaper and allows the company to cross-promote their apps.
For instance, Maple plans to add podcasts onto We Heart It, which it says "many popular podcaster creators" use to promote their shows.
The company's portfolio includes two other podcasting apps, Player FM and Podkicker, which combined reach millions of monthly users, Ritter said. Player FM is the sixth most-downloaded podcasting app worldwide, he added.
Outside of podcasting, some of its popular apps include SwiftScan, WeekCal, Pic Stitch and Weather Hi-Def Radar.
The images of a mob of Trump supporters invading the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon played out on live television and in Twitter feeds, but the moment had been building for years.
"Trump's most loyal base, which includes those affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory and white supremacists, have long been successful at translating online chatter to real-life action," said Daniel J. Jones, president of the Advance Democracy, a non-partisan nonprofit conducting public-interest research and investigations.
The group released a report on Wednesday that found over half of all QAnon-related Twitter accounts wrote about Jan. 6 leading up to the siege. And that ahead of storming the building, supporters called for violence on Twitter, Parler, TikTok and TheDonald, an online forum frequented by the far right.
"I think we will continue to see this on Parler and Gab and user-generated forms like theDonald.win," Jones said. "I suspect we will also see more coded language for violence to avoid the censors."
In reaction, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snap and Twitch have all banned Trump in some form. But, as mainstream social media companies have cracked down on Trump's false rhetoric, a slew of others have popped up that accommodate the speech, places like Parler, a libertarian-leaning social site created in 2018, run by John Matze and backed by conservative donor Rebekah Mercer.
Several recent Parler posts leading up to the storming of the capitol referenced war, some stating, "the war begins today." On the internet forum TheDonald.win, more than 80% of the top posts on January 6 featured "unmoderated calls for violence in the top five responses," according to the report.
Even on TikTok, the video-sharing platform that too has become a home for political discourse, four widely-shared posts called for violence or rebellion during the protests.
There's been a shift away from mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook to alt-right platforms as stronger moderation policies have been implemented, said Zachary Steinert-Threlkeld, an assistant professor of public policy at UCLA who studies how social networks affect an individual's decision to protest.
Over the last two years especially, supporters have turned to far-right online platforms for "tactical coordination," he said.
"We have real-time communication about how to protest," he said. "In what I've researched on the Arab Spring, this is quite common behavior. This occurred in Iran, in 2009, for example."
Steinert-Threlkeld said many supporters are also probably having private conversations in closed and private groups on Facebook, for instance, or through encrypted messaging platforms.
Ángel Díaz, who focuses on liberty and national security at the Brennan Center for Justice, said it can be hard now to draw the line between conversations about violence online and actual violence. "We're not in that territory anymore," he said.
The move by some social media companies to block Trump came too late.
"For months the president has been using social media to incite real-world harms," Díaz said. "He encouraged violence towards Black Lives Matter protesters over the summer. He encourages supporters to defy lockdown orders. He encourages supporters to harass election officials."
"I think a lot of how the platforms will react going forward is going to continue to be shaped by a combination of what the public outcry is and what the political pressure is," he said.