The popularity of encrypted messaging and “free speech” apps has soared following the deadly violence at the US Capitol and mainstream social media platforms’ purge of Donald Trump and his prominent followers.
- Trump supporters used social media apps like Parler to plan the Capitol violence
- After Parler was banned, right-wing conservatives rushed to “alternative” social media apps
- Increase use of encrypted messaging apps could make it harder for police to track suspects
The one-term US President has lost even more influence lately, with Twitter permanently suspending his account, Facebook indefinitely banning him, and a whole host of media companies following suit with varying levels of restrictions.
ABC News has obtained data which reveals the number of people installing messaging apps (Signal and Telegram) and privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo have skyrocketed in the past fortnight.
But it is little-known apps such as MeWe, Rumble, CloutHub and Gab that have experienced some of the strongest growth.
“President Trump has built up an enormous following on Twitter, and many joined the platform for the purpose of following him,” Elliott Brennan, a research associate at the United States Study Centre in Sydney, said.
“Now people who have built social networks centres around Trump are looking for a new home.”
Trump supporters find ‘new home’
Outrage about what some say is the “censoring” of conservative voices has been a major factor in the move to new platforms, especially since the major tech giants banned Parler, an app popular with far-right extremists, in the wake of the Capitol riot.
Parler describes itself as an “unbiased” place where you can “speak freely and express yourself openly without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views”.
In the weeks, days and hours before the Capitol siege, Mr Trump’s die-hard supporters used Parler to vent their anger about the “stolen” election and widespread “voter fraud” the President has made unsubstantiated claims about.
They openly discussed plans to commit violence on January 6, the day US Congress would formally confirm president-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
On that day, there were just under 21,000 downloads of Parler from the Apple and Google app stores.
That number had surged above 129,000 (a six-fold increase) after three days.
On the fourth day, that figure plunged to zero after Apple and Google blocked the divisive platform from being downloaded on their stores, and Amazon refused to host its content any longer.
Parler reported to have more than 12 million members on its platform, who had effectively and suddenly lost their voice.
Many of these users refused to be “silenced”, and quickly found new platforms to express their views.
However, Parler is already beginning to show new signs of life. Its website is live again, though it is just a simple landing page for now.
It managed to secure the web hosting services of Epik which, Mr Brennan said, was an organisation which also hosted “a variety of far-right and neo-Nazi extremist websites” such as Gab and 8kun.
Surging popularity of ‘alternative’ apps
DuckDuckGo had the highest number of downloads (1.57 million) between January 6 and 16, according to figures from Apptopia.
The company describes itself as “search engine that doesn’t track you”, unlike Google which monitors users so it can bombard them with targeted advertising.
It hit a milestone earlier this week, after recording for the first time more than 100 million search queries from its users on a single day.
Encrypted messaging apps Telegram and Signal have also experienced rapid growth this year. Between January 4 and 13, their daily download numbers jumped by 170 per cent and 5,923 per cent respectively.
Last week, Megan Squire, a professor of computer science at Elon University (North Carolina), observed there had been a big spike in members of the Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, joining Telegram.
To be clear, people — regardless of their political leanings — have also been shifting towards these encrypted messaging apps because they value privacy and worry that the tech giants are “too powerful”.
There are some users who may also be trying to avoid scrutiny, given the FBI has arrested more than 100 people involved with the US Capitol Building chaos and confirmed it is monitoring an “extensive amount of concerning online chatter” among extremists.
“This marks a dangerous new phase as the fringe right increasingly embrace encrypted networks,” Mr Brennan said.
“Organising in private is not something security officials will like as it makes their jobs immensely difficult.
“One of the main questions that emerged from the Capitol riot is, ‘How did we allow this to go ahead when it was happening out in the open and for years?’
“Facebook groups, Twitter, YouTube — all these platforms were hosting viewpoints.
Since the Washington insurrection, some little-known apps have seen their popularity skyrocket.
Number of daily downloads
|January 6||January 16||Percentage change|
|CloutHub||729||65,034||+8,821 per cent|
|MeWe||16,529||220,984||+1,237 per cent|
|Rumble||9,361||81,814||+774 per cent|
|Parler||20,999||0||-100 per cent|
Superman and Hercules join CloutHub
CloutHub, which launched two years ago, has been described as a cross between Facebook and Twitter. It calls itself a social platform that “restores power to the people to organise, communicate and advocate”.
In other words, it promises free speech with very little interference from moderators.
While Trump supporters were storming the Capitol building, there were only 729 downloads of this app in the entire world across the Apple and Google app stores. However, CloutHub says it has more than 11 million followers.
More than 65,000 people installed CloutHub on their phones on January 16, which was a massive 89-fold increase.
Among its brand ambassadors are two TV actors who were popular in the 1990s and are vocal supporters of Mr Trump.
One of them is Dean Cain, who starred in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
In a tweet, the former Superman star urged people to join CloutHub “if you don’t want Big Tech ruling your life”.
The other is Kevin Sorbo, who played the titular role in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, a US show filmed in New Zealand.
Earlier this month, Sorbo promoted a right-wing conspiracy theory on Twitter.
He retweeted a photo of some people who swarmed the US Capitol that had been captioned: “Do these look like Trump supporters? Or Leftist agitators disguised as Trump supporters …”
The Hercules star added his own thoughts: “They don’t look like patriots to me.”
Not long afterwards, there was a clash of titans.
Sorbo was slammed by actress Lucy Lawless, who starred in Xena: Warrior Princess (a Hercules spin-off series).
“They are the douchebags that go out and do the evil bidding of people like you who like to wind them up like toys and let them do their worst. #keepingYourFilthyHandsclean #enabler.”
MeWe surges on promises of ‘no BS’
MeWe bills itself as “the Social Network of the Future”, promising “no ads, no Targeting, and no BS” (essentially an anti-Facebook).
The app promises its users: “Your data is #Not4Sale to advertisers/marketers.”
On Tuesday, the company wrote on Twitter that its app was the second most downloaded app on the Google Play Store, behind TikTok.
The number of MeWe downloads shot up five fold, between January 6 (the day of the Capitol violence) and January 16.
Following the US Capitol attack, the company released a statement pointing to its terms of service, which prohibit “inciting violence”.
However, it does not have policies banning misinformation or fake news being spread by its users, nor can it afford to spend as much on content moderators as Facebook or Twitter.
More recently, Facebook has banned the phrase “stop the steal” on its platforms, in reference to the unsubstantiated claims Mr Biden won the election because of “voter fraud”.
The tech giant took that uncharacteristic step because of “continued attempts to organise events against the outcome of the US presidential election that can lead to violence”.
‘Trending’ Trump videos on Rumble
Rumble is a video sharing website, which promotes itself as “real YouTube competitor”.
Between January 6 and 16, the number of daily downloads jumped from about 9,300 to 82,000 (a nine-fold increase).
Its list of “featured channels” included ones belonging to Republican politicians (Devin Nunes), Fox News hosts (Sean Hannity), Mr Trump’s impeachment lawyer (Alan Dershowitz), and pro-Trump news channels (Newsmax and the One America News Network).
Many of the “trending” videos relate to Mr Trump, and one was an episode of Rudy Giuliani’s Common Sense (a series produced by Mr Trump’s personal lawyer).
The most popular videos on Rumble had a very pro-Republican (or anti-Democrat) slant, or promoted conspiracy theories. Some of the titles were:
- Election fraud evidence mounts as Democrats divert attention
- Melania Trump’s New Video Triggers Leftist MELTDOWN
- Liberal activist arrested, charged with participating in Capitol riot
- Rep Gaetz EXPLODES at Liberal Hypocrites
Rumble chief executive Chris Pavlovski regularly posts updates on his Twitter account when right-wing figures join his platform.
Gab urges ‘patience’ during comeback
Meanwhile, one “alternative” social media platform which has recently attracted renewed interest is Gab, a favoured platform for people posting racist, neo-Nazi content.
Gab was launched in 2017 by tech entrepreneur and Trump supporter, Andrew Torba, and sold itself as a “social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the new free flow of information online”.
There are no reliable figures on how it is performing because Gab has been banned from the Google and Apple app stores since 2017 for violating their hate speech policies.
It has also been blacklisted by a long list of organisations, including its original domain host Go Daddy, PayPal, cryptocurrency services Bitpay and Coinbase, and Stripe, which offers online payment processing.
Amazon and Microsoft have also banned Gab from using its web hosting services.
It was after Gab was linked with Robert Bowers, a gunman charged with killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue, who had a long history of writing anti-Semitic posts on the social media platform.
On Tuesday, Gab tweeted that its website attracted 23.77 million unique visitors, along with 172.49 million page views (but did not specify the time period).
Since Gab has been banned from major tech firms, it has decided to build its own in-house servers to cope with “millions” of new members.
That has been its explanation for why its website has been slow and at times inaccessible.
“We keep adding more servers and at like 5am we get the site stable, then millions of new people come through the door in the morning and we start all over again. Scaling up as fast as we can! Patience,” the company wrote on Twitter.