Conspiracy theories collide online as Parler goes dark

Is it a pro-Trump rally? Or a trap? A reliance on encrypted chat apps fuels conflicting messages and a splintering of right-wing groups online.

Queenie Wong
Queenie Wong Former Senior Writer
Queenie Wong was a senior writer for CNET News, focusing on social media companies including Facebook's parent company Meta, Twitter and TikTok. Before joining CNET, she worked for The Mercury News in San Jose and the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. A native of Southern California, she took her first journalism class in middle school.
Expertise I've been writing about social media since 2015 but have previously covered politics, crime and education. I also have a degree in studio art. Credentials 2022 Eddie award for consumer analysis
7 min read

Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol last week, temporarily halting the certification of Joe Biden's election as the next US president.

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When Apple, Amazon and Google booted Parler from their platforms after last week's deadly riot on Capitol Hill, users of the alternative social network favored by conservatives encouraged their followers to join them on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app.

And they did. 

In a public Telegram group chat with roughly 16,000 members, one user called Miguel urged supporters of President Donald Trump to return to DC to push baseless claims that the November vote was stolen from the president. "Guys, every Patriot to the White House on January 21st to protest election fraud," the user posted to the Parler Lifeboat chat, referring to the day after the inauguration. Minutes later, another member using the name Michelle, chimed in to wave off fellow MAGA fans: "It's [a] set up."

The exchange and countless others like it represent a collision of conspiracy theories in the fevered world of pro-Trump supporters. QAnon is reported by some online observers to be a "psyop" designed to discredit conservatives even though the crazy conspiracy theory, which imagines Trump to be battling Satanic sex traffickers, prompts many supporters to attend his rallies. Protests organized to challenge the results of the election are traps laid by antifa, a loosely grouped anti-fascist movement, some conservatives say. 

Disproven claims that votes were changed seem run-of-the-mill by comparison.

The bogus ideas emerged on social media sites big and small but are now moving to encrypted messaging apps following the Capitol Hill melee that left five people dead. The move to smaller, private messaging groups has resulted in conflicting messages and a further splintering of right-wing groups online. Conspiracy theories popping up have said antifa was behind the riot, which occurred after Trump whipped up his supporters at a promoted rally in DC on Jan. 6.

"Without an 'official' Trump-sanctioned event to anchor protests and other actions around, supporters are unsure who is really behind events planned around Inauguration day," said Rachel Moran, a postdoctoral scholar who studies disinformation at the University of Washington's Information School.

Social networks, including Facebook and Twitter , along with law enforcement and civil rights groups are bracing for the possibility of more violence in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20. Facebook is reportedly tracking flyers promoting protests that are being shared on other parts of the internet, and removing them when they appear on the social network, Instagram or Messenger.

On Wednesday, Trump tried to distance himself from the assault on the Capitol, saying in a video that "no true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence." The government, however, is braced for efforts to disrupt the transfer of power with a reported 20,000 National Guard troops deployed to Washington to protect the inauguration. The FBI reportedly said in an internal bulletin it had received information about "armed protests'' being planned at all 50 state capitols, as well the US Capitol.

Anonymous chatter on social media includes discussions that new MAGA protests are actually being organized by antifa or Democrats. One red-and-yellow flyer posted on Facebook, Twitter and Parler, as well as online forums and messaging apps, calls for an armed march on Capitol Hill and all state capitols on the afternoon of Jan. 17. "When Democracy is destroyed, refuse to be silenced," declares the poster, which included an image of the Statue of Liberty.

Despite the dramatic language and bold imagery, some Trump supporters urged caution, warning others to steer clear of the new events. "Communist themed flyers / memes attempting to influence patriots into turning violent," a Facebook user wrote in a public pro-Trump group called True Conservatives for Donald Trump 2020. "We have zero plans to perform an armed march on any capitol building."

Other Facebook users, echoing remarks from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, denounced the event, stating the "terrorist attack is NOT over" and the mob that stormed the Capitol is "planning more attacks." Tree of Liberty, which identifies itself as a press platform for the anti-government far-right boogaloo movement, said on its website the armed march in DC had been canceled and hadn't been meant to replicate last week's deadly riot. Tree of Liberty denied organizing the march and quoted an unnamed "event spokesperson." 

Still, the site maintained a list of addresses it identified as state capitols, at least one of which was wrong. (The site located the address of Alaska's capitol at a shopping mall in Anchorage. Alaska's capital is Juneau.) Tree of Liberty didn't respond to a request for comment. The site was offline as of Wednesday and later re-directed to a YouTube of video of Rick Astley's Never Gonna Give You Up, an internet prank known as Rickrolling.

On Wimkin, a social media alternative to Facebook, users circulate information about a "Million Militia March" to descend on Washington on Jan. 20. On Twitter, users shared a screenshot of a purported Parler post calling for Trump supporters to return to DC on Jan. 19 "carrying our weapons." 

From  Jan. 9 to 10, roughly 890 posts from 570 QAnon-related Twitter accounts included the words "inauguration" and/or "20th," according to nonprofit research group Advance Democracy. QAnon falsely alleges a "deep state" plot against Trump and his supporters. Advance Democracy, which previously found social media posts urging Trump supporters to attend protests on Jan. 6, said in another report, released Tuesday, that it "has not found similar mass mobilization efforts" related to Jan. 17 on social media platforms.

On Facebook, a pro-gun group called Delaware Citizens for the Second Amendment promoted a rally in Delaware on Jan. 20 to "honor Ashli Babbitt," the 35-year-old Air Force veteran who was fatally shot by Capitol police inside the US Capitol. In one post, the group called on members to "come armed" and "come pissed." A subsequent post said the organizers aren't calling for violence or destruction of property.

Watch this: Parler going dark, CES begins

The possibility of violence, though, has led social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, to crack down on Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. When Twitter permanently barred Trump from the social network on Friday, the company cited a potential Jan. 17 attack on the US Capitol and state capitols. 

On Monday, Facebook said it would pull down content that included the phrase "stop the steal" from its platforms, which has been used by Trump supporters to push bogus claims of election fraud. Facebook users were still using the phrase on Tuesday, though the company said in a blog post it could "take some time to scale up our enforcement of this new step." The company also indefinitely locked Trump's official Facebook and Instagram accounts, but pages for his campaign and the White house are still posting videos of the president. One of Trump's advisers is trying to keep the president from joining fringe social media platforms popular among extremists, such as Gab, CNN reported on Wednesday.

"It is concerning to see new platforms emerge as safe havens for extremist conversation, as it can lead to a deepening of extremist ideologies as views go unmoderated and often unchallenged," Moran said. "However, removing these accounts from Twitter and Facebook cuts off their oxygen, stopping them from attracting large numbers of new followers and radicalizing on a larger scale."

On Tuesday, a group of some of Facebook's toughest critics called on the social media giant to permanently bar Trump, remove all "stop the steal" content that incites violence, allow an independent body to audit public figures and world leaders flagged for inciting violence, and release more information about enforcement of its policy. Yaël Eisenstat, who used to work at Facebook as the global head of elections integrity operations, said in the Harvard Business Review that tech companies should be held accountable for amplifying misinformation and "extreme rhetoric." The group also called on Facebook advertisers, shareholders and employees to push for the removal of Mark Zuckerberg as CEO.

Even as major social networks crack down on election misinformation and calls for violence, some users are migrating to sites including Telegram. From Jan. 6 to 11, Telegram had roughly 11.8 million installs globally, up 97% from Dec. 31 to Jan. 5 when the app saw roughly 6 million installs, according to mobile analytics company Sensor Tower. Telegram said in its app on Tuesday more than 25 million users joined in the past 72 hours and it had more than 500 million active users.

In group Telegram chats, users shared memes about guns, spewed racist remarks, criticized big tech companies and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Others said Trump had "disavowed the good patriots who stood against tyranny." One user said "Q is going to decapitate Biden and reinstate Trump as Supreme leader," referring to the person or group supposedly at the center of the QAnon conspiracy theory. 

The Anti-Defamation League said it found a white supremacist Telegram channel that posted about future plans. "Reminder that the U.S. Presidential Inauguration day is on January 20th. That is the next date on the calendar that the pro-Trump and other nationalist crowds will potentially converge on the Capitol again," a screenshot of the message said.

At a press conference on Tuesday, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said he expects conspiracy theories and misinformation will continue to pop up on Facebook, but the chatter could get more difficult to follow as Trump supporters, QAnon and white supremacists spread across the web.

"These groups are burrowing into darker, more difficult recesses of the internet and social media," he said, "as well [as] migrating a lot of their activities to encrypted platforms."