Researcher Megan Squire puts it this way: “Imagine you have a playground at school and there is a bully on your playground. The teacher keeps putting the bully in time out, so the bully gets his dad to build a brand new playground with the same slides, and the same teeter-totters, and all that stuff. That’s alt tech.”
What is alt tech? It’s a replacement infrastructure—a parallel universe to the internet as we know it, complete with browsers, plug-ins, domains, web hosting and the rest—all to cater to extremists, haters and white supremacists who’ve been given a time out on the social media playground. And just like the bully who got kicked off the playground, this alt-tech playground is one where the bully can do whatever he likes.
In the parallel universe of alt-tech, there is a social network—Gab—which operates as a Twitter for those who can’t play on the real thing. An alternative to YouTube—BitChute—shows whatever has been banned or bumped off the mainline video platform.
How does alt tech function? What does it do? Well, besides enabling the vilest and darkest spewings of such bottom-feeders as neo-Nazis, the KKK and the like, it prides itself on resuscitating particularly dangerous things that have been removed from mainstream social media—such things as the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter’s manifesto as well as the video of the live stream of the shooting itself.
Rob Monster, the domain registrar for Gab and BitChute, is—to continue Ms. Squire’s analogy—the bully’s dad who puts the alternate playground there. Monster—and yes, that is his real name—has bragged about his “alt stack,” a decentralized web platform where venom like the Christchurch manifesto can be stored and made readily available—never censored, never removed by anyone. All this under the banner of “lawful free speech.”
In a June 2019 interview on NPR’s Reveal News podcast, Ms. Squire expressed dismay that the vicious platform for hate wrought by Monster—whose company, Epik, has also enabled such extremist sites as 8chan, Parler and Daily Stormer—would continue its growth unabated, and continue to make hate speech available to anyone who clicked on it. Monster guaranteed anonymity to those who posted and participated in any of his domains, and for some years it was the go-to place for those with a thirst for bile.
But then in 2021, a breach of its security systems exposed Epik’s users, their names, addresses and activities—over 150 gigabytes of bloody footprints into the private data of white supremacists, neo-Nazis and others who often see violent solutions to the “problems” posed by the existence of minority religions, minority cultures and minority races.
The Rosetta Stone-like discovery reveals clues as to motives, plans and bad faith actors in a massive trove of information which the now hopeful Ms. Squire called “the biggest domain-style leak I’ve seen and, as an extremism researcher, it’s certainly the most interesting. It’s an embarrassment of riches—stress on the embarrassment.”
The flaw in Epik’s security protocols was so elementary and obvious—failing, for example, to take even basic security precautions, such as routine encryption to protect its customers’ data from going public—that researchers opined that for that alone—venom and spleen notwithstanding—the FTC should consider shutting it down or at least levy stiff penalties as it has done for other companies and sites in the past.
Does Epik’s epic fail signal an end to hate speech and its offspring of violence? No, but it is a reminder to those of us who still like people and want the best for everyone that deep down even evil recognizes itself and harbors a wish to be stopped. There is yet hope that someday peace will reign again on the playground.