How right-wing conspiracy theorists are avoiding mainstream social network bans to continue spreading misinformation

How right-wing conspiracy theorists are avoiding mainstream social network bans to continue spreading misinformation
Fake Media, Shutterstock

Right-wing conspiracy theorists and online influencers who have been banished from mainstream social media platforms are finding new ways to spread misinformation. Using known anti-vaxxer Joseph Mercola as an example, The Washington Post explained how he and other similar influencers are using an application called Substack to get their message to conservative audiences.

The paid application is described as "a subscription-based newsletter platform that is increasingly a hub for controversial and often misleading perspectives about the coronavirus."

In addition to Substack, podcasting platforms and right-wing social networks like Parler are also on the rise. While the social networks are already facing scrutiny, podcasts and newsletters are proving to a be a bit more difficult to regulate. The Washington Post's Elizabeth Dwoskin pointed out: "Social networks use algorithms to spread content — sometimes misinformation — to users who don’t want to see it. Newsletters and podcasts don’t."

Dwoskin wrote:

"These newer platforms cater to subscribers who seek out specific content that accommodates their viewpoints — potentially making the servicesless responsible for spreading harmful views, some misinformation experts say. At the same time, the platforms are exposing tens of thousands of people to misinformation each month — content that can potentially lead people to engage in behaviors that endanger themselves and others."

The latest report shedding light on Substack comes as Spotify faces increased scrutiny for allowing influencers to spread misinformation on its platform. A group consisting of 250 doctors and scientists penned an open letter to the platform to express concern about Joe Rogan's podcast interview with Dr. Robert Malone, a known anti-vaxxer. While the letter has picked up steam in the media, Rogan's podcast remains on the platform.

Substack has also released a statement.

“The more that powerful institutions attempt to control what can and cannot be said in public, the more people there will be who are ready to create alternative narratives about what’s ‘true,’ spurred by a belief that there’s a conspiracy to suppress important information,” they wrote.

Reacting to Substack's stance, Joan Donovan — the Technology and Social Change Project research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy — insists their response will only open the door for further scrutiny.

“Openness is easily exploited, so a lack of policy means the brand’s reputation will be dragged anytime there is a major scandal,” she said. “Substack’s brand will be tied to its most controversial creators. Clear policy will ensure they can enforce their terms early on before a creator has caused so much damage that it’s impossible to separate bad actors from a bad product.”

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, has also condemned platforms like Substack the type of content they allow influencers to promote is “so bad no one else will host it.”

Ahmed added, “Substack should immediately stop profiting from medical misinformation that can seriously harm readers."

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