The Rise of Alternative Social Platforms

In November 2016, in the middle of one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history, a theory started to spread on the fringe, often hateful site known as 4chan. Following a WikiLeaks drop of documents related to Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, users of the site began phishing for information related to one of the men mentioned, James Alefantis—the owner of a pizzeria in Washington D.C. called Comet Ping Pong. They eventually cooked up a conspiracy theory that Alefantis was running a pedophile sex ring based out of his pizza shop— involving both politicians and political donors.

Eventually, the theory made its way from the fringes of the internet to mainstream sites like Twitter. On December 4, an armed gunman walked into the restaurant and opened fire, thoroughly convinced he was putting an end to a child sex-trafficking ring.

The Pizzagate saga was arguably the moment that the term “fake news” entered the general lexicon. Concerns about fake news took center stage in the wake of Trump’s surprising victory and reports of Russian election interference. In fact, a report by the Pew Research Center in December 2016 found that 64% of Americans said that fake news had left them a great deal confused about basic facts. 

Now, while fake news isn’t making headlines the way it was back in 2016, misinformation, hateful speech, and outright falsehoods spread via alternative social platforms like 4Chan continue to be a problem for brands (or, in the case of GameStop, create a major financial impact). And, unfortunately, too many brands aren’t paying attention to the corners of the internet where these narratives begin. 

Misinformation Today—A Southwest Example

In 2021, a round of mass cancellations by Southwest Airlines over one weekend led several prominent Republicans to tweet unfounded rumors that the cancellations were due to the workers striking against the airline’s COVID mandates. In order to quell the rumors, the airline’s union had to put out a press release setting the record straight, although some still remained unconvinced

This narrative would come back to haunt the airline in 2022 when, in the face of a massive snowstorm affecting nearly the entire country, Southwest Airlines was forced to cancel 12,000 flights during the holidays.

Among the many negative narratives that PeakMetrics tracked during this time, one tied the cancellations (once again) to Southwest requiring COVID vaccines for its staff. The conspiracy was picked up by several alternative media sites. While, fortunately, it didn’t make it to the mainstream, perhaps because of how many other narratives there were surrounding the fallout, it demonstrates that misinformation is still a threat to brands.

And, in the case of SVB, a misinformed narrative can have disastrous consequences. 

The Platforms You Need to Be Monitoring

It’s well established that companies need to know what their customers and the media are saying about their brand. This is critical for preserving their reputation, maintaining brand trust and deciding on the best path forward. However, despite their influence, brands don’t have great playbooks on tracking alternative and “fringe” sites. If they don’t, then they’re missing a critical part of the picture. Here are a few of the most important platforms to keep an eye on:

4Chan—This site gained infamy not only for Pizzagate but for also serving as the origin of the Q’Anon conspiracy that was widely popular during Trump’s presidency (that Trump was in a battle against Satan-worshippers and pedophiles in the government and media). Quickly, Q’Anon made it into the mainstream. But 4chan isn’t just known for conspiracy theories; in some cases, users on the platform target specific brands, such as in 2018 when trolls on 4chan made up a story that Starbucks was giving away free coffee to black people. The fake story was then picked up by traditional media outlets, such as Fox News.

Parler—This alt-right, fringe platform was at the heart of debates surrounding who was at fault for the January 6th riots on the capitol. The platform was instrumental in spreading conspiracy theories about the election and galvanizing individuals around the #StoptheSteal campaign. In the immediate aftermath of the riots, the app was removed from the Google Play and Apple App store. However, Google reinstated the app in its store last September, and during the 2022 midterms, false narratives about a “stolen election” once again began to spread throughout the community. 

Reddit—While Reddit may no longer be considered “fringe”, it’s certainly not given the same attention as other platforms. Reddit is primarily known for memes and trolls, but many of the “subs” are incredibly active—and can directly impact brands. In fact, the recent fake viral image of the Pope in a Balenciaga puffer jacket began on Reddit before making its way to Twitter, and, during the SVB collapse, some of the most prominent narratives originated from Reddit. 

Fringe Blogs—There is a wide range of fringe blogs that populate the web—blogs that pick up and amplify conspiracy theories and narratives from platforms like 4chan and Parler. For example, during the Southwest Airlines fiasco in December, the conspiracy theory that the cancellations were all due to the company’s vaccine policy was picked up by sites like “Natural News” and “NO Q Report.” Other well-known fringe websites, such as InfoWars and Breitbart News, have perpetuated conspiracy theories and provided hyper-partisan perspectives on world events. 

TikTok—TikTok isn't an alternative in terms of popularity. As of 2023, the platform has more than one billion users worldwide. However, it’s still not a social media app that’s tracked as closely by brands as say Twitter or Instagram. And that’s a mistake. Many younger users use the app for their news and to interact with their favorite brands. In fact, research from TikTok found that 73% of its users “feel a deeper connection to brands they interact with on TikTok, compared to other platforms.” However, the platform is also prone to misinformation, meaning that companies shouldn’t just view it as a marketing tool—but as a place where potentially negative, false narratives about their brand may emerge.

What to Do Next

Thanks to a 24/7 news cycle and social media, media monitoring has become essential for brands. However, when choosing a tool that can help them analyze brand sentiment and narratives, many companies overlook the role alternative platforms play. They focus on tools that will tell them what people are saying on traditional media or news sites and not necessarily what’s beginning to “bubble up” on the fringes. That’s a mistake. When choosing a tool, it’s critical to find one that goes beyond mainstream media and social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Otherwise, you may miss important narratives about your brand or be unable to quash reputational damage to your company before it makes it to the likes of Twitter.

PeakMetrics was built to provide the kind of insights other media monitoring tools miss. Tracking narratives from emerging and alternative platforms was built into the product’s DNA.   By adding it to your monitoring and insights toolkit, organizations can gain a more complete picture across all corners of the web.

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