Trump Media and RightForge: The Alt Right is ‘building its own Internet’
Is the alt-Right's dream of a censorship-free Internet of their very own finally about to come true?
Beginnings are tough, but perhaps a good start is Gab, created in 2016 as a right-wing alternative to Twitter. Gab quickly became a sewer of neo-Nazi content, antisemitism, white supremacism and Christian Identity politics, much to the delight of founder and CEO Andrew Torba, who seems to share those beliefs.
Three years ago today, a verified Gab user with a history of antisemitic posts went on the site and posted “I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in”. He went to a synagogue during its Shabbat service and murdered eleven Jewish worshippers.
Gab’s webhost, domain registrar and payments processor all refused to do business with the site, and it disappeared from the Internet.
The Old Days.
Once upon a time, the Internet was the Wild West.
I was around in those days, fighting spammers, scammers and terrorists who’d throw up websites and mailservers on real, physical servers sitting in datacentres around the world (but usually the US). Sometimes all it took was a phonecall or an email to get a site taken down. But sometimes the most horrendous sites — al Qaeda forums posting messages from terror groups and beheading videos — would stay up for months, whether because the hosting company was lazy or committed to “free speech” or was an outright terrorist sympathiser. In that case, sometimes the hosting company’s own upstream host would take action. And sometimes they wouldn’t.
The Internet’s changed a lot since then, becoming increasingly reliant on a few large companies: Amazon Web Services providing cloud hosting to many of the world’s biggest online properties, CloudFlare for protection against Denial of Service attacks, Facebook, Twitter etc for social networking, Google for email and document services, YouTube for video, MailChimp for mass mailings, Stripe and PayPal for payment processing and many other subscription-based cloud services.
Extremists online benefit from the ease they can spread their messages on social media (as the Facebook papers showed). Alt-Right figures built huge platforms on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and keep their websites protected by CloudFlare, in many cases earning fortunes while radicalising their followers. One recent example: Facebook and YouTube were cited most commonly by members of the Oath Keepers militia as the places they found out about the group.
But the strength of these platforms is also a weakness; when YouTube cancels someone’s account or de-monetizes their videos, income and reach vanish overnight. When Twitter bans you, your following is orphaned. When Apple and Google kick you out their walled-garden app stores, your app becomes inaccessible to all but the most tech-savvy users. Even datacentres are more responsive to takedown requests and reputation management than they used to be.
This was shown most obviously with the mass deplatforming of Donald Trump after the Jan 6 riot, but that action was only the most prominent of a mass of removals of anti-vaxxers, election conspriacymongers, insurrectionists, QAnon promoters and other extremists. These promoters and their content had thrived on the modern Internet, but now they were (partially) gone.
The issue of “big tech censorship” became a key conservative talking point. In office, Trump repeatedly tried to scrap Section 230 protections for social media platforms, mistakenly thinking it would result in less censorship, railing against the platforms that made him for banning his acolytes until, eventually, January 6 led to them banning him too.
Banned from the bigger social platforms, the Alt-Right created “Alt-Tech”, platforms and apps that function like the big social networks, but with more permissive (or more Right-friendly) rules.
Some of these platforms were created from scratch to be right-wing replacements: Gab, Parler and Gettr are all attempts to recreate Twitter. BitChute is a video streaming site like YouTube. Communities.win is a reddit clone that hosts banned QAnon, antivax and far-right subreddits.
Many, though, were pre-existing platforms or apps that just became popular among the Far Right or pivoted to seek their business, like YouTube alternatives DLive and Rumble and TikTok clone Clapper.
Another alt-Tech app is Telegram; it was always popular for its large broadcast-type groups and was known for being used by terrorists and other extremists. After the widespread bans of QAnon promoters and election conspiracy leaders, Telegram became their platform of choice. The larger QAnon channels have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
But Alt-Tech has its limits, as Gab discovered. Without access to the basic Internet services — hosting, DNS, attack protection, payment processing — Alt-tech sites and apps can’t survive.
When Gab went down in 2018, domain registrar Epik stepped in to bring it back. Epik bought Gab’s new hosting company, a shady European outfit called Sibyl System, and got into the business of hosting far right websites.
Rob Monster, Epik’s founder, realigned his whole business around keeping the most loathsome online. When 8Chan was kicked off of its host following the board’s use by the Christchurch murderer, Monster forced his staff to watch a video of the massacre (supposedly to ‘prove they were fake’) before becoming 8Chan’s new host too.
From Gab to Infowars to TheDonald.Win, the ultra-MAGA online forum, Epik became the host of choice for the loathsome. They scooped up Parler when it was kicked off of Amazon after the January 6 riot. Epik even briefly hosted neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, though supposedly that was a step too far even for Monster.
Epik was recently hacked more thoroughly than anyone’s been hacked in the history of hacking. Everything was released, including all of their customers’ sites and confidential data, membership lists of militias and other far-right groups. The hack demonstrates the risk of everyone sharing the same fascist-friendly host: a single point of failure can take everyone down.
Last week, Donald Trump announced he’d formed a new company to “disrupt big tech” and break the FAANG monopoly. Yes, the Trump Media & Technology Group’s first project would be to launch yet another alt-Tech Twitter clone: the ironically named TRUTH social.
But Trump Media has bigger aspirations. Long term, it wants to build its own technology stack. When Amazon, Stripe and Microsoft won’t host alt-Tech, Trump Media wants to keep it online.
A slide from TMTG’s pitch deck envisions the whole demi-media and alt-tech scene realigning around Trump Media. Or possibly crashing into it, I suppose. Mainstream properties like Fox News are side-by-side with Gab and Gateway Pundit.
Ben Collins put it well:
Quinta also speculated:
Yesterday, hosting company RightForge told Axios that it would be hosting Trump’s TRUTH platform. Almost nothing has been written about RightForge outside of the company’s own extensive PR and promotion campaign, so it seemed like a good opportunity to have a bit of a look.
RightForge is very explicit about what it’s trying to do: build “A Second Internet” to protect alt-Right sites and apps. RightForge CEO Martin Avila told the Daily Signal:
“I’ve got friends who are like, ‘We need to rebuild Salesforce. We need to rebuild MailChimp.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly right. We do.’ But in order to stand up those things, we needed the hard infrastructure. And that’s what RightForge is. It’s the ability for those companies to be created on the hard assets distributed across the globe.”
An interview co-founder Sean Patrick Tario gave to the Falun Gong channel NTD in March 2021 is also revealing.
Tario: We're not having to build new datacentres... our partners have been in this marketplace and industry for over a decade and they've built out this infrastructure already. They're already on board on our team, equity partners in the business and unapologetic in their support of what we're doing and our constitutional rights.
NTD: So all of your datacentres are run by people like that?
Tario: Correct. Yes. And that's absolutely critical and essential because we obviously don't want to run into a situation where they say “Sorry RightForge, we can't host you anymore, there's too much bad publicity about what it is that you're doing”.
NTD: They're going to come under a lot of pressure. They're ready to handle that?
Tario: Yes. Definitely.
The RightForge team
RightForge was founded by Martin Avila, Sean Patrick Tario and Aron Wagner. Its staff seem to overlap a lot with a datacentre reseller and analysis company called Open Spectrum. The Open Spectrum “About Us” page lists Tario as founder and managing partner, and several staff have or had roles at both companies.
One name that jumped out at me, though, is RightForge's "Chief of Staff" Samuel Buchan. Buchan is a former member of the Trump White House’s National Security Counsil. He was also an advisor to Rick Perry which led to him playing a very minor role in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump's impeachment.
At least on paper, this isn’t trying to be old-school bulletproof hosting. For all the talk about First and Fourth Amendment rights, the community policies seem somewhat standard. Of course, there’s no clause banning racism, homophobia or Covid conspiracies, but the policies do acknowledge that “Certain content has the ability to wrongfully inflict devastating harm on others, and is not welcome on any RightForge system”. Hmm.
Backbones or wishbones
RightForge talks a big game. Tario and Avila claim to have focused on physical infrastructure at the datacentre level, to have built their own backbone to make it impossible to deplatform them or the sites and services they plan to host.
That’s a big claim, and not one that stands up just yet.
RightForge does have its own ASN (AS400042) which currently contains six Class C networks (around 1500 IP addresses). But all of those ranges are reallocated from a single company: NetActuate. So far, it looks like NetActuate is RightForge’s sole upstream provider, making them a single point of failure. Less of a backbone and more of a wishbone.
Tario’s remarks about datacentres being equity partners who share his political aims could have been a reference to NetActuate. But he could also have been lying and be just a regular customer of NetActuate.
Who uses RightForge?
There are currently 289 known domain names using RightForge’s nameservers. You can access the list here.
Most of these domains are just parked names without a website attached to them. I get the sense many of them are just owned by RightForge.
The domains that are active mostly point to Wordpress installations, some of which are still at the Hello World stage.
There are a couple of local Proud Boys chapters with tiny sites pointing people to their Telegram groups, a few local antivax orgs.
There’s American Wire News, a right-wing news site
canceled.tv, which promises to be a “Conservative Netflix”.
Awakened Patriot, a MAGA organisation that’s trying to recruit people AND sell merch
I haven’t looked through all 289 domains. If you find any more that are interesting, let me know in the comments or on Twitter.
One thing that was noteworthy: The three sites I mentioned above are NOT hosted inside RightForge’s ASN. No, they’re all hosted on IPs allocated directly to NetActuate.
RightForge: The Bottom Line
So far, RightForge is just a small setup, hosting tiny low-traffic Wordpress installs for a few orgs. They have a bunch of IP addresses but those are just numbers; it’s not clear how much actual hardware they have underneath them. They talk like they’re a player but they have to a single upstream provider who might be an ideological ally and equity holder, but also might not be.
These guys have great PR but they seem miles away from being able to host Trump’s social network, and they certainly aren’t a new Internet. But they’re still worth watching to see what happens next.
Platforms and Power
The thing is, they aren’t completely wrong. It is a problem that a few private companies hold such immense power over who gets access to communication tools that many see as vital.
It was a problem when Facebook was turning a blind eye to Stop the Steal and QAnon, tacitly approving of them in the name of engagement. And it’s a problem when a few top execs suddenly change their minds and what was OK yesterday is banned tomorrow; when livelihoods disappear due to mass reporting an unpopular opinion.
I moderate a large (90k member) Facebook group and I face these sorts of choices, in miniature, every day. Maybe that would make an interesting topic for a future newsletter.