Updated January 12, 2021: Voat went offline on December 25, 2020 due to lack of funding. However, the following information is still valuable to those interested in the impact of alt-tech platforms and their value for threat intelligence professionals. Voat is still accessible as a historical data source in the Echosec Systems Platform.
As social media companies battle misinformation, hate, and extremism on their platforms, one thing has become clear: if an account gets banned, it doesn’t stop talking—it just goes elsewhere.
They might even go to Voat, an alt-tech platform that has attracted Reddit defectors for years. Like some other alternative platforms, the site’s free speech principles tend to create an echo chamber that could guide users down more extreme ideological paths.
From a national security perspective, Voat can be useful for tracking misinformation, right-wing extremism, and emerging political movements that could lead to real-world violence.
So what is Voat, and what are the dangers of these online echo chambers?
What Is Voat?
Voat, originally called “WhoaVerse,” is a content aggregation, voting, and discussion site founded in 2014. The platform is very similar to Reddit, but with a focus on free speech.
Over several waves, Voat has absorbed redditors who perceive Reddit’s evolving guidelines as an infringement on their freedom of expression. The first influx started in 2015 after censorship accusations circulated that February—and again several months later when Reddit’s beloved AMA admin, Victoria Taylor, was fired.
Then came the Pizzagate conspiracy, whose subreddit ban drove more users to Voat. Voat also saw migrations from incel communities and more recently, QAnon conspiracy theory advocates, which Reddit has worked to remove.
According to Voat’s user agreement, illegalism, child pornography, and intentionally causing harm to others are all prohibited. But the site has been knocked off its hosting provider before for hosting right-wing extremism and shows no shortage of hate speech, conspiracy theories, and radical communities.
Voat submission promoting #DominionWatch, a QAnon and pro-Trump motion to intimidate Dominion Voting Systems personnel in Georgia
While Voat is often called Reddit’s clone, it has a few key differences. Voat’s “subreddits” are called “subverses.” Users must also work to appeal to their audience, earning a bounty of upvotes (“content contribution points” or “CCPs”) before they can downvote comments or create subverses.
The Dangers of an Echo Chamber
The upvote system has its benefits. For Voaters, it can filter out unfit new contributors and spam, and ensure that popular posts float to the top.
On the other hand, users are immediately forced to get on board with topics that other members are aligned with if they wish to gain any presence on the platform. On Voat, that could mean embracing some pretty problematic ideologies. It also creates an environment where outsider perspectives lose visibility and black and white thinking is often encouraged.
For a non-radical person who may feel disenfranchised on mainstream social media, this could easily become the gateway to more extreme worldviews: they’ll either be squeezed out by popular downvotes or attracted by the in-group appeal.
There’s even data to confirm Voat’s echo chamber tendencies. According to a recent Cornell University study, most (72.8%) submissions on QAnon’s GreatAwakening subverse, which boasts 20,000+ users, only come from a small handful of its members.
Voat’s GreatAwakening subverse
Why Does This Matter?
Incels and QAnon? Voat might seem more like an anomalous fringe network than an enabler of serious threats.
But Voat lives in an ecosystem of alt-tech that can (often strategically) divide real-world populations, flavour political discourse, and enable extremism. Look no further than the incel movement to see the impacts of online radicalization on public safety.
Conversations on platforms like Voat are relevant for national security purposes like tracking alternative or extremist movements and indicators of public safety threats. They are also useful for monitoring misinformation networks—particularly from foreign nation-states—who may leverage online echo chambers, as we’ve seen with Parler.
A search for “pizzagate” within Voat using the Echosec Systems Platform. Platform users can search Voat content alongside a wide range of other social, deep, and dark web sources.
The intention behind alt-tech is to enable freedom of expression for users who are unhappy with content policies on bigger platforms.
Ironically, sites like Voat can end up echoing like-minded perspectives, driving out anything else—usually to propagate misleading, hateful, or extremist ideas.
This is especially dangerous for radicalizing suggestible individuals online and has a number of implications for national security—from spreading misinformation to inspiring real-world violence.
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