This company’s AI technology tracks alt-social media sites to document trends and violent rhetoric, creating reports and saving time for open-source researchers.

It all changed on January 6, 2022. That may be the case for many conducting intelligence studies, but for Welton Chang, that’s when his side project for Human Rights First turned into its own full-fledged concept. His program was an artificial intelligence (AI) that combed alt-right social media platforms to compile threats. After the day's events at the Capitol, many in the intelligence community (IC) were left wondering what they had missed, and some believed Chang’s product might have the answer.

Pyrra Technologies is able to use its AI technology to scrape alternative social media sites and compile information about subjects of relevance or interest to their clients. Rather than making its own determinations about what should and shouldn’t be considered disinformation, Pyrra takes a more objective approach. They compile the dossiers that are searchable by certain themes, allowing clients to discover trends and themes they may find concerning.

How AI narrows down the needlestack 

Using his background in data science, Chang helped design a model that observes these fringe sites and picks up on especially violent and hateful posts. The model, as they have designed it, is able to detect hate speech and violent rhetoric, tipping off government agencies, law enforcement and companies about potential attacks or targets.

“Let’s say you start out with a billion posts. That's how many posts happen on Facebook in like 12 hours. Even if your AI is 99% accurate, you’re still pulling back millions of false positives. That’s your needlestack. When your haystack is that big, your needlestack ends up being almost incomprehensible for humans,” said Chang. 

The platform allows clients to track not only relevant trends and ideas, but also mentions of the company itself, certain names (such as a CEO) or locations. The AI then filters these mentions into what may register as extreme or violent. This means their security can head off any potential concerns without the hours of legwork it would take to scrape through thousands of mentions.

Small circles with big reach 

“Why alt-social media?” you may be wondering. We did too. According to Chang, a recent push for more comprehensive moderation on the mainstream social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, has led a surge of users to alternative platforms. Some consider these sites a free speech refuge, while others a hub for hate speech and conspiracy theories. 

Many of the sites Pyrra tracks only boast a small number of users. But when tracking the origin of many of the latest conspiracy theories, they found an idea with small traction on alternative websites first. As the ideas gain traction, they have a way of trickling back out to the main platforms, where they sometimes take off and spread like wildfire.

“That’s why we think the alternative space is the space to pay attention to, because it’s more and more the hospitable host for highly hateful, highly violent content. And then it makes its way and migrates over to the mainstream platform once it’s gained traction on these smaller sites,” said Dr. Welton Chang on NeedleStack.

Where to start your research: 

For Chang, there are two sites in the alt space that stand out beyond others in terms of their audience reach and engagement. Many of the conspiracy theories and violent ideas are generated between these two forums, and they are two he believes researchers in the space should be paying attention to:

1. 4chan

4chan is an anonymous forum not dissimilar in layout and function than other popular internet forums, such as Reddit or Something Awful. Users can find threads on a variety of topics. However, the ability to post and comment without needing to make an account gives users a veil of anonymity and lack of accountability that makes the content often take harmful forms, such as encouraging cyberbullying and bomb threat hoaxes. As of 2022, 4chan receives more than 22 million unique monthly visitors.

2. Telegram public channels

The cloud-based messaging platform, Telegram, has grown in worldwide popularity to now more than 700 million users as of November 2022. The messaging app features varying levels of encryption, including client-to-server and end-to-end encryption for “secret chat” messages. As other apps have cracked down on groups like QAnon and other conspiracy theorists, Telegram public channels have become a refuge for them. The lax content policies and enhanced security appeal to the content generators, and public groups can have as many as 200,000 members, making it easy to spread content among followers. The platform has been routinely criticized for its lack of moderation, including in a recent wave of doxing attacks.

Honorable mention: Disqus comments

Disqus is another space Pyrra ventures to track ideas and reactions to news, especially for subjects such as COVID-19. The comments across several different news outlets that would be difficult to find individually can help researchers form ideas about widespread narratives. It’s harder for individual researchers to track, but Pyrra is able to obtain the data from noxious comments on news articles and elsewhere to compile it and make it searchable.

Chang encourages researchers to engage in self-care when conducting this kind of research. Wading through toxic content can take a mental toll.

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