The Deep Web: A field guide


By   |   September 26th, 2018   |   Reading time: 6 minutes Digital Journalism

Social Media, Internet

The Deep Web can be a vast and mysterious concept. It’s often poorly defined to those unacquainted with it, so we’ve put together a quick guide. 

We were at Storyful’s talk at ONA in Austin a couple of weeks ago, and it had us thinking about platforms that are more closed and mysterious than the ones we currently analyze.

A good way of illustrating these platforms, for the uninitiated, is an iceberg. Storyful defined three levels of the so-called open web through this metaphor:

The top of the iceberg is the open networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and such.

Below that are the private communities such as Reddit and WhatsApp, and past that, there’s the deep web of things such as 4chan and 8chan.

Everything below the open networks has at least some level of secrecy somewhere along the line, and indeed even the open networks have some closed areas, such as closed and secret groups on Facebook.

That is to say, the majority of things that are said or posted on the internet are below the surface, and only very occasionally do they bubble up and reach the consciousness of the public at large.

To put it more bluntly, most of us have no idea what is going on most of the time, and there are platforms that exist specifically in this mysterious space where most of the internet never dares to venture.

So what are these platforms? And what should we be looking out for?

Let’s look first at some of the ones you might know, the closed communities on the more open web that most of us have interacted with, or at least heard of.

 

The closed networks you know

 

WhatsApp

 

What is it? An encrypted cross-platform messaging service founded in 2009 and acquired by Facebook for 21.8 billion in 2014.

The service has the advantage of being able to create groups and having increased privacy when compared with the more open web. There is a huge uptake of the platform in developing countries, and is particularly popular in India and South American countries.

There have occasionally been problems with fake news because it’s very easy to forward messages to multiple users without seeing where they originally came from. You know, like those mass-mailer email forwards your great aunt used to send you.

 

Reddit

What is it? An extremely minimalistic link sharing website with a simple upvote/downvote system, that was founded in 2005.

The website markets itself as the front page of the internet, and that’s not far from the truth. Stories often pick up steam on the platform before they bubble up to the surface of Twitter and then Facebook.

The intricate network of private communities, each of which has different rules, can be confusing at first, but the upside of the platform is that you’ll find pre-made places for every niche you can imagine to come and talk, which is vital if you’re writing or learning about that niche subject.

So you’ve heard of Reddit and WhatsApp, unless you’ve been living under a rock. But what about some of the parts of the deep web you might not have heard of?

 

The Deep Web networks you might not know

 

The Chans

It’s easiest to start with 4chan and 8chan because they begin to explain everything above them. 4chan began as an image board way back in 2003, but has since evolved into something quite different.

It’s known for its association with a number of infamous incidents, but the most widely known is its /pol or politically incorrect board, where you can often find conspiracy theories and plans to trick journalists.

Just this week, 4chan users claimed to have fooled Michael Avenatti into believing there was a third accuser of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, though this has yet to be substantiated. This is often where conspiracies begin before they rise to the surface of the mainstream, with some accelerationist help along the way from some of the sites we will come to talk about.

8chan evolved from 4chan in 2013, as users felt they were being censored by the latter in the wake of the Gamergate controversy. It’s 4chan in its purest form, and is home to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Tread carefully.

 

Voat

What is it? It’s basically Reddit, but not quite, and it’s branded as “Old Reddit, not New Reddit”.

Voat was founded in 2014 as WhoaVerse before pivoting to the new name in 2017 and acts as a news aggregator and forum for discussion, in much the same way Reddit does. Users can upvote and downvote, submit content, and “sub-verses” more or less match up with the function of subreddits on the better-known platform.

Once again, Voat thrived after accusations of censorship on Reddit following the banning of some of the more extreme subreddits, a common feature amongst these deeper web platforms.

According to the Storyful talk, content from the chans often makes its way here and to Gab for discussion before moving even more mainstream.

 

Gab

What is it? A Twitter-like service where users can send ‘gabs’ of up to 300 characters at a time.

Gab had a similar journey to Voat, but as a reaction to perceived censorship on a different network. It was created specifically as a reaction to Twitter policies that saw some prominent members of the alt-right banned from the platform, with the goal of disrupting, as founder Andrew Torba put it “the entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly”. 

The platform has had some problems with the level of free speech to allow, with it sometimes getting so heated that they have been threatened with having their hosting suspended. Everything seems to have been resolved since, though, as the site is still online as of September 2018.

There’s not necessarily a clear takeaway here, other than the obvious of not believing everything you read. There are genuine, coordinated disinformation campaigns within these ecosystems with the stated, specific goal of trying to trick journalists and the public into believing things that aren’t true, and people spend a lot of time and effort doing that. 

 

What to know:

 

As ever, it’s vital to have an idea of what’s going viral and why. That’s why we spend time studying the data to keep informed.

To join us, sign up for our free newsletter here, where we go into changing social trends and the spread of disinformation. 

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