There will always be ways for Trump, and everyone else, to keep making their views known on the Internet. Parler is scrambling its way back online after its unceremonious purging last week, and an ever-growing list of alternatives are offering similar opportunities for online conversation that is moderated lightly or not at all.
But those purged from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will find their alternatives comparatively obscure, and while their freedom to speak will be intact, their reach will be diminished and their audiences fractured.
Even the most extreme voices — QAnon enthusiasts, Proud Boys, “boogaloo bois,” white supremacists, anti-Semites — have found ways to keep talking to each other online after mainstream platforms expelled them — or, to use an increasingly popular term, “de-platformed” them. What got dramatically curbed was their ability to talk to everyone else.
“I’m hearing some conversations that seem to suggest that de-platforming is a cure-all for radicalization, and that is not at all what the evidence suggests,” said Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher at Queen’s University in Ontario. “What de-platforming does is disrupt networks, makes it harder for individuals to find each other again, shatters the trust that existed between them [and] takes the megaphone away.”
These forces will help shape Trump’s post-White House future and that of a riven, traumatized nation whose new leader, President-elect Joe Biden, has vowed to heal it.
Already there has been a 73 percent drop in misinformation related to false claims about election fraud, analytics firm Zignal Labs reported over the weekend, suggesting concerted action by mainstream platforms can be effective at slowing the spread of falsehoods. Twitter also erased more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon following the Capitol breach.
At the same time, the shifting ground rules and rising assertiveness of big tech companies have recast the world’s information infrastructure in still-unfolding ways.
It’s clearer than ever who has ultimate power in this world — owners of social media sites and Internet services companies. But how they will use it now is largely unknown, despite a thicket of official platform policies that grows denser by the year.
Silicon Valley’s power, meanwhile, has become a bipartisan concern, as made clear by the antitrust lawsuits filed by dozens of state attorneys general and the U.S. Justice Department — something that’s unlikely to change under a Biden administration. But as those cases play out over what’s expected to be years, tech companies are going to face more immediate fallout from their ongoing drive to rid their platforms of their most virulent voices.
For individual users, the consequences stand to be stark. Increasingly, there is evidence that when a user on a mainstream platform moves to Gab, MeWe or 8kun, their audiences shrink even as they become more intense in voicing their outsider grievances.
Trump, for years the center of American attention, now finds himself at the fringe. Trump built an army of 88 million followers on Twitter over years of frenetic daily posting, and he lost it overnight. After a few failed attempts to tweet from other accounts, he has gone digitally silent. Fringe sites such as Gab have called on him to join them, but he has yet to officially start over anywhere else.
The social network Parler, a favorite of conservatives, is often thought of as an alternative. But Apple and Google dropped it from their app stores after the a mob stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, destroying its ability to reach users on their cellphones. Amazon Web Services, the cloud-computing giant that undergirds much of the modern Internet, also removed the site, saying in a legal filing that Parler had showed an “unwillingness and inability” to remove content “inciting and planning the rape, torture, and assassination of named public officials and private citizens.”
Parler remains mostly offline, but a landing page on the site says its “return is inevitable,” and it has found a helping hand from a Russian company, DDoS-Guard, which helps keep websites online by defending against cyberattacks. The company also has assisted Russian military websites and the far-right message board 8kun, which is home to the sprawling set of extremist ideologies known as QAnon.
DDoS-Guard officials, who did not respond to requests for comment, said in a statement to Forbes that Parler “does not violate either our Acceptable Use Policy or the current U.S. law to the best of our knowledge.”
Other smaller companies, such as Epik and VanwaTech, have stepped in to provide critical services to Gab, 8kun and other websites when other companies pulled their support over the hosting of hate speech or violent threats.
After three mass shootings were linked to posts and racist screeds on 8chan, the site was dropped by the British tech firm Voxility, which said 8chan had facilitated deadly violence and “extreme hate speech with intolerable consequences.” Epik’s chief Rob Monster defended the company’s ongoing work with 8kun, as 8chan is now known, by saying it would not “limit speech that makes us uncomfortable.”
The niche platforms, however, have only a tiny fraction of their mainstream rivals’ relevance or recruitment potential. Three of the biggest pro-Trump sites on the Internet — Parler, Gab and TheDonald.win — have seen a combined average of about 3 million website visits a day in the United States since the insurrection, according to analytics firm SimilarWeb.
That’s about 5 percent of Twitter’s daily U.S. traffic over the same time frame, at 57 million visits a day, and 2 percent of Facebook’s, at more than 140 million. The gap is even more dramatic on a global stage: Facebook and Twitter had more than 1 billion visits worldwide on Jan. 6, the day a mob overran the Capitol.
Amarasingam compared the removal of domestic online extremists to the takedown of the Islamic State’s online network in recent years. The true believers returned on less prominent platforms but not in the same freewheeling way. This hurt their ability to spread their messages and conduct mass recruitment, but didn’t stop more targeted communication efforts.
Audrey Alexander, a researcher who studies online extremism at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, said social media bans on the Islamic State weakened the terrorist group’s recruitment of new followers and that its ability to rebuild was drastically limited by the smaller Internet alternatives it turned to in the aftermath.
Violent organizing and hate speech can’t be eradicated from the Internet, she said, but it can be marginalized, and tech companies have begun experimenting with some methods, from quietly limiting a channel’s dissemination ability to promoting more authoritative voices in subscriptions and searches.
But “if we work too hard to push them to a place where the mainstream won’t see them, the fringe is really going to validate itself with all this escalating behavior and egging each other on,” she added. “People start to believe, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of other people who believe the same things, too.’ ”
SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online extremism, has identified three new web addresses for TheDonald, the fervently pro-Trump community that started on Reddit but later was banished. The website where it now operates was a central hub for organizing, instigating and celebrating the Capitol siege. The moderators of the forum recently urged users to bookmark the new web addresses, presumably in case the main site is knocked offline, and they are using several domain registrars and hosting services to guard against possible punitive action by any single company.
A post on 4chan and Telegram, under the headline “The Big Tech Flippening,” lists alternatives to Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, WhatsApp, Discord, Instagram and even the mainstream browsers Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.
The shift to smaller messaging and social media sites — whether from a purge or a voluntary exodus — means “you stop the recruitment of innocent people” who might stumble upon extremist messaging, said Rita Katz, the executive director of SITE. “At the same time, there’s greater threat to being made radical” among those communicating in more confined communities.
L. Lin Wood, the Georgia attorney who has led a failing legal crusade to overturn Trump’s election loss, built a massive Twitter audience with false tweets about conspiracy theories and voter fraud — nearly 1.2 million followers, roughly 100,000 of whom followed him the day before the attack on the Capitol. On that morning, he tweeted, “Time to fight for our freedom. Pledge your lives, your fortunes, & your sacred honor. … TODAY IS OUR DAY.”
When Twitter banned him a day later for inciting violence, he continued posting on Parler, where he told his more than 500,000 followers that Vice President Pence should be executed.
Wood, who did not respond to requests for comment, has continued to post online about baseless claims of a vast and “evil” conspiracy, saying on Tuesday that Pence, Hillary Clinton and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had been involved in a plot to kill federal judges.
But with Twitter banning him and Parler no longer accessible, he has been unable to replicate his old audience: Wood now posts mostly on Telegram, a messaging app that allows group chats, where he has about 400,000 subscribers and none of the simple retweeting tools that allow his fans to share his message with a broader audience.
On Tuesday, he announced he’d hit a new obstacle, saying Telegram had suspended replies to his posts because users had been “posting improper content.” He asked that his followers “please consider sharing my posts.”
“Share truth with others. Thank you,” he concluded, adding emoji for folded hands and a heart.