On the Internet, former president Donald Trump is sliding toward something he has fought his entire life: irrelevance.
Trump is still by far the Republican Party’s biggest star, and conservative lawmakers and provocateurs are now loudly sparring over the importance of loyalty to him ahead of the 2022 midterm elections or a potential second Trump presidential run. Many of the party’s potential 2024 candidates say they will not run if he does, and many of the party’s luminaries have traveled to Florida to meet with him.
But Trump’s continued influence isn’t translating into a bigger online audience, according to a Washington Post review of data from four online-analytics firms. Social engagement around Trump — a measure of likes, reactions, comments or shares on content about him across Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest — has nosedived 95 percent since January, to its lowest level since 2016.
Trump’s biggest attempt yet to recapture America’s attention has severely underwhelmed the Internet — and even his own advisers. His “From the Desk of Donald Trump” blog, which he and his team have promoted heavily in TV interviews and social media posts, has in the last week been shared to Facebook on average fewer than 2,000 times a day — a staggering drop from last year, when his Facebook page fielded tens of millions of comments, shares and other interactions every week, according to data from the social media analytics firm BuzzSumo and the Facebook-owned content-tracking tool CrowdTangle.
Trump, who has long boasted about his ability to draw an audience online and dominate the conversation, has complained that his statements are getting nowhere near as much attention as they once did, people in his orbit have said. They say Trump is increasingly resigned to his banishment from Facebook, a penalty enacted after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and reaffirmed this month, and he’s uninterested in joining many of the conservative-friendly online alternatives that have sought to win his endorsement.
To win back the spotlight, his team is working on a project they’re calling “Trump Media Group,” which would launch this summer and could include a new social media platform of Trump’s own. Advisers say Trump talks about the project regularly and gets updates from the team building it, though a final product is not ready. Other advisers say he could still join another platform if he received enough money from the platform and could control the terms. He is expected to hold a spate of rallies this summer to secure media attention as well, advisers say.
But building a competitor to the juggernauts of social media — which have spent years of development and billions of dollars shaping some of the world’s most popular websites — will present a massive challenge that could further undermine Trump’s image of post-presidential power. And the early results from Trump’s most recent efforts offer little encouragement that he’ll be able to win back the parts of the American public that have moved on.
“He’s whistling in the wind,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who studies right-wing online organizing and reviewed data about Trump’s audience. “People just aren’t following him to his little desk platform, and we can see that in the numbers. The difference is ridiculous. He doesn’t have that same ability anymore to constantly put his content in people’s faces the way he did before.”
When a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, his social media presence was at an all-time high, with more than 88 million Twitter followers and another 35 million on Facebook. Every message he sent was practically guaranteed hundreds of thousands of interactions and responses.
But in the riot’s aftermath, those sites (and many others) suspended his accounts, citing fears he could stir up more violence and effectively dismantling his biggest online megaphones overnight. Since his first tweet promoting a David Letterman appearance in 2009, Trump had dashed off more than 56,000 tweets and retweets — nearly 13 tweets a day, every day, for the last 12 years.
Trump’s team scrambled to create a new way for him to get his message across as he moved from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, his Florida resort. The sites had given Trump a direct on-ramp into the news cycle and became some of his most lucrative political moneymakers.
In March, Trump’s senior adviser, Jason Miller, said a new Trump social media platform would be revealed within three months and draw “tens of millions of people” to become “the hottest ticket” in social media.
“It’s going to completely redefine the game,” he said in a Fox News interview, “and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does.”
Trump’s team unveiled their new website this month by circulating a cinematic trailer, in which soaring orchestral music plays as the camera zooms from space into Mar-a-Lago over the words: “In a time of silence and lies, a beacon of freedom arises.”
But even as they promoted it, Trump’s advisers were underwhelmed. The long-hyped site was just a blog: a primitive one-way loudspeaker that lacked most of the technical features that define the modern Web, like the per-post comment sections that older blogging sites such as LiveJournal have had for 20 years. The blog, Miller tweeted, was separate from the new social media platform he had promised, which he said would still be coming “in the very near future.”
Miller dismissed the drop in mentions on social media. “A lot of our people aren’t on those platforms anymore. When they kicked off Trump, millions of Trump supporters are no longer on Twitter or Facebook having rejected these big tech oligarchs for their censoring of President Trump.”
But there’s no evidence that millions of Trump supporters have left those platforms. Facebook’s daily active user base in the United States and Canada hasn’t changed since Trump’s ban, remaining at 195 million during the first three months of the year, while Twitter’s actually grew by 5 million, to 38 million, company filings show.
Trump’s fans and critics online were quick to note that the blog had no features for user likes, replies or reactions; no cheers or bickering in the comment sections; and no space for memes, retweets or other trappings that other sites use to spread messages to broader audiences.
Trump advisers say the blog is low-quality and unimpressive and have faulted Brad Parscale, the former Trump campaign manager whose company built the site and runs the political campaign software Campaign Nucleus, for several technical glitches and inexplicable delays. The blog dropped offline for an hour after Trump posted a falsehood-filled complaint May 15 about the election recount in Arizona’s Maricopa County.
“These comments came from the same people who have never done anything for Trump but talk. My company spent the last six years building products that helped the president spread his message around the world. And we happily continue to do so,” Parscale said. “The website is built exactly as we pitched it.”
Since the blog’s launch, however, online data shows relatively few people have paid attention. Trump’s entire website, including his blog, saw roughly 4 million visits in the week ending May 18 from desktop and mobile devices in the United States — about 60 percent of the week’s traffic for the right-wing websites Newsmax and the Gateway Pundit, according to an analysis by the online-analytics firm SimilarWeb, which tracks and estimates traffic and referrals for millions of websites.
In the same week, the Trump website’s traffic was beaten by not just Delish and Petfinder but the website builder Squarespace, the news magazine the Atlantic and the food site Eat This Not That, according to SimilarWeb. (Facebook and Twitter had 896 million and 329 million visits in the same time period, respectively.)
The data doesn’t break out visits just to Trump’s blog, but a separate analysis shows how little those blog posts are getting passed around the Web.
Each blog post includes a Facebook and Twitter share button, allowing fans to spread Trump’s words on networks where they would otherwise be banned. But not many fans appear to be doing so: Social engagement across the Web with Trump’s blog, including reactions and shares on Facebook and Twitter, plummeted from 159,000 interactions on its first day to fewer than 30,000 the second and haven’t crossed 15,000 interactions any day since, BuzzSumo data show.
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Parscale insisted Trump’s website is “highly trafficked,” saying the number of page views so far in May is 28 million, according to his company’s internal data.
Trump’s continued exile from the primary social media platforms and his treatment by Big Tech, in their words, have become key issues for party stalwarts and are likely to become talking points in 2022, according to internal Republican polling data and operatives who have met to discuss how to campaign on them.
But there is little evidence, despite the polemics, that people are talking about him online, despite his blog being promoted as a “beacon of freedom” in recent Trump appearances on conservative talk-radio shows and friendly TV interviews.
Trump posts several times a day to the blog in the same rambling style that won him attention on Twitter for years, berating his enemies, cheering his cheerleaders and bemoaning how little credit he believes he gets: “Just a mention please!” he said last week in a post about vaccines. He still loudly opines on the day’s news, writing recently that a “junky” racehorse’s failed drug test was “emblematic” of how “the whole world is laughing at us as we go to hell.”
Still, chatter about Trump has fallen across the biggest social media sites to its lowest level since May 2016, when he was just becoming the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, according to the BuzzSumo data. On Twitter, data from the online-analytics firm Zignal Labs shows, mentions of him have cratered to an average of about 4 million a week, the lowest since 2016.
Trump’s blog shows none of the technical sophistication his team would need to build a new social media site. The blog does not save one’s progress or previously read messages, and asks viewers every time they open the page whether they want alerts to their email and phone, regardless of whether they’ve already signed up.
To mimic a social network, each post includes a “heart” button, but it doesn’t do anything except change the icon from blue to red, an analysis of the website’s code shows. Some messages, like a recent 900-word rant about the New York attorney general’s investigation of his company, are posted in a single giant, hard-to-read block.
The site prominently features buttons for donating to Trump’s political action committee and buying Trump-branded merchandise. But visuals are sparse: The only photo on the site shows Trump sitting in a floral-patterned chair, writing in a book with a Sharpie.
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To publish messages to the blog, Trump dictates statements to aides, who type and print them out so he can edit them with a Sharpie. The aides then upload the statements to the site and push them out via email blasts — a far cry from the instant gratification he got from tapping posts onto Twitter all day.
Building a functional new social network would require an enormous amount of technical and financial investment at a time when Trump’s team may be seeking to amass a campaign war chest.
“Successful start-up social platforms require massive amounts of patience and personal investment, and Trump isn’t really known for either of those,” said Nu Wexler, a communications consultant who has previously worked for Twitter, Facebook and Democratic campaigns. “Trump’s biggest obstacle is time. He wants the media spotlight back immediately or back by the 2022 midterms, and he can’t build a real social platform by then.”
That’s the easy part. To keep people interested, a new social network would also need to overcome more established social media sites’ “network effects” — the fact that so many users’ friends and family are on there already, locking them in — and “engineer all the tricks that the other platforms use to drive engagement and virality, which is no easy feat,” said Ashkan Soltani, the former chief technologist of the Federal Trade Commission.
“Those companies have had years and years of engineering and data and A-B testing of what evokes people writ large,” he added. “The way they are engineered to amplify divisive content; the way they use your friends and your friends’ activities to grab you; the way they use notifications to draw you back in — all those aspects aren’t going to be present in whatever thing Trump creates.”
Some researchers, however, have cautioned against writing Trump off just yet. Though he faces competitors inside and outside the party, the 74-year-old Florida man still dominates polls for the 2024 national Republican primary, and it was only six months ago that he won 70 million votes — an audience that may show up for him again, regardless of what he creates.
“It’s not so much the will of Trump,” said Leysia Palen, a University of Colorado professor who led research into how Trump’s tweets were amplified around the Web. “It’s those 70 million voters who kept him relevant. They want somebody to organize around.”