The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pro-Trump influencers flocked to alternative social networks. Their follower counts stalled soon after.

After a short surge following the Jan. 6 riot last year, the number of people following noted right-wing personalities on services such as Telegram has barely grown over the past year, a Washington Post analysis found

Protesters gathered in Washington in September to support the legal rights of members of the mob who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Pro-Trump commentators’ hopes of developing major followings on right-leaning websites after they left Facebook and Twitter have run up against a harsh reality: Their audiences on those sites have stagnated.

A Washington Post analysis of audience data for 47 prominent right-wing influencers who flocked last year to alternative social networks Gab and Gettr, the video-streaming site Rumble and the chat service Telegram found that their followings surged immediately after President Donald Trump was banned on the mainstream sites.

But those audiences have barely grown in the year since. In some cases, they even declined.

The influencers previously had seen steady growth on Twitter and other big platforms that distributed their messages to a broad audience. But after their jump to the niche sites, the analysis indicates, they largely failed to continue attracting new followers who weren’t already engaged fans.

Their biggest moments for gaining followers came when they voiced outrage at other high-profile conservatives getting kicked off mainstream sites, such as earlier this month, when Twitter booted Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) for repeatedly tweeting false information about coronavirus vaccines.

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“Twitter is an enemy to America and can’t handle the truth,” she said on Telegram and Gettr, where her audience quickly grew to exceed the following for her suspended personal Twitter account.

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The data helps strengthen the case for supporters of “deplatforming,” who argue that banning the accounts of people known for distributing lies can have a powerful impact on their ability to win mainstream attention or political influence.

It also calls into question whether this new and polarized online ecosystem — possibly to be joined soon by Trump’s long-promised social network, Truth Social — can build a sustainable business solely by catering to a radicalized right.

The niche sites continue to pull in Republican leaders and right-wing flamethrowers who could lift the sites’ online prospects. But for most of the deplatformed accounts, their brief jump after Trump’s ban accounted for more than 80 percent of their followers for the entire year, the analysis found. While some saw tepid growth in recent months, others watched their follower counts shrink — an indication that some fans might have decided to tune them out.

Darren Linvill, the lead researcher at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, said the sites have struggled to gain attention because their focus on right-wing rabble-rousers has pigeonholed them into one side of the American political debate. So much of social media, he added, isn’t political at all: The biggest platforms are loaded with jokes, pop culture, cute photos and other distractions that make up most people’s daily media appetites.

Building a robust social media platform requires “multiple perspectives so you can have lots of different conversations happening to bring in lots of different kinds of people,” Linvill said. “Right-wing platforms are one-trick ponies. They’re only going to, by their nature, appeal to the type of person they are branded to appeal to, and there’s only so many people in that world.”

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Telegram says it has more than 500 million monthly active users worldwide, nearly half of whom joined in the past two years, but that massive growth has not always translated to its right-wing users, the analysis found.

Lin Wood, the Atlanta attorney who boosted Trump’s failed legal push to invalidate his 2020 election loss, was banned on Twitter after urging his 1.2 million followers to “pledge your lives” and fight on Jan. 6. On Telegram, he gained 800,000 followers within the next month, but his audience peaked in June and has since slid to 730,000, about 60 percent of his lost Twitter audience. (Telegram deletes accounts that have been inactive for six months or more, which could contribute to the decline.) Wood still posts hundreds of Telegram messages every month.

The Twitter clones Gab and Gettr and the YouTube clone Rumble focus more directly on appealing to a conservative audience, but they also have struggled to keep the momentum for their biggest far-right stars.

On Gab, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who joined Gab in 2016 and was banned from mainstream sites in 2018, went from gaining roughly 25,000 followers a month in the first quarter of 2021 to adding about 1,000 followers a month for the rest of the year, the analysis found. On Rumble, One America News, the video network known for its pro-Trump conspiracy theories, saw its subscriber count more than double, to roughly 750,000, in the month after Trump’s Twitter ban, but its growth has leveled off since, settling to about 900,000 subscribers today. (The network’s president didn’t respond to a request for comment. The network’s biggest distributor, DirecTV, plans to stop carrying it this spring.)

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Gettr’s chief, former Trump adviser Jason Miller, said he is “not at all worried about our business long-term,” adding, “The legacy platforms have bigger user bases but they treat them with total disdain.”

Gab’s chief, Andrew Torba, said the findings are “irrelevant to Gab’s growth overall as a free speech platform for all people.” Pro-Trump commentators, he added, might be struggling on the alternative platforms because of Trump’s defense of the coronavirus vaccine. “His nonstop vaccine shilling has turned many of his supporters off completely,” Torba said.

The Post analyzed influencers’ follower or subscriber counts using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which periodically captured snapshots of their profiles over the last year.

The analysis could not differentiate between active and dormant followers, and it’s impossible to tell how many unique people followed an influencer across different platforms since many fans have an account on multiple sites. The analysis also did not measure video views or other metrics of engagement, leaving it unclear whether the followers were more or less active than on the mainstream sites.

Some influencers saw reliable growth over the year, including Dan Bongino, the popular right-wing radio host who saw explosive growth on his Facebook and Rumble accounts. Trump’s Rumble account, launched in late June, has grown consistently, too, although his audience of 1 million subscribers there is less than half the 2.7 million he had on YouTube.

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Gettr also saw a boom earlier this month when Rep. Greene was banned from Twitter and star podcaster Joe Rogan announced he had joined the site. More than 700,000 people joined Gettr in the three days after Rogan joined, according to Gettr, which celebrated the move as a “great awakening” and “pivotal moment in the battle for free speech.”

But a week after joining, Rogan slammed Gettr in a podcast as “not real,” “fugazi” and “f--kery,” saying the site had improperly inflated his follower count by including his Twitter numbers. He has not posted to the site since. (Miller defended the site by saying it included both Gettr and Twitter followers to illustrate a person’s “true reach.”)

The site, Miller said, has been “consistently building” since its July launch and gained its first million users more quickly than Facebook and Twitter, which launched in 2004 and 2006, respectively.

Gettr’s numbers could not be independently verified, but data from the computer-networking company Cisco suggests the site’s recent bump in traffic has elevated it above Parler, another right-wing site. Compared with the mainstream platforms, Gettr remains microscopic: Its global base of 4 million accounts is roughly a tenth the size of Twitter’s active U.S. audience and about 2 percent of Facebook’s, company data show.

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A mix of factors could be holding back the right-wing accounts’ growth. The alternative sites lack many of the features people have come to expect from the mainstream Internet. They also lack the real-world social networks — friends and family members — that keep people coming back.

Many viewers also might be turned off by all the heated political griping. Because the sites promote an anything-goes mentality and refrain from basic content moderation, they have attracted members of the Internet’s most fanatical fringe, said Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor at Queen’s University in Ontario who has researched extremist groups online.

“If you’re just a run-of-the-mill Trump supporter and then all of a sudden you’re in a pool of channels that’s hard-core far-right or neo-Nazi content, it may not be your cup of tea,” he said.

Deplatforming can limit the chances for a broader audience to stumble across conspiracy-theory peddlers. “You can always go down a rabbit hole if you want to. No one’s stopping you … [but] you have to go looking for it,” said Megan Brown, a research scientist at New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics.

But even with a plateaued fan base, many of the influencers can still gain outsize impact by helping propel talking points up the “ideological food chain” to more prominent conservative figures, said a report this month from the Atlantic Council, a think tank, on the “great scattering” to right-wing social networks.

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Researchers have also found that shunting people into echo chambers — where extreme views are encouraged and apolitical content is absent — can lead to more polarization, not less. A team of researchers last year who analyzed data from r/The_Donald, a pro-Trump forum banned by Reddit that launched its own stand-alone site, found that the spinoff had far fewer members but that the tone of discussions had become more hateful.

Some conspiracy theorists on the alternative platforms have seen their audiences expand over the past year as coronavirus vaccines went from a dream to reality, The Post’s analysis found. On Telegram, Sherri Tenpenny, a prominent spreader of the nonsense theory that vaccines can make people magnetic, has gained roughly 10,000 followers a month since being banned from Twitter and YouTube last year.

That growth, however, has not extended to other conspiracy-theory movements, such as QAnon, which claims with no evidence that Trump has fought a secret holy war against a satanic “deep state” elite. QAnon promoters saw two sharp jolts in their follower counts on the alternative platforms in September 2020, when Facebook first signaled it would ban QAnon groups, and in January 2021, when the sites received a burst of attention after Trump’s ban.

Since then, however, their follower counts have stagnated on Gab, one of the theory’s central discussion boards. Two of the more prominent QAnon boosters, Jordan Sather and the anonymous user “redpill78,” have grown their audiences roughly 1 percent or less per month since last spring. (Sather called a Post reporter a “dweeb” and said his audience has grown elsewhere.)

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The flattened audience growth could fuel tensions among BitChute, Gab, Gettr, MeWe, Parler, Rumble and other “alt-tech” platforms competing with each other over the same niche. Gab leader Torba, for instance, has criticized Gettr and Rumble as “alt tech phonies” for banning hate speech.

Trump’s unreleased social network, Truth Social, could divide the saturated market’s attention even further. Trump has turned down offers to join Gettr and Parler, though his own social network remains months away from completion, people familiar with the operation told The Post.

The former president has lashed out at the sites on which he once posted dozens of messages a day, calling Twitter “boring” and “hated by everyone.” His lawyers, however, have fought to reinstate his Twitter account.

Trump’s new company, the Trump Media & Technology Group, is being led by former congressman Devin Nunes, who resigned after 19 years in the House to join the firm. Nunes stopped using his Twitter account in late 2020 and moved to Parler. His last post there, one month ago, has received just 34 comments.

Chris Alcantara contributed to this story.

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