In the wake of Donald Trump's effective ban from social media courtesy of the big tech giants, an important question needs to be asked: will it help stop the spread of far-right and potentially violent material online? Early evidence, both from previous similar bans and the responses of Trump's supporters, suggest it may not, and in fact could end up being counterproductive.
In recent years, abandoning much of the free speech ethos under which they were created, large digital media platforms have become much more active in regulating content and restricting users from their sites. A number of high-profile far-right figures have been shown the door, included broadcaster Alex Jones, polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos (after he orchestrated a trolling campaign against the movie star Leslie Jones), and recently a hoard of profiles promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory (the major thrust of which is that Satan-worshipping politicians and Hollywood stars are running a secret global child sex-trafficking ring, with Donald Trump their most powerful opponent). Even Reddit, considered by many to be the Wild West of the web, has become more restrictive, last year banning 2000 communities, including the largest dedicated to supporting Donald Trump, r/The_Donald.
For social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit, these bans have, overall, been highly successful. They have, to an extent, reduced hateful content on these platforms and, most importantly, removed figures who presented significant liabilities to these sites' bottom lines. However, they have also created unintended consequences.
Largely in response to these moves, in recent years far-right organisations and individuals have started to develop their own platforms. The most high-profile of these have been a right-wing alternative to Reddit called Voat, which shut down last month, as well as two alternatives to Twitter, Gab and Parler - the second of which is currently down due to being removed from Amazon's servers. Individual communities have also established their own self-moderated forums. After being banned from Reddit, for example, members of r/The_Donald moved to their own website called thedonald.win. Many "men's rights" groups - largely a misnomer - have done the same.
These communities benefit directly from large social media bans. In studying some of the first bans of communities on Reddit, McGill University's Edward Newell and his team found they resulted in significant migration of users to other, smaller and less restrictive platforms. I have conducted similar research on Reddit's quarantining of a number of men's rights subreddits - a policy that, when implemented, significantly limits users' access to a community. I found that while this policy limited engagement with these communities, and in turn likely reduced hateful material on Reddit, participants reacted by moving to alternative, self-moderated spaces.
Migration like this present an obvious and significant risk. Compared to their larger counterparts, these platforms have a significantly more laissez-faire approach to moderation, letting racist, sexist, homophobic and violent content run wild. Away from the leering eyes of the broader community, these sites are a breeding-ground for extremist material. Previously, however, these sites were marginal in their nature, remaining spaces for a small rump of committed far-right supporters.
The Trump ban could change this. Trump is now, by far, the most famous and influential right-wing figure to be removed from the large digital media platforms. His ban is already seeing significant numbers of new people migrate to these more extreme spaces.
In the 48 hours following Trump's ban from Twitter, for example, Gab reported it had 900,000 new subscribers. Before Amazon's move, Parler was the most downloaded app on Apple in the United States. We can't necessarily stop this by taking these platforms down. While Parler has been taken offline, many of these alternatives are becoming more sophisticated. Gab runs off its own server, alongside a range of associated infrastructure, meaning it cannot simply be deplatformed.
What is most worrying about the Trump ban and the associated growth of these spaces is that it is likely broadening the reach of previously fringe ideas beyond the already-committed far right. While a significant number of Trump's fans are already deeply involved with the far right, many others are not. Trump appeals to a large cohort, in particular a significant number of people who feel a deep disillusionment with mainstream institutions, politics, large companies and broader society. These people, however, have historically stuck to large platforms such as Facebook and Twitter (which is why QAnon has been so successful in these spaces). The Trump social media bans are starting to push these users away from these sites, reinforcing feelings of disillusionment and disconnect with both large companies and society as a whole. Alternative platforms are providing an easy-to-access alternative.
While only a relatively small proportion of those who followed Trump on Twitter will migrate to Gab, or to Parlier if it reappears, for many accessing these new platforms, it will be their first exposure to such intense extremist material. Through entering these spaces, many of these Trump supporters have the potential to become more fully engrained in far-right political culture and organising. Being further distanced from mainstream institutions, they are ripe to be recruited as active far-right members.
For Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, the Trump ban has been a great success, removing a significant liability and giving themselves a lot of positive press attention in the meantime. However, as the Georgia Institute of Technology's Eshwar Chandrasekharah and colleagues have argued about similar bans from Reddit in the past, this move has likely just made Trump's content "someone else's problem".
It's fair to say Donald Trump's removal from social media could have significant unintended consequences into the future.
- Simon Copland is a PhD candidate at the ANU's School of Sociology, studying the online "manosphere" and digital platforms.