What happens when the former leader of the free world gets deplatformed? We’re going to find out.
Donald Trump is out of the White House. And he’s been kicked off of the world’s biggest tech platforms. Now what?
We don’t yet have any idea what Trump really plans to do now that he’s a private citizen (he probably doesn’t either). We also don’t know what will happen to Trump’s reach and power without access to Twitter and the rest of his social media bullhorns.
In the past, we’ve seen big — but compared to Trump, comparatively tiny — right-wing figures diminish considerably once they’ve been deplatformed. But none of them used to be the leader of the free world.
“Trump is going to be an interesting case because he is so prominent,” says Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “He’s not a fringe figure popular within a passionate-yet-small audience. He [was] the president of the United States.”
So it may be useful to look at the experiences of some of the fringe figures who have had their social media plugs pulled over the last few years, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones — who, not coincidentally, helped set the stage for Trump and the post-truth world he created for the last four years. For now, though, we can only make guesses about what happens to Trump without a platform.
A few things we are certain about right now: Trump is unlikely to command an audience — at least, directly — on mainstream social media services for a long time.
Although Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey posted a mournful thread last week about his company’s decision to boot Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol riot, Twitter says the ban is permanent. (A Twitter comms rep did suggest to me, perhaps cheekily, that Trump could try the company’s appeals page.)
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t said Trump would be banned from Facebook and Instagram forever; instead, he has said the ban would last at least “until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” But informed people I’ve talked to at the company say there won’t be any change now that Joe Biden is the 46th president, and they can’t imagine a scenario where something does change.
YouTube, which waited several days after its Big Tech peers to ban Trump, and initially announced a ban that would run through the inauguration, has in theory given Trump the most hope: On Tuesday, the company said it would extend the ban another week instead of indefinitely banning him. But it’s hard to imagine YouTube breaking from the rest of its peers and letting Trump back in.
More to the point, while Trump’s campaign spent heavily on YouTube, and he used it to broadcast his farewell address (via the official White House account, which YouTube said was okay), Donald Trump has yet to show any real interest in the video site. The same goes for Snapchat — which has officially banned Trump. TikTok, meanwhile, didn’t officially ban Trump, but it pulled lots of Trump-related content off the service (which, despite Trump’s efforts to ban it, is still very much alive in the US).
We also know that, in the past, deplatforming particular figures from social media does indeed appear to have decreased their overall presence and power.
Both Yiannopoulos (a self-styled provocateur banned from Twitter after a string of racist tweets in 2016; Facebook followed up in 2019) and Jones (a conspiracy theorist best known for arguing that the Sandy Hook school shootings were were a hoax and who was banned from most of mainstream social media in 2018) downplayed the consequences of getting kicked off social media, but both have clearly suffered.
A year after he lost Twitter, Yiannopoulos complained that his ability to make a living trolling libs had vanished. Jones is still yelling loudly about wild-eyed conspiracies, but he appears to have lost a significant slice of his audience to the QAnon cult, which is why his most public appearance in years came after the Capitol Hill riot, when he raved (in a viral Twitter video he didn’t post) that QAnon’s warped conspiracies were a bridge too far.
Just as telling: While Trump used to embrace Jones publicly, over the last year he became publicly affectionate for QAnon, and ended up peddling the cult’s conspiracy theories after he lost his election last fall.
And yes, it’s possible that Trump, like Jones and Yiannopoulos, could take up residence on the barely moderated social network Parler (which itself has been deplatformed, at least for now, by Amazon, Apple, and Google). He could also head over to messaging apps like Signal and Telegram, which have been booming in recent days, but those aren’t likely to be satisfying replacements for him.
That’s in part because Signal and Telegram are fundamentally built for individual or group messaging, as opposed to the broadcast blast to millions that Trump loved. And Parler has been marketed as a safe haven for angry conservatives and Trump fans — which means that, in the best-case scenario, Trump could use it to reach his hardcore supporters but not the rest of the world.
Which is terrible news for Trump and anyone else who craves attention, said Jared Holt, a visiting research fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab: You can’t pick a fight with the libs (or the media, or John Bolton, or anyone else) if they’re not around to fight.
“Trump has really emerged as a deity to his most devoted supporters, and one of the things they like about him so much is that he fights the culture war alongside them,” he says. “Losing the platform where that war happens takes away that thrill.”
That lack of conflict also underlines the knock-on effect of deplatforming for Trump: While he’ll still command some degree of attention from the press — especially if he appears to be a credible candidate for a second White House run or demonstrates the ability to help Trump-friendly candidates win their local races — a provocation on Parler isn’t the same as a tantrum on Twitter. If the tree doesn’t fall in the mainstream media forest, it’s easier to pretend it didn’t make a sound, and it’s easier to not assign a reporter to write it up. (Also: The person knocking down the tree is no longer the most powerful man in the world.)
One flip side to all of this: While deplatforming can reduce Trump’s overall reach, it could certainly make his remaining followers more ardent. Watching the most powerful technology companies in the world act at the same time, if not in unison, against Donald Trump has, for his followers, likely bolstered his claim that tech companies were working against him — and his followers.
In this case, Holt says, “A base of voters that’s been told that there’s a global tech industry conspiracy against them will likely be more hardened in their beliefs” when they see what’s happened to Trump. “And if Trump was right about that, was he right about the election stuff?”
Which gets at what we really ought to care about when we make predictions about what happens to Trump’s reach in his post-Twitter era: What happens to the people he used to reach? Regardless of whether they follow him to a different platform, they’re still going to hear from … somebody on mainstream social media. And if it’s not Trump, who’s going to fill that void?