June 27, 2022

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Technology Forever

Trump backers seek online refuges after big tech backlash

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6 in Washington. Online supporters of Trump are scattering to smaller social media platforms, fleeing what they say is unfair treatment by Facebook, Twitter and other big tech firms looking to squelch misinformation and threats of violence. [John Minchillo/Associated Press file photo]

Online supporters of President Donald Trump are scattering to smaller social media platforms, fleeing what they say is unfair treatment by Facebook, Twitter and other big tech firms looking to squelch misinformation and threats of violence.

The efforts by those mainstream platforms, prompted by the deadly rampage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, will likely succeed, according to social media and misinformation experts. But the crackdown could send some of Trump’s fiercest supporters retreating to dark and secret spaces on the internet where conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric run rampant.

“We’re going to see less opportunity to radicalize new people” on mainstream platforms, Kate Starbird, a leading misinformation expert at the University of Washington said Wednesday. “But for those who are already radicalized, or already down the rabbit hole with conspiracy theories, this might not make a difference if the places they go become echo chambers.”

For years, mainstream tech companies had been the target of conservative ire, with complaints that Facebook and Twitter enforce their policies with a political bias. The platforms also have been criticized for allowing harmful conspiracy theories and hate speech to thrive on their sites.

Then came an unprecedented response from the tech companies to the Capitol riot, fueled in part by false and misleading social media posts that undermined faith in the U.S. election. Twitter banned Trump’s account, as well as 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. Facebook and Instagram suspended Trump through the end of his term, and removed posts fraudulently claiming that the U.S. election was stolen. Snapchat also banned Trump, and on Wednesday, YouTube suspended his channel for at least a week.

Some conservative users had briefly found refuge on Parler, only to see the conservative alternative to Facebook go dark Monday when Amazon stopped providing hosting services. Parler sued Amazon over the ban; Amazon responded by arguing the platform’s “unwillingness” to remove posts threatens public safety.

The crackdown prompted many conservative posters to consider more obscure alternative platforms such as Gab, which has marketed itself to Trump supporters. Gab CEO Andrew Torba, who describes himself as a “Christian entrepreneur and American populist,” posted Wednesday that 1.7 million users signed up in the past four days.

“This is where we make our final stand for our sacred birthright bestowed by God and affirmed by our Founding Fathers,” read a comment shared by Torba.