Twitter’s Trump Ban Will Mark a New Era for ‘Free Speech’ Social Media Platforms

‘This is Gab’s moment’

Photo Illustration: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Twitter permanently suspended President Donald Trump’s personal account Friday evening, citing “the risk of further incitement of violence” posed by his tweets in the context of ongoing unrest and violence in Washington, D.C. The president’s removal from his favorite platform created a vacuum for alternative Twitter sites Parler and Gab, both of which have courted Trump in the past.

Shortly after Trump’s ban from Twitter, both Parler and Gab experienced technical issues, likely from the number of users attempting to access their platforms. Parler users encountered a “networking error” on their home feeds.

On Thursday, Gab CEO Andrew Torba issued a statement that “I am in the process of connecting with President Trump’s team as we speak. The president’s Gab account is already reserved with hundreds of thousands of followers.”

“It’s happening,” Torba added. “This is Gab’s moment, one that we have been preparing for now for over four and a half years.”

Trump’s Gab account, which has nearly 500,000 followers, was created by the company in 2016 and has been mirroring posts from @realDonaldTrump on Twitter. He doesn’t personally operate the account, though it has been pre-verified by Gab in preparation for an eventual takeover.

Gab was one of the first platforms to brand itself as a “free speech” social media site and has been a haven for right-wing terrorists and other violent extremists. The app was removed from the App Store and Google Play in 2017 for violating hate speech policies.

In his statement on Wednesday, Torba claimed that Gab’s traffic “was already up 120%+ in 24 hours alone,” following riots at the Capitol by Trump supporters that day.

There is also a Donald Trump account on Parler that uses the handle “realDonaldTrump,” though it’s unclear whether it has been reserved for the president. It is currently locked with zero followers and no activity. On Friday, Apple informed Parler that it had 24 hours to “institute a moderation policy,” or else it would be removed from the App Store, according to BuzzFeed News. And Friday evening, Politico reporter Cristiano Lima said Google had suspended Parler from its Google Play store.

Still, Parler remains a plausible candidate to host Trump moving forward. Fox News host Sean Hannity claimed on Thursday that Trump had already joined the platform.

“I saw that the president had joined it,” Hannity said.

And shortly after his personal account was banned Friday, Trump tweeted from the official @POTUS account, alluding to an imminent platform jump. In a series of four tweets, Trump stated that “I predicted this would happen. We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future.”

The tweets are no longer up, and it’s unclear whether the president deleted them or if Twitter also suspended the @POTUS account.

As major platforms like Twitter and Facebook begin to moderate the extreme right more seriously, sites such as Parler, Gab, and MeWe are primed to harbor deplatformed users and disgruntled conservatives. Attempts to ban movements such as Stop the Steal have already caused Trump supporters to migrate to these alternatives, though some are finding it difficult to start over on smaller, clunkier platforms.

The alternative social media ecosystem is broken down into Twitter mirrors like Parler and Gab, Facebook clones such as MeWe, and video hosting sites like Rumble. Each has yet to prove that its oppositional business model — emphasizing freedom of speech — is sustainable and profitable. Some, like Parler and Rumble, have secured backing from conservative influences such as radio host Dan Bongino.

After permanently suspending Trump, Twitter published an overview of its decision-making process, noting that two tweets ultimately led to the president’s suspension:

“The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future. They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!”

And subsequently:

“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th.”

Twitter stated that “Due to the ongoing tensions in the United States, and an uptick in the global conversation in regards to the people who violently stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021, these two Tweets must be read in the context of broader events in the country and the ways in which the President’s statements can be mobilized by different audiences, including to incite violence, as well as in the context of the pattern of behavior from this account in recent weeks.”

Update: This story has been updated to include news that President Trump tweeted from the @POTUS account. This story has also been changed to better represent the moderation strategies of the platforms mentioned within.

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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