BOSTON >> One Twitter wag joked about lights flickering on and off at the White House being Donald Trump signaling to his followers in Morse code after Twitter and Facebook squelched the president for inciting rebellion.
Though deprived of his big online megaphones, Trump does have alternative options of much smaller reach, led by the far right-friendly Parler — even if Google removed it from its app store Friday and Apple threatened the same.
Trump may launch his own platform. But that won’t happen overnight, and free speech experts anticipate growing pressure on all social media platforms to curb incendiary speech as Americans take stock of Wednesday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-incited mob.
Twitter ended Trump’s nearly 12-year run on Friday. In shuttering his account it cited a tweet to his 89 million followers that he planned to skip President-elect Joe Biden’s Jan. 20 inauguration that it said gave rioters license to converge on Washington once again.
Facebook and Instagram have suspended Trump at least until Inauguration Day. Twitch and Snapchat also have disabled Trump’s accounts, while Shopify took down online stores affiliated with the president and Reddit removed a Trump subgroup. Twitter also banned Trump loyalists including former national security advisor Michael Flynn in a sweeping purge of accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory and the Capitol insurrection. Some had hundreds of thousands of followers.
In a statement Friday, Trump said: “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 “immense power that the social media platforms have as gatekeepers of public discourse” had been flexed as never before — a power that should be troubling even for supporters of the Trump ban, tweeted Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Experts are betting Trump pops up on Parler, a 2-year-old magnet for the far right that claims more than 12 million users and where his sons Eric and Don Jr. are already active. Parler hit headwinds, though, on Friday as Google yanked its smartphone app from its app store for allowing postings that seek “to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.” and Apple threatened to do the same, giving Parler a 24-hour ultimatum.
Apple told Parler executives in an email Friday it got complaints the app was being used to “plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.”
Parler CEO John Matze complained on his site of being scapegoated. “Standards not applied to Twitter, Facebook or even Apple themselves, apply to Parler.” He said he “won’t cave to politically motivated companies and those authoritarians who hate free speech.”
Losing access to the app stores of Google and Apple — whose operating systems power hundreds of millions of smartphones — severely limits Parler’s reach, though it will continue to be accessible via web browser. Another potential landing spot for Trump is Gab — though both Google and Apple booted it from their app stores in 2017.
Online speech experts expect social media companies led by Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube to more vigorously police hate speech and incitement in the wake of the Capitol rebellion, as Western democracies led by Nazism-haunted Germany already do.
David Kaye, a University of California-Irvine law professor and former U.N. special rapporteur on free speech believes the Parlers of the world will also face pressure from the public and law enforcement as will little-known sites where further pre-inauguration disruption is now apparently being organized. They include MeWe, Wimkin, TheDonald.win and Stormfront, according to a report released Saturday by The Althea Group, which tracks disinformation.
Kaye rejects arguments by U.S. conservatives including the president’s former U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, that the Trump ban savaged the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from restricting free expression. “Silencing people, not to mention the President of the US, is what happens in China not our country,” Haley tweeted.
“It’s not like the platforms’ rules are draconian. People don’t get caught in violations unless they do something clearly against the rules,” said Kaye. And not just individual citizens have free speech rights. “The companies have their freedom of speech, too.”
While initially arguing their need to be neutral on speech, Twitter and Facebook gradually yielded to public pressure drawing the line especially when the so-called Plandemic video emerged early in the COVID-19 pandemic urging people not to wear masks, noted civic media professor Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
Zuckerman expects the Trump de-platforming may spur important online shifts. First, there may be an accelerated splintering of the social media world along ideological lines.
“Trump will pull a lot of audience wherever he goes,” he said. That could mean more platforms with smaller, more ideologically isolated audiences.
A splintering could push people towards extremes — or make extremism less infectious, he said: Maybe people looking for a video about welding on YouTube will no longer find themselves being offered an unrelated QAnon video. Alternative media systems that are less top-down managed and more self-governing could also emerge.
Zuckerman also expects major debate about online speech regulation, including in Congress.
“I suspect you will see efforts from the right arguing that there shouldn’t be regulations on acceptable speech,” he said. “I think you will see arguments from the democratic side that speech is a public health issue.”
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