President Donald Trump’s rabid online following will be smaller from now on, but it may be more extreme.
That’s the takeaway from researchers who study “deplatforming,” the name for the sweeping form of digital banishment that Trump received from Twitter and much of the tech industry after a mob of his supporters laid siege to the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday, leading to the deaths of five people, including a police officer.
Trump joins a growing list of high-profile personalities — mostly on the far right — who have been banned from Facebook, Reddit, Twitter or YouTube after repeatedly breaking the sites’ rules. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is banned from most of them, as is far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos.
The past examples have given researchers a window into whether such moves are effective. But as a soon-to-be-former president, Trump presents a unique case that may shatter expectations. There’s anecdotal evidence that banished figures receive less web traffic and attention than they did before being banned, and research says that followers who regroup on other social media networks after a ban do so in smaller numbers.
“It’s likely that he will have a much smaller reach than he did on Twitter,” said Manoel Horta Ribeiro, a doctoral student who has researched online extremism at a Swiss university, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.
Without a megaphone to distribute his views on social media, Trump would have a difficult time influencing other media or finding new people to build his audience. His most hardened fans, though, will inevitably find a place to communicate and organize, researchers said.
Ribeiro and a team of others published a study in October examining what happened after Reddit shut down message boards where toxic language had been common, including one particularly notorious subreddit called r/The_Donald. Its users tried to regroup at a specific, standalone website.
“What we found is that there is a huge decrease in the activity and the number of members and reach of the community when these communities migrate to these new platforms, but substantial evidence that the community became much more toxic,” Ribeiro said.
Using linguistic analysis techniques, the researchers found that the content of discussions changed. Trump supporters were increasingly fixated on outsiders, with more of their posts discussing subjects such as “socialism” and “antifa.”
Other research supports the idea that deplatforming is effective. One study found that Reddit’s ban in 2015 of other message boards notorious for harassment worked, as many users of those boards left Reddit entirely and those that remained drastically cut their hate speech. In the United Kingdom, researchers have said that Facebook’s removal of an extremist group there in 2018 largely hobbled it.
But it’s also possible that the research that’s been done so far doesn’t cover enough territory. There’s not a precise way to measure the clout of someone like Jones, who was dropped by Facebook, YouTube and Spotify in 2018 after they said he glorified violence, or Yiannopoulos, a provocateur who was banned from Twitter for harassing others.
“Just because you’re not hearing from them doesn’t mean people aren’t listening,” said Barry Bradlyn, a physicist at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who has studied fringe social media networks such as Gab.
Jones, for example, has fallen off the list of most-listened-to radio talk show hosts in the U.S., and in the weeks after he was banned, a New York Times analysis showed his web traffic fell by half. But Bradlyn said more research needs to be done on the influence he and others like him still wield.
Likewise, there’s little conclusive research on how much deplatforming draws attention to otherwise-obscure objectionable material, or what it does for the health of the internet at large.
One guess about Trump’s fate may be found in former Fox News hosts Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly. Beck left the cable network after his ratings declined and some advertisers dropped his show, and O’Reilly was forced out after a series of sexual harassment allegations.
Each has a niche audience now, outside the mainstream of political media.
“Bill O’Reilly, he was the most-watched person on cable news for decades,” said Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group that monitors conservative media. “You don’t hear about him. He doesn’t have any influence any more.”
Carusone said a big outstanding question is what Facebook does. The company has suspended Trump from posting for the rest of his presidency but hasn’t said what it will do afterward. YouTube also hasn’t taken away Trump’s account.
Without Facebook, Carusone said, Trump couldn’t influence other media as effectively and wouldn’t have an easy pipeline of new supporters — especially when, as a private citizen, he would be competing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh for people’s attention.
“It’s hard to think about where he could go and how he could replicate that,” he said. “It would have to be starting from scratch, and that just presents a whole set of challenges.”
Trump for decades relied on his famous name to sign lucrative licensing deals, but even that has soured — just one problem he’d face if he tried to build his own media business.
Some of Trump’s supporters have migrated to Telegram, a messaging app founded in Russia that can accommodate large groups. Although it’s been touted as a destination for the deplatformed, a study last year found “active celebrities but thinning audiences.” Yiannopoulos complained he couldn’t make money on Telegram.
Parler, a social media app for conservatives backed by a hedge fund scion, has struggled to stay online after vendors including Amazon Web Services cut it off, citing rules against inciting violence. It’s now seeking to rebuild, including with a new web domain registrar.
“Gab isn’t a one-off, and Parler isn’t a one-off, and neither is The_Donald,” said the University of Illinois’ Bradlyn. “Fringe groups organizing on the internet predate the big social media networks.”