U.S. President Donald Trump has been kicked off of most mainstream social media platforms following his supporters’ siege on the U.S. Capitol. But it remains to be seen how fast or where — if anywhere — on the internet he will be able to reach his followers.
The far right-friendly Parler had been the leading candidate, at least until Google and Apple removed it from their app stores and Amazon decided to boot it off its web hosting service by midnight Pacific time on Sunday.
Parler’s CEO said that could knock it offline for a week, though that might prove optimistic. And even if it finds a friendlier web-hosting service, without a smartphone app, it’s hard to imagine Parler gaining mainstream success.
The 2-year-old magnet for the far right claims more than 12 million users, though mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower puts the number at 10 million worldwide, with 8 million in the U.S. That’s a fraction of the 89 million followers Trump had on Twitter.
Still, Parler might be attractive to Trump since it’s 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.” Apple followed suit on Saturday evening after giving Parler 24 hours to address complaints it was being used to “plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.” Public safety issues will need to be resolved before it is restored, Apple said.
A message seeking comment from Parler was sent Sunday on whether the company plans to change its policies and enforcement around these issues.
Amazon struck another blow Saturday, informing Parler it would need to look for a new web-hosting service effective midnight Sunday. It reminded Parler in a letter, first reported by Buzzfeed, that it had informed it in the past few weeks of 98 examples of posts “that clearly encourage and incite violence” and said the platform “poses a very real risk to public safety.”
Parler CEO John Matze decried the punishments as “a co-ordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace. We were too successful too fast,” he said in a Saturday night post, saying it was possible Parler would be unavailable for up to a week “as we rebuild from scratch.”
Earlier, Matze complained 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. Losing Amazon Web Services will mean Parler needs to scramble to find another web host, in addition to the re-engineering.
Trump may also 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, saying it gave rioters license to converge on Washington once again.
Facebook and Instagram have suspended Trump at least until Inauguration Day. Twitch and Snapchat also 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.”
Gab is another potential landing spot for Trump. But it, too, has had troubles with internet hosting. Google and Apple both booted it from their app stores in 2017 and it was left internet-homeless for a time the following year due to anti-Semitic posts attributed to the man accused of killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Microsoft also terminated a web-hosting contract.
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 Alethea 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 coronavirus 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.
Associated Press writers Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, and Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.