On Monday, the social media platform Reddit shuttered “The Donald,” a forum for Trump supporters, as part of a larger clampdown against groups that had violated rules against harassment and hate speech. Separately, Twitch, a video streaming platform owned by Amazon, suspended the Trump campaign’s channel for rules violations.
The moves — which came the day after Trump tweeted, then deleted, a video in which one of his supporters shouted “white power” in a confrontation with protesters — were just the latest steps by tech companies to distance themselves from Trump and far-right movements.
In recent weeks, as Twitter has begun applying disclaimers to some of Trump’s tweets for violating its policies, Trump’s campaign and many of its online supporters have taken a greater interest in the nascent social media platform Parler. The Twitter-like site markets itself as free-speech friendly and has attracted a small, right-leaning user base. The likes of Eric Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have both joined the platform this month, and on June 18, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale tweeted, “Hey @twitter, your days are numbered,” along with a link to Parler.
While the conflict between social media platforms and the right have intensified in recent weeks, the underlying tensions have been building for years.
Trump’s first campaign and the populist movement behind it rode to power by hijacking attention on mainstream media platforms, often in clever or outrageous ways. The Donald tapped into that strategy, serving as a gathering place for supporters to share pro-Trump memes, many of them offensive, and to strategize about spreading them around the internet, while Trump’s campaign monitored the forum for inspiration.
But The Donald also participated in some of the most dangerous tendencies of right-wing internet populism: In 2016, The forum was instrumental in promoting “Pizzagate,” a false internet conspiracy theory about powerful pedophiles operating out of a a Washington pizzeria that inspired a North Carolina man armed with an assault rifle to storm the business.
Due in part to such incidents, the president’s most fervent supporters, as well as other far-right extremists associated with Trump’s brand of populism, have long presented a dilemma to social media companies. The platforms have faced calls from Democrats and civil society groups to more tightly police their online behavior, but companies have often been reluctant to forego the engagement provided by these users, invest in enforcement or risk complaints of censorship from the president’s supporters.
Calls for a crackdown first gained widespread traction after an August 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned deadly. National outrage prompted social media platforms, payment processors and web hosts to crack down on white nationalism, a move that was largely successful in reducing the visibility and influence of many of the alt-right’s most notorious figures, such as Richard Spencer.
The tightening vice has prompted some on the far right to create or migrate to online platforms more amenable to their politics. In addition to Parler, there is Gab, which bills itself as an anti-censorship alternative to Twitter; Discord, a forum for private chat groups that is popular on the far right; and Urbit, a decentralized computing experiment started by programmer Curtis Yarvin, whose anti-democratic, “neoreactionary” internet writings have influenced a number of Trump’s populist allies, including, reportedly, Steve Bannon.
Even these alternative platforms have their limits. Last week, Discord shuttered one of the largest chat groups associated with the “Boogaloo,” a loose-knit, far-right movement that is often associated with white nationalism and whose name alludes to the idea of a coming civil war. Discord took action after a man associated with the movement was charged with murder during the unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd.
Tech companies’ efforts to rein in right-wing populism also present a dilemma to Trump. Threatening to abandon the platforms may give him leverage to fight back against restrictions, but the platforms still allow him to directly reach tens of millions of people, making it unlikely he would leave them altogether.
Instead, well before the latest round of clashes, the president and his supporters had been taking small steps away from the big social platforms, experimenting with smaller, more controlled digital environments. POLITICO first reported on the Trump campaign’s interest in Parler last year. The campaign has also made an app for supporters with its own social component a centerpiece of its reelection strategy.
That drift away from the big platforms now looks primed to accelerate.
On Monday, as soon as The Donald’s ban from Reddit was announced, its users were touting an alternative forum, TheDonald.Win. Asked for comment on the banning, Trump’s campaign offered a statement urging voters to download the campaign’s app in order “to hear directly from the president.”