It was a sight not seen since the 1812 war, not even when the civil war was at its peak. Insurgents, some armed, stormed the halls of the Capitol building on Wednesday, January 6, shocking the nation and the world. In response, Twitter and Facebook finally did something many have been calling for: they banned Trump from social media.
Social media companies were quick to respond to the violence, blocking Trump from posting on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The companies also acted swiftly to remove previous incendiary comments he had made, even as the violence unfolded. But, many experts are saying, it’s too little too late.
What transpired in Washington DC on the 6th Jan was not the result of a single tweet, video or speech. It was the culmination of four years of anger and desperation that the right has been feeling and Trump has been fueling. Writing for The Guardian, Julian Borger summed it up by saying “Donald Trump’s four-year assault on US democracy reached its inescapable destination, an orgy of violence aimed at the heart of the republic.”
That is very much the heart of the issue. Locking out Trump now, when the damage has already been done does little to fix the real issue: the rampant spread of extremist views.
Trump’s Ban is a Quick Fix
Following the outbreak of violence, Twitter said it was going to lock Trump out for 12 hours and required him to remove three tweets that violated it’s civic and integrity policy. Facebook initially said 24 hours, before extending it to an ‘indefinite’ period. YouTube has also pulled down a video that Trump posted following the violence.
Following his reinstatement after the 12hr ban, Twitter then suspended Trump from the platform, taking down his @realdonaldtrump account, as well as the @POTUS account. Critics argue that this is a violation of the 1st Amendment, but it is important to note that the amendment does not cover private companies. Therefore, Twitter and Facebook are well within their rights to suspend Trump.
However, the companies have come under fire by some for their slow, and poor response and by others for stifling free speech. Banning Trump takes away the megaphone, but not the audience. In Trump’s absence, other Republican leaders are still willing to step up and continue to spread his lies.
Despite being in harm’s way during the violence, Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-Fla), one of Trump’s most loyal acolytes, first comments on the violence were: “some of the people who breached the Capitol today were not Trump supporters. They were masquerading as Trump supporters and in fact, were members of the violent terrorist group antifa.”
The Congressman, like many of his colleagues, chose to continue to spread disinformation even after the violence. Since their social media handles are still active, they were able to spread those lies on Trump’s behalf. As the divider-in-chief sat in silence in the White House, his cronies continued to do his work without consequences.
Conservatives claim that their voices are being silenced, but in reality, they are just as loud as ever. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are still filled with people echoing support for the rioters. The only silencing happening is the removal of all footage of the insurrection, both by the companies and the protestors themselves.
But the claims that social media is silencing conservative voices are being heard loud and clear, leading many to move away from existing platforms to others like Parler. That’s where the real danger lies.
Parler is the Next Big Threat
While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube regularly make it to the front pages, platforms like Parler do not. They are smaller, and often dismissed as less influential. As ABC has reported, many experts have written off Parler as a has-been already. They don’t believe it will ever grow to the size of Twitter or Facebook.
While that is probably true, Parler’s explosive growth should be concerning. From its launch in 2018 to early 2020 the app had less than 1 million users. But following the US election, the app briefly topped the App Store charts as millions flocked to the site seeking refuge from Twitter and Facebook’s content moderation. It now has about 2.3 million users, but could see more in the coming weeks with Trump’s social media bans.
The issue is not size, but influence. Advertised as a “platform for free speech”, Parler’s website says: “Speak freely and express yourself openly”. In its community guidelines, the company says that “in no case will Parler decide what content will be removed or filtered, or whose account will be removed, on the basis of the opinion expressed within the content at issue.”
It’s unclear where founder and CEO John Matze’s political affiliations lie, but Parler’s origins do have roots in conservative circles. Rebekah Mercer, the co-founder of the app is a known Republican donor and Trump supporter.
These facts should concern everyone. Platforms like Facebook have evolved moderation policies to filter fake news, even if they are doing a bad job at it. It is well understood that social media can and should have content moderation systems in place. Parler has made it very clear it won’t. Of course, it’s not to say all material will be allowed. The guidelines do say that it will remove reported content, but the bar for that is very high, especially since most users on the platform share a similar opinion.
Thankfully though, Parler won’t be allowed to run rampant. Google has banned the app from its Play Store, and Apple has threatened to do as well unless the app puts in place some content moderation policies within 24hrs (at the time of writing). Even if the two platforms do remove the app, Parler’s website is still up and running and the app will continue to work for those who had already downloaded it. Parler is also far from the only alternative, there are plenty of platforms springing up to cater to right-wing extremist views.
Without any moderation in place, apps like Parler will remain an echo chamber for QAnon conspiracy theories, hate speech groups and belief that Trump was cheated out being declared the election winner. When pretty much everyone on the platform shares that view, it’s hardly likely that there will be any self-reporting. Parler is an echo chamber on steroids for conservatives. This isn’t something that will happen in the future, it is already happening.
Parler users are already calling Trump’s concession video a deepfake. It’s not just his concession though. The app was reportedly used to orchestrate the insurrection at the Capitol. And even now, screenshots are circulating on social media of conservatives reportedly planning another demonstration on January 20, when Biden is sworn in. There is also talk of demonstrations at state capitals across the nation on January 17, with a poster using the headline “demand freedom, end the corruption”.
Encouraged by Trump’s cronies like Sean Hannity, Ted Cruz, Devin Nunnes and Dinesh D’Souza, the lies will continue to reverberate on Parler and in echo chambers beyond. It’s perhaps apt that the site has named its retweet-like feature ‘echo’.
The Right Goes Mainstream
Apps like Parler allow the extreme right to go mainstream, without any fear of backlash. Twitter and Facebook are censoring some voices, but only those that are openly spreading misinformation. Their size has enabled them to put in place moderation systems to fact check, which is something Parler does not have. Any information on Parler will spread unchecked, maybe more slowly if they aren’t accessible on the app stores.
Arielle Pardes at Wired took a trip inside the app in December. In her review, she said, “Parler functions less like the “public square” it wants to be, and more like an ecosystem of right-wing bloggers, radio hosts, and public figures to further amplify their thoughts.” That is exactly what is happening, with Parler reinforcing right-wing conspiracy theories and pushing people to act offline. It has happened once, and will happen again.
Though Trump is finally on his way out of the White House, Trumpism isn’t. He leaves behind a trail of extremists both in the streets, and in positions of power. Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Green, Derrick Evans and Josh Hawley are just a few of the many Republicans poised to take Trumpism to the next level. They don’t need Trump’s social media to do that.
It is unlikely that Twitter and Facebook will ban all their accounts, and even if it does do so, they will always find a safe haven in Parler. Thanks to Fox News and One America News Network, they will also have a presence on traditional media. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and it has no intention of going back in.
Luckily, events of Jan 6th may mean that it’s a shrinking genie. Republicans are increasingly distancing themselves from Trump, and politicians like Cruz and Hawley are feeling the heat. A Reuters poll found that 70% “of those who voted for Trump in November opposed the action of the hardcore supporters who broke into the Capitol.” It reflects a growing sentiment against the far-right and Trumpism, but begs the question: will it be sustained?
That’s the big question on everyone’s minds. Even if Trump leaves the White House, and Biden is sworn in, will it fix anything? America’s divisions today run as deep as they were during the civil war. It’s going to take a lot more to fix it than words from President-elect Biden. With the Democrats in control of the Senate, House and Presidency, Republican voters have a genuine reason to feel that they aren’t being represented in the federal government.
The way forward looks difficult, especially if Trump intends to keep his promise of staying in the public eye. As long as he or his family have a public voice, extremists will continue to protest for his cause. A good example of this was the heckling of Sen. Lindsay Graham at Reagan National Airport. Graham, who had been a staunch supporter of Trump throughout his time in office, finally succumbed to the pressure, condemning the violence. Yet, he was called a “traitor” by the very people that elected him into office.
A fractured Republican party can only increase the divisions, especially in the short term. Whilst some Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Bill Barr, Lisa Murkowski and Betsy DeVos have started distancing themselves from Trump, there are still plenty of others willing to cosy up to him. As long as they represent, or claim to represent, the Republican party there is little hope of purging Trumpism from America.
But it may not be impossible. Over the last two decades, the world has seen a sustained campaign on and off social media to wipe out radical Islamic terrorism. Years of efforts have now limited their presence of the web, forcing them underground into the dark web.
We need a similar approach to right-wing extremism. There’s a strong link between the offline world and the online one, and that is what the Republican party needs to understand. Only then can we address the real issue: controlling the spread of disinformation and extremist views.
It is impossible to completely eradicate such views, and perhaps there is a good reason not to. But, as we have seen it is possible to limit their presence in the public. And that is very much the need of the hour. Only then can we restore faith in the press and public discourse, limiting the spread of misinformation.
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