Editor’s note: This article contains mention of sexism-motivated violence.
Perhaps the only news rivaling the January 6 Capitol riots that former U.S. President Donald Trump incited was the consequential decision that major social media websites made to kick him off their platforms. After being banned on his personal Twitter account, Trump posted a last-ditch string of tweets on the @Potus account.
He wrote in one tweet, “As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me — and YOU, the 75,000,000 great patriots who voted for me,” which Twitter was quick to delete — the site does not allow banned individuals to tweet using other accounts.
Some called the decision overdue as Trump had long been spreading hateful messages while also undermining the US electoral system. Others argue it threatens free speech in a world where major social media platforms have a monopoly on communications while they themselves peddle hate speech and conspiracy theories for profit.
Regardless of which side you stand on, the fact remains that Trump is off all major social media sites for the foreseeable future. That begs the question: how is he now communicating with the “75,000,000 great patriots” that voted for him given that he plans to run for office again? And from a broader perspective, what does this decision mean for other online communities?
The answer became clear in March 2021. If Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube would not have him, he would simply create his own social media platform.
“This is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media, it’s going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does,” said Trump adviser Stephen Miller, speaking in what must be called very Trumpian verbiage.
It must have disappointed Trump supporters when, months later, he finally announced the launch of this new “communications” website which hardly looked like a social media platform. There were no personal profiles, no comment sections or stories. There were only tweet-style posts coming “straight from the desk” of Donald Trump. The sole aspect of this new website that resembles social media is the feature that allows users to like posts and share them to their Facebook or Twitter.
Aptly titled “From the Desk of Donald Trump,” the new website acts more like a blog than anything else where Trump can basically “tweet” as he used to without having access to Twitter.
According to Trump advisor Jason Miller, “Trump’s website is a great resource to find his latest statements and highlights from his first term in office, but this is not a new social media platform … . We’ll have additional information coming on that front in the very near future.”
So for Trump supporters, there is still hope that they may be able to sign up for a “Trumpbook” of sorts soon.
But these supporters, along with others who possess right-wing views, do not need Trump’s message to thrive online. They never have. Trump voters existed before Trump the politician did. While he allowed and encouraged them to creep out of their shells, they have always thrived online.
This may seem like common knowledge today. When Trump was elected in 2016, the United States had a collective reckoning through which they identified online extremism as public enemy number one.
Before this reckoning, however, people for the most part did not view online extremism as a major threat — after all, it was only online.
An interesting case study that highlights this is that of the involuntary celibate community or “incels” for short. The community’s origins are surprisingly benign if not wholesome. The first “incel” forum was created by a woman in 1997 who, frustrated by her love-life, decided to create a place where “men and women [could] talk about being lonely, where they could wonder aloud about why they couldn’t meet anyone.” Anyone who knows anything about the incel community today knows that it shows no resemblance to this earlier version of itself.
The first well-known incident of a member of the incel community taking his convictions from online to the real world is the infamous case of Elliot Rodger from May 2014. A self-described incel, Rodger posted various YouTube videos and wrote a manifesto describing his sexual frustrations and hatred for women before killing six, wounding 14 and killing himself near the University of California, Santa Barbara. The country was shocked, but it took a further four years and another tragedy before the term “incel” would become embedded into our cultural knowledge.
“Google Trends” is a search engine provided by Google which allows one to analyze the volume of which any given term was searched for at any given time throughout Google’s existence. Following the aforementioned tragedy in May of 2014, the search term “incel” saw a minor spike in its search volume.
Four years later, in May of 2018, when a Toronto resident and active member of the online incel community killed ten, “incel” was searched for more than ever before. It is difficult to say what exactly this trend suggests, but perhaps it highlights the aforementioned notion that people did not view online extremism as a true danger until Trump took office.
This may appear tangential to the situation with Trump’s suspension from social media, but it ultimately is not. It highlights the fact that online extremist views, whether they take the form of electoral conspiracy theories or sexist hate speech, can fly under the radar for too long.
Trump was long allowed to spew whatever conspiracy theories he wanted on social media until it ultimately led to a historic catastrophe on January 6 which was finally deemed reason enough for him to be exiled online. Meanwhile, it is important to note that Reddit banned their incel community in 2017 which did not prevent the 2018 mass shooting in Toronto from occurring.
Trump’s suspension from social media will likely also be incapable of slowing online conspiracy theories. Even if his new proposed social media platform pans out, online extremism does not need it to survive. Disturbingly, it seems that we live in a world where reckonings on online extremism happen too late, and when they do, those with the power to change it take insufficient action.