By William Leah
While Donald Trump and many of his allies have been banned from major social media sites, their influence still lingers on these platforms and across the internet.
Following the US Capitol Insurrection on January 6th, former President Trump was banned from Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Instagram – social media sites that have been as much a part of the Trump Presidency as the man himself. While his online presence has dramatically declined, there is uncertainty as to how effectively this has served to curtail Trump’s influence.
Trump’s social media bans
This month Facebook’s Oversight Board upheld the former president’s suspension, yet in their statement also criticised how the company has approached Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric more generally. They were even critical of the ban itself, stating that “it was not appropriate for Facebook to impose the indeterminate and standardless penalty of indefinite suspension” as it was not their stated response to “praise or support of people engaged in violence”.
“Facebook’s normal penalties include removing the violating content, imposing a time-bound period of suspension, or permanently disabling the page and account”. The decision, therefore, to issue an indefinite suspension, and to leave Trump’s account and many of his former posts online, draws into question Facebook’s willingness to even follow their own guidelines in the battle against disinformation and the incitement of violence on their platform.
While Jan 6th was certainly extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary measures, the New York mogul has, from the early days of his campaign, enjoyed an unrivalled level of acceptance for questionable statements during his presidency. It was clear from the very beginning in 2015 when Trump stated that Mexicans are “rapists” that his vulgar comments incited violence and hatred. A common excuse made in defence of airing his opinions has been that they are “newsworthy” i.e a matter of public interest, if not also corporate. I was impressed to discover that Facebook’s Oversight Board condemned the company for its willingness to allow “newsworthiness” to “take priority when urgent action is needed to prevent significant harm”. Such moral stances have not been widely adopted, and even now journalists continue to draw attention to his ravings. Even after leaving the White House he has made headlines, in large part thanks to his website. Here the disgraced president is able to regularly update the world using a personal blog without fear of censorship from the safety of his Mar-a-Lago home.
While Twitter initially banned an account that reposted these posts, there appears to be no grand strategy to combat attempts by users to undermine the suspension by sharing these posts. As the BBC found, many accounts continue to direct their followers to the website through links and shares.
How Trump’s supporters have challenged social media bans
One such account is @eagleedmartin, managed by Ed Martin, President of Phyllis Schalfly’s Eagles, co-founder of Stop the Steal and author of a series of Donald Trump Adult Colouring Books. Martin frequently shares Trump’s blog posts, calls into question the election result and promotes his radio show/podcast The Pro America Report. In recent weeks Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts have promoted episodes of the show featuring individuals banned from those very sites, including General Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. Stone, who associates himself with such efforts to subvert American democracy as Watergate, the Brookes Brothers Riot and Stop The Steal, has frequently tested the boundaries of his Twitter ban through the use of alternative accounts. While it is unclear in the case of Martin if encouraging your followers to hear suspended individuals on a third-party platform qualifies as an infraction, Martin’s abnormal decision not to mention Stone’s appearance on his show, suggests it is certainly a grey area.
While sharing links to third party sites may seem trivial, especially as they fail to have the reach of a dedicated account, the ability to direct users to extremist content from mainstream social media platforms is a cause of great concern for radicalisation researchers.
The emergence of safe havens for extremist material
The ‘Qanon’ conspiracy theory owes much of its success to how it bridged fringe and mainstream social media platforms. Its enablers actively sought to establish beachheads across social media, transmitting content from the obscure forum site 4Chan to Facebook via Youtube & Reddit, while drawing followers in the opposite direction. ‘Q’ moved to 8Chan (now 8kun), another forum site where extreme content such as child pornography has been permitted by its hosts. While Reddit and Facebook have done their best to disrupt the cult following ‘Q’ has amassed, much of the community have moved to Telegram, another social media platform known to be less stringent than its competitors regarding the moderation of speech and a hotbed of conspiracy theories and “a bastion of far-right extremism”. Sites like these were key to the organisation of the Jan 6th insurrection, with Parler being referred to as “a potential facilitator of planning and incitement related to the violence” by Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York.
As a result, it seems fair to argue that more needs to be done to tackle online extremism and its sources, both on notable platforms and across the internet. While Trump’s popularity and power are on the wane following his eviction from Pennsylvania Avenue, many individuals who became high-profile during his presidency, including himself, are succeeding in undermining their social media bans thanks to sympathetic platforms and supporters. While freedom of speech must be protected, more can and should be done to enforce these restrictions and make popular sites safe for everyone. Stemming the radicalisation of individuals and their transition to more dangerous sites must be our priority as a global community for the sake of our democracies. January 6th has shown us what can happen otherwise.