Donald Trump leaves the White House on Jan. 20. But on social media, he’s not going anywhere.
Yes, even after this week’s crackdown on his inflammatory and misleading Internet postings, Trump is likely to remain an online force.
“We have not heard the last of Donald Trump,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a research group in Washington. “He is going to be ... posting well into the future.”
Trump’s personal Twitter account @realDonaldTrump is the sixth most popular on Twitter, with 89 million followers. Now that Twitter has suspended his account permanently, Trump will need to find a new way to share his musings with the world. (Facebook banned him until at least the end of his term.)
In his first response to the ban — initially posted on the White House’s Twitter account Friday night — Trump said he “predicted” his expulsion, and was already “negotiating with various other sites” as well as exploring “building out our own platform.” Twitter subsequent removed the post.
Until the social media companies cracked down this week, Trump was allowed to publish comments that might have gotten him suspended if he was still just a reality-show host. Facebook and Twitter routinely attach labels to Trump postings, noting the president’s statements are false or in dispute. But they previously stopped short of outright censorship, partly because they fear a backlash from conservative Trump supporters. In addition, Facebook and Twitter have argued it’s in the public interest for citizens to receive unfiltered messages from world leaders such as Trump.
When he becomes a private citizen, Trump will face the same sanctions as anyone else for posting inflammatory comments, if, for example, he is able to regain his Facebook account. But media specialists say Trump is unlikely to dial it back, especially since the only sites that will have them don’t have the same restrictions as Twitter and Facebook.
One of those sites is Gab, a Twitter-like knockoff favored by fans of the alt-right. Its founder, Andrew Torba, thinks the mainstream social media sites have been itching for an excuse to silence Trump.
“Silicon Valley traitors will [undoubtedly] ban the president from their platforms, and when they do, Gab will welcome him and any other patriots with open arms,” Torba said an e-mail.
Gab already has set up an account for Trump, in hopes that he’ll move away from Twitter, and it already has 440,000 followers.
Trump might also migrate to Parler, another Twitter rival that has been embraced by conservative media stars such as Fox News stalwarts Mark Levin and Sean Hannity.
But Parler has a little more than eight million registered users and Gab a mere 1.1 million, compared to about 330 million worldwide for Twitter. So he faces an immediate dropoff in his online visibility.
That wouldn’t be fatal, said Mike Horning, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Trump supporters would probably republish his Gab or Parler messages on their own Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“Once something is shared on social media, it’s easy to screen-grab it and for other individuals to widely share it,” said Horning. “It’s sort of like playing Whack-A-Mole.” And Trump could supplement this with frequent appearances on talk radio, conservative television networks, or his own personal website. Or his fans could receive Trump’s messages through email, a medium that’s as easy to use as Twitter, and virtually impossible to censor.
Is that enough exposure to keep Trump in the public eye? Horning said a lot depends on whether Trump remains a power in the Republican Party.
“If they take the position that we really want to see the party move in a different direction, then he may disappear into obscurity,” Horning said. But if Trump’s nationalist, anti-immigration views remain popular, said Horning, they’ll continue to be amplified online by prominent Republicans, and by Trump himself, even if he can no longer do it via Twitter.
For West, the best defense against online disinformation would be reform of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This 1996 federal law exempts Internet sites from liability for messages posted by their users. A recent modification allowed sites to be sued if they permitted messages related specifically to sex trafficking. Now West and some others favor further changes that could let Twitter and Facebook face legal action if a user posts inaccurate, inflammatory, or hateful content.
“We are going to hold them responsible for egregious violations,” said West, but he added “the debate is going to be over how to define ‘egregious.’ "
Because “bad speech” is so hard to define, a change in the law might lead the social networks to preemptively bar all manner of controversial commentary that might lead to a lawsuit, whether posted by Trump or anyone else. That could mean a less angry, spiteful Internet, but one with less freedom of speech for everybody.