After the chaos and violence that surrounded the Capitol and the certification of President Joe Biden, a wave of newfound silence took over social media platforms as conspiracy theories and anger about fraud elections seemed to drift away.
So what exactly happened after the mob of Donald Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 to protest election results?
For months before that day, Trump had used Twitter as a platform for his unfounded allegations of voter fraud during the 2020 election. Many tweets – both from himself and his allies – had even been flagged by Twitter with the label: “This claim about election fraud is disputed.”
Twitter first gave the former president a final warning – Trump was locked out of his account for 12 hours until he would delete three tweets that violated its content policy.
However, we made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence. We will continue to be transparent around our policies and their enforcement.
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
But two days later, after more incendiary tweets, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump’s account, as well as @POTUS and @TeamTrump. Quickly, other major social media platforms followed – Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Snapchat, Reddit, Twitch, and more removed Trump from their sites.
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
Trump wasn’t the only one who felt the consequences of spreading misinformation about the election outcome. In the days following the riots at the Capitol, Twitter removed more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with QAnon – a discredited far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a group of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles is plotting against Donald Trump.
In addition to suspending the accounts, Twitter also applied restrictions onto accounts that tweeted or retweeted “associated content.”
Other tech giants also quickly made significant moves – Apple and Google removed Parler, the social media application popular with U.S. right-wing users, from their stores, making it unavailable to download on both platforms.
Amazon, too, joined the party and suspended the app from its web hosting service, making the site officially homeless.
All these events combined – Donald Trump banned from social media and QAnon and right-wing users left platform-less – quickly raised the alarm among conservative voices.
Were they being silenced?
Wow. Censorship. Will no longer be on Twitter!
— dlbq (@runtoHimdlbq) January 8, 2021
While many on the left argue the moves were critical to protect democracy and prevent further violence and unrest, conservatives asked, isn’t this an infringement on their freedom of speech?
The short answer is, no it isn’t.
The First Amendment protects freedom of speech from being regulated by the U.S. government. However, Twitter – and other social media platforms – are private companies, who are free to decide which users are allowed in, or not. Legally, all Twitter users agree to the terms and agreement – even if most probably don’t read them entirely – therefore giving permission to the platform to kick users out if they were found to not follow these conditions.
Moreover, the First Amendment doesn’t protect incitement of violence and lawlessness, nor does it protect the right to access to any platforms. Donald Trump or a QAnon account being de-platformed doesn’t qualify as an infringement on their freedom of speech.
The difference between the two cases, however, is in terms of access to media platforms.
By being banned from different social media platforms, Trump isn’t being silenced. The former president could use any news organization to share thoughts and ideas, and it would be relatively easy for him to get access to speak on television, the radio, a podcast, or to be interviewed for an article by any major news organization.
For any other American who used platforms like Parler to connect with fellow Trump supporters or who owned a QAnon account on Twitter, the question becomes: Where do they go now?
According to the Monitor, Parler was proven to be at the center of the organization around the Capitol invasion on Jan. 6. Users on the app also made what appear to be violent threats against members of the government, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence.
Platform-less users are now rushing to social media sites such as MeWe, Gab, or Rumble. Gab, a social network that champions “free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online,” said it added 600,000 new users over the weekend following Parler’s takedown. MeWe, a similar alt-tech social networking service, gained 2.5 million users in a week.
While privacy-seeking users are finding a home in new platforms, mainstream social media sites are already feeling the effect of this migration of users. Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform, monitored social media sites for misinformation during the week after the suspensions.
Conversations about voter fraud and other conspiracies around the election outcome already fell from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 across several social media sites, according to findings by Zignal Labs.
Hashtags relating to the Capitol riots also fell significantly during that week. Mentions of #FightforTrump, #HoldTheLine, or “March for Trump” all fell around 95%.
When one app goes down, two others pop up. And it isn’t the end for Parler quite yet. While the platform hasn’t found a home in the U.S. yet, Parler is getting help from DDoS-Guard, a Russian digital infrastructure company.
“Now seems like the right time to remind you all – both lovers and haters – why we started this platform,” Parler’s homepage now states. “We believe privacy is paramount and free speech essential … We will resolve any challenge before us and plan to welcome all of you back soon.”