Alternative social networks are a growing force as Facebook and Twitter suspend Trump

What happens when those spurned by Facebook and Twitter migrate elsewhere?

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Four years ago, startup founder Andrew Torba emailed me about a social network he was building, one that offered users near-absolute free speech. A pro-Trump conservative, Torba saw an opening for his venture after Twitter started removing people for harassment. Wary of moderation, he created an alternative. 

“What makes the entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly qualified to tell us what is ‘news’ and what is ‘trending’ and to define what ‘harassment’ means?” he told me. “It didn't feel right to me, and I wanted to change it.” 

Torba’s network, Gab, debuted a few months ahead of Trump’s 2016 election. Soon after, it grew into an established hangout for right-wing types online. Gab, by its nature, attracted some people with views too extreme for mainstream networks. Before killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, Robert Bowers, the shooter, posted about it on Gab. The incident inspired little change.

Aside from reminders that people like Bowers were using Gab, the service was easy — though unwise — to ignore. It wasn’t the main show, Trump preferred Twitter and Facebook, and much of the political fringe in the U.S. still used mainstream social networks. So Gab, and other alternative networks like TheDonald (a banned Reddit community) and Parler (another ‘free speech’ social network), received little mainstream attention. But they and their consequences continued to grow.

As Facebook and Twitter took stronger action against the radical elements on their services — including shutting down QAnon and Stop the Steal groups — the movements, in part, migrated to Gab and its counterparts. In an echo chamber, these networks’ users entered self-reinforcing feedback loops, creating their own realities. 

When thousands of rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, it was hardly surprising to see these alternative networks named prominently in stories tracing the events’ origins. Calls to “storm the capitol” recently appeared on TheDonald, according to BuzzFeed News. Thousands of hashtags calling for a second civil war appeared on Parler, per NBC News. And the New York Times reported that some on Gab called for those inside the Capitol to get Pence. Torba said the Times report “offers zero proof.”

Now, in the Capitol riot’s aftermath, both Facebook and Twitter suspended Trump, and both set the stage for a permanent ban. Such a ban — which now appears likely — would limit Trump’s ability to get his message out. It would also strengthen these alternative networks. Regardless of how you feel about the ban, the second-order effect is worth paying attention to. Gab had 2.2 million visits over the past 24 hours, up more than 100% than normal, per Torba. It’s not Facebook-sized, but it’s not insignificant. 

Unlike mainstream social networks, Gab and its counterparts are unresponsive to criticism as a policy, which could create some serious issues down the line. “A lot of the organizing happened on these platforms that explicitly make it a point of pride not to moderate,” Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies content moderation, told me. “So what lever is there to pull? We're going to need to work that out.”

Facebook and Twitter were the big social media story these past four years. But look for Parler, Gab, and their counterparts to take their place. The story doesn’t end with a ban.

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This week on the Big Technology Podcast: Does YouTube radicalize? A debate between Kevin Roose and Mark Ledwich

June 2019, New York Times reporter Kevin Roose wrote “The Making of a YouTube Radical,” a story about how a 26-year-old man, Caleb Cain, was radicalized through YouTube. For the story, Roose examined Cain’s entire YouTube history and plotted the path he took toward radicalization. Software engineer and researcher Mark Ledwich took issue with the story, citing his own research and claiming the notion that YouTube could radicalize was a myth.

Instead of yelling at — and past — each other, Ledwich and Roose came together for a moderated debate on the Big Technology Podcast, where both stated their points of view, got a chance to respond to each other’s points, and ask each other questions.

You can listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Overcast and read the transcript on OneZero.