Online supporters of President Donald Trump are scattering to smaller social media platforms, fleeing what they say is unfair treatment by Facebook, Twitter and other big tech firms looking to squelch misinformation and threats of violence.
The efforts by those mainstream platforms, prompted by the deadly rampage at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, will likely succeed, according to social media and misinformation experts. But the crackdown could send some of Trump's fiercest supporters retreating to dark and secret spaces on the internet where conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric run rampant.
“We're going to see less opportunity to radicalize new people” on mainstream platforms, Kate Starbird, a leading misinformation expert at the University of Washington said Wednesday. “But for those who are already radicalized, or already down the rabbit hole with conspiracy theories, this might not make a difference if the places they go become echo chambers.”
Some conservative users had briefly found refuge on Parler, only to see the conservative alternative to Facebook go dark Monday when Amazon stopped providing hosting services. Parler sued Amazon; Amazon responded by arguing the platform's “unwillingness” to remove posts threatens public safety.
The crackdown prompted many conservatives to consider more obscure platforms such as Gab, which has marketed itself to Trump supporters. Gab CEO Andrew Torba, who describes himself as a “Christian entrepreneur and American populist,” posted Wednesday that 1.7 million users signed up in the past four days.
Other platforms attracting Trump supporters include Signal and Telegram, messaging services already used by individuals and groups with different ideologies around the world, as well as lesser-known platforms, such as Rumble, MeWe and CloutHub.
Telegram announced Wednesday that it had more than 500 million users, with more than 25 million signing up since Sunday.
Several Trump social media stars banished from the mainstream platforms have launched their own channels on the service, gaining thousands of followers in just days. A channel that claims to be run by conservative attorney L. Lin Wood Jr., who littered Twitter with false claims about the election and called on Parler for Vice President Mike Pence to be killed, has gained more than 100,000 subscribers since its first message was posted Monday. QAnon and far-right channels also have seen their membership boosted by thousands this week.
Many of these smaller sites already were havens for extremists and conspiracy theorists who have been kicked off Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, said Jared Holt, a researcher at the Atlantic Council think tank.
“In the worst-case scenario, I could envision there's a potential here for mass radicalization if droves of people show up on the platforms that have been the stomping grounds for extremist movements,” Holt said.