A flawed business model that monetises hate and finds it more lucrative to polarise opinions — rather than bridge them — needs to be upended, before resorting to merely deplatforming sources of hate speech.
By Prithvi Iyer
Twitter and Facebook’s decision to ban Donald Trump has stirred up a lot of public debate and controversy. Supporters of the decision believe despite it being too little too late, it showcases a willingness to hold hate speech to account and may help in deterring future insurrections. Critics on the other hand fear that such bans set a dangerous precedent as it allows certain big technology companies to become arbitrators of free speech. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey while defending Trump’s ban, also admitted that it set a “dangerous precedent” and embodies a failure of the platform to encourage healthy debates. However, the “extraordinary and untenable” circumstances that Jack Dorsey attributes to Twitter’s decision to ban Trump are also well founded in that it contributed to an unprecedented domestic attack on the US Capitol Hill.
Thus, it seems that there is some merit in arguments both in support and in opposition to Trump’s ban from major social media platforms. Irrespective of where one stands on this debate, the fact remains that a large migration of users from Twitter to other platforms like Gab, Telegram and Parler, who claim to be champions of free speech has taken place. These platforms assure users that their views, irrespective of where they lie on the political spectrum or how extreme they might be, will not be stifled.
Recently, Gab revealed that it was gaining 10,000 users an hour ever since Trump’s ban from Twitter and have gained more followers in the two days following the ban than they did in their four years of existence. Even sites like Telegram and Rumble have seen a surge in users, owing to Parler’s removal from the Apple store and the Trump ban, which many consider to be the tipping point in the stifling of conservative voices by social media giants.
In their commitment to ensure freedom of speech is not undermined on their platforms, the likes of Gab, Telegram and Parler have inadvertently become a haven for extremist content and been linked to actual acts of violence. The Pittsburgh shooter’s manifesto was posted on Gab and QAnon has discussed attack strategies on platforms like 4chan and Telegram. Thus, it is crucial to understand the ramifications of deplatforming a formidable conservative voice like Donald Trump and what the migration to less regulated platforms like Gab and Telegram may mean for an already fractured American polity.
Trump’s ban from Twitter is not the first time an event has set off a chain reaction of users migrating to less regulated platforms as a mark of protest. While the volume of migration may be especially high in this case, it is not unprecedented and has shown to help rather than undermine the far-right’s cause. For one, such cases of conservative voices being banned from social media giants reinforces their victim narrative, further galvanising the conservative base. This pattern can be seen in the responses to the Trump ban by certain GOP candidates like Rep Ken Buck (R-Colo) who stated, “The censorship of President Trump proves just how much power Big Tech has over speech in America.” Such a framing of events focuses on the victimhood of stifled conservative voices while ignoring the legitimate lines crossed by Trump’s remarks on Capitol Hill and the fact that these very companies have been previously criticised for being soft on moderating right-wing content.
Even when right-wing influencers like Milo Yiannopoulas or Laura Loomer were banned from Twitter, they migrated to Gab and Telegram respectively with great fanfare. In fact, Laura Loomer, who was banned for launching a racist attack on a Muslim Congresswoman, handcuffed herself to the front door of Twitter’s headquarters, livestreaming the event to document the suppression of conservative voices. Such theatrics in response to social media bans reaffirms their victim status, making it look like they “have been wronged” and unfairly treated.
Apart from serving their narrative of being stifled by the “left-leaning Big Social Monopoly,” migration to platforms like Gab and Telegram also provide right-wing extremists with the freedom to radicalise users more freely. Research on the effects of deplatforming has shown that the affordances given by platforms like Gab make users more susceptible to being radicalised. At the same time, these platforms pale in comparison to the likes of Twitter and Facebook in terms of attracting new followers. In many ways, these platforms are havens for preaching to the choir. Thus, the inability to expand the support base may be one downfall of migration but the ability to further radicalise those who have migrated still pose pertinent security threats. Moreover, with key Republican figures like Ted Cruz, Rudy Guiliani and Donald Trump Junior already on platforms like Gab and Parler, the lines between major and fringe social media avenues for the far-right may be getting blurred.
To understand why alternatives to Twitter pose an imminent security threat, it is important to understand the specific leeways these platforms give users in the name of upholding freedom of speech at all costs. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, Telegram and Gab provide users with absolute anonymity. On Telegram, for instance, users can share messages/posts to unlimited number of subscribers with the assurance that their content will not be deleted. This assurance helps those migrating from places like Twitter know that they can get more extreme in their opinions without fear of being shunned. Telegram also has the provision for anonymous forwarding, which allows users to forward content without having those posts ever being traced back to them. As Telegram states, “This way people you chat with will have no verifiable proof you ever sent them anything.” Gab provides similar assurances, with its CEO justifying this by letting his users know, “I don’t want to pretend to sit here and know what the truth is.” This stance of letting free speech play out unregulated appeals to extremists on both sides of the political aisle and helps increase their allure.
Thus, alternatives to traditional social media giants are less regulated, allowing extremist rhetoric to go unchecked. It is no surprise that even strategies for implementing the Capitol Hill insurrection took place on Gab and not Twitter. This begs the question, is deplatforming the answer to curbing the menace of extremism? While it would be comforting to believe that banning the sources of extremism may curb it, unfortunately that does not seem to be the case.
Banning profiles leads to something known as the Streisand effect — a social phenomenon wherein banning information has the unintended consequence of further publicising it. This is exactly what happened with the recent Trump ban. It made headlines and allowed fringe platforms that are more dangerous to gain unprecedented traffic.
Critics of deplatforming have advocated for technology companies to discourage hate speech by using social media algorithms to downgrade posts that harbour hateful views so that fewer people see them. It may also help to encourage or automate online counter-campaigns like the #ichbinhier movement — a German online counter-extremism campaign that flooded extremist posts with positive posts in large numbers, leading social media algorithms to reduce visibility of the extremist posts. However, a flawed business model that monetises hate and finds it more lucrative to polarise opinions rather than bridge them needs to be upended before resorting to merely deplatforming sources of hate speech. This may require a big monetary sacrifice from technology companies for the greater good of society. Unfortunately, this is a sacrifice they seem yet unwilling to make, with tech giants taking solace in token policies instead, which indicate disapproval of hate speech but not a commitment to truly deter it.