The Ringmaster Is Gone
But the circus remains.
Updated at 10:33 a.m. ET on May 10, 2021.
The internet has been a bit quiet lately. Or, more specifically, it’s been quiet since the days after the Capitol riot, when Twitter, Facebook, and a string of other social-media companies banned Donald Trump from their platforms for his role in egging on the violence in Washington, D.C. And now the Facebook oversight board has ensured that social media will remain peaceful for at least a little while longer: The panel, asked by Facebook to review the platform’s decision to indefinitely suspend the former president, has upheld the ban in the short term, but has required Facebook to make a final decision on Trump’s account within six months.
Trump’s banishment created a silence where there had once been a foghorn. Even before the president left office, the sudden peace was notable: As the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump a second time, during the last days of his presidency, The Washington Post compared Trump’s quiet during the proceedings with the more than 600 times he had tweeted during his 2019 impeachment. And the silence has continued. “Trump,” David A. Graham wrote in The Atlantic, “has remained unexpectedly peripheral since leaving office.” On Twitter, the New York Times opinion writer Farhad Manjoo commented on Trump’s absence from his formerly favorite website: “He used to be inescapable”—but now he’s “nowhere.”
When Trump was first booted from social media, experts and journalists alike characterized his exit from the online conversation as “deplatforming.” Until recently, the term was a descriptor for the practice, primarily employed by student activists, of refusing to provide speaking engagements to or objecting to invitations to visit campus for speakers with offensive, in many cases far-right political beliefs. In recent years, though, it’s entered into the popular discourse as a catchall for the practice of refusing to grant space to a person for sharing a view considered unacceptable or dangerous, most prominently when a social-media company gives a problem user the boot.
Using the word in that sense, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have been deplatforming problem users—such as Islamic State supporters and far-right agitators—for years. The question is, to what effect? Does deplatforming reduce hateful activity, or does it merely push it to somewhere else on the internet? More ominously, can deplatforming backfire, radicalizing people who lose their account and the online communities around them? A growing body of scholarly literature has developed to answer these questions, and a review of this literature offers one way to understand Trump’s silence over the past four months. The issue is particularly timely, given the Facebook oversight board’s ruling and the six-month clock now ticking down toward Trump’s possible reinstatement on the platform. Whatever the ins and outs of Facebook’s policies may be, handing Trump back his megaphone—even if he remains banned from other platforms—is handing him a weapon.
Trump isn’t gone entirely. He pops up from time to time, in press statements emailed to reporters, appearances on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show, and blurry Instagram videos posted by guests at Mar-a-Lago. But both casual news consumers and reporters now enjoy what remained for four years a stubbornly elusive luxury: the ability to click away from the video of Trump and just stop thinking about him. The effect is akin to the expansive quiet left after a leaf blower right outside your window has been switched off. Along these lines, a widely cited report by the research firm Zignal Labs found a precipitous drop in online misinformation about the 2020 election in the week after Trump was banned.
Was it the loss of Trump’s Twitter account that silenced him, or the loss of the presidency? As Graham noted, traditionally, former presidents have dissolved into obscurity. George W. Bush once commented that then-President Barack Obama “deserves my silence”; Trump’s recent missives to reporters, sent not from Twitter but from 45office.com, show that he has no such compunctions about President Joe Biden’s prerogative. Without any authority behind them, his emails—like his rants about the 2020 election from a stage at Mar-a-Lago—have a disconnected, almost Dadaist quality. He is no longer, to use the poet Anne Carson’s description of a tyrannical Greek king, “the man whose moods tensify the world of the story.” What is the effect of his absence, beyond the absence itself?
The academic study of deplatforming began not with the American far right but with ISIS. Starting in late 2014, Twitter began conducting regular purges of accounts that voiced support for the terrorist group, suspending more than 360,000 accounts from mid-2015 through mid-2016. Early studies indicated that the suspensions were effective in quashing the once-lively Twitter communities of ISIS supporters and preventing them from recruiting on the platform. Users either left the platform entirely or were forced to resort to measures such as locking their accounts or creating new ones with meaningless handles that limited the reach of their messages and made maintaining a Twitter community impossible.
It was another platform—Reddit—whose decision to close a handful of forums known as subreddits has provided researchers with a useful data set on deplatforming as used against groups other than ISIS supporters. A study of the platform’s 2015 ban of two particularly vicious subreddits, one devoted to anti-Black slurs and the other to fat-shaming people, found that the ban successfully wiped out the hateful language without spreading it to other subreddits as users migrated away from the closed forums. In 2017, Reddit also closed r/Incels, a subreddit where men who feel rejected by women traffic in misogyny, and followed up in 2019 with a ban of r/The_Donald, a pro-Trump subreddit that had become notorious as a home to violent, far-right rhetoric. Both forums migrated to independent websites, but data collected by researchers indicate that far fewer users posted on the new websites than had on Reddit—suggesting that Reddit’s ban decreased activity in those communities, rather than just shifting it to a different corner of the internet.
But although deplatforming can be effective in disrupting dangerous or unwanted communities and preventing them from spreading their message, it might also push some members of those communities further into extremism. J. M. Berger, a researcher who studies extremism and who conducted several early studies of Twitter’s bans of ISIS accounts, explained to me that he also found “evidence that deplatforming English-speaking ISIS supporters made the remaining supporters more radical.” Likewise, researchers studying r/The_Donald found that users who migrated to the forum’s new website began using hateful language more frequently and displaying greater signs of radical political beliefs.
The closest precedent for the banishment of Trump’s individual account is probably the banning of the Infowars host Alex Jones from various platforms in 2018, as well as Twitter’s ban of the far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos two years earlier. Before the two were booted from major platforms, a common argument was that barring them would only make them stronger, by driving attention toward their antics. Yet the opposite has happened. Yiannopoulos, who once regularly generated protests and outraged headlines, was reduced to asking fans for money on the crowdfunding site Patreon (before Patreon kicked him off as well). And The New York Times found that visits to the Infowars website fell by about half in the weeks after a string of major platforms banned Jones.
Jones and Yiannopoulos both fled to fringe social-media sites, such as Gab and Parler, used predominantly by the far right. The scholars Ethan Zuckerman and Chand Rajendra-Nicolucci have termed these “alt-tech platforms.” Jones and Yiannopoulos can still distribute their message on those sites, but their readership is far smaller, and the platforms themselves are vulnerable to deplatforming by web-hosting services: Parler, a hub for online organizing around the Capitol riot, found itself booted offline by Amazon Web Services in the days after the insurrection, though it has now returned using a different hosting service.
One of the major questions after Trump’s Twitter eviction was whether the president would take his microphone to the alt-tech ecosystem. So far, he has not seemed keen on that route. He has made noises about wanting to start his own social network, but as of now he’s produced nothing more than a glitchy website that looks a lot like an old-fashioned blog. The most likely explanation for this is simple laziness: Building a social-media presence is hard, and Trump has never been known for his work ethic. Likewise, learning how to log in to a glitchy app that is only intermittently online may be too much of a hurdle for a 74-year-old who doesn’t use computers.*
Instead, Trump has faded into silence, and the ever-accelerating news cycle that whirled around him has begun to slow. A March analysis by The Washington Post found that both print and television news had lost readers and viewers since January. Perhaps this suggests that Facebook and Twitter should have banned Trump earlier, but it also indicates the extent to which Trump’s ban from the platforms and his loss of the presidency were reflections of one another. Trump’s failure to secure reelection, his expulsion from social media, and his impeachment by the House of Representatives were all instances of various entities—voters, tech CEOs, and Congress—collectively deciding to give him the boot.
Complicating matters, Trump’s deplatforming was only one in a sea of others, as scores of far-right users and accounts promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory were also banned following the Capitol riot. It’s hard to say, for example, to what extent the drop in election misinformation discovered by the Zignal Labs study stemmed from Trump’s ban alone, as opposed to the disappearance of all those other accounts. Already, signs of some early effects of this mass deplatforming may be emerging: In April, NBC reported on the failure of extremists to coordinate racist “White Lives Matter” rallies across the country, suggesting that “the country’s unpopular and disorganized extremist movements have been driven underground” by the post–January 6 crackdown from both law enforcement and social-media companies.
So far, this seems like a success story for deplatforming. But it might not be clear for a while whether the widespread bans after the Capitol riot stoked extremism and violence. “We’re probably looking at more of a slow burn among some of the more dangerous segments of the domestic extremist population,” Berger told me. “There was definitely a movement on the far right” to try to recruit disaffected Trump supporters after the riot, Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University, in Ontario, told me. But so far, he said, extremists haven’t had much luck.
Fundamentally, the former president’s ban from social media removed the man himself, but it hasn’t changed the news and social-media dynamics that helped him rise in the first place. And whether some Americans further embrace hatred and violence after they’ve been deplatformed, Trump has already accelerated another form of radicalization by encouraging the Republican Party’s shift toward blatant campaigns to limit voting rights and tinker with the machinery of counting votes. This is now entrenched in American political life, whether Trump is on Twitter or not.
The problem is that Trump was more of a magnet for attention than illiberalism is now. He was a ringmaster at a circus, good for quick outrage and a clickable headline—as demonstrated by the swarm of media interest in the question of how the Facebook oversight board would rule in his case. By contrast, the story of Republican efforts to cement minority rule is a slow, complicated tale of legislation at the state level, away from the scrum of national news. It’s just as important—or even more so—but lacks Trump’s magic in seizing attention. The danger is that readers, audiences, and journalists alike will use Trump’s silence as an opportunity to turn away, or become consumed by the matter of whether Facebook will grant him back his account, rather than put their shoulders to the wheel. Preventing him and those like him from taking power again requires something different: a steady and sustained focus on the necessary, boring work of restoring democracy.
*This article previously misstated Donald Trump's age.