Claiming Censorship, Conservatives Head to Alternative Social Media Sites Post-Election

2 min
Supporters of President Trump rally at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 14, 2020. (Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

It started with President Trump and his supporters posting misinformation disputing the legitimacy of the election. Among other things, Twitter applied warning labels to the president's tweets and permanently suspended an account belonging to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Facebook decided to remove the #StoptheSteal campaign altogether.

Now, what was a trickle of high-profile conservatives creating accounts on relatively unknown platforms like Parler, Gab and MeWe has become a flood. In recent weeks, Parler, a Twitter-like app that touts its commitment to free speech (a stance often viewed as code for welcoming far-right viewpoints), claims its membership doubled from 4 million to 8 million users.

Gab, a platform favored by white nationalists for years, reportedly grew to 3.7 million users. 

"Gab is a sleeping new media giant that is only now beginning to awaken," wrote CEO Andrew Torba in a company blog post last week.

MeWe, owned by a Culver City company, "currently has about 11 million users and is growing rapidly," at the rate of 300,000 new accounts a day, according to spokesman David Westreich.

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"Which is, yeah, an enormous increase," said Alex Goldenberg, lead intelligence analyst with the Network Contagion Research Institute, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks hate speech.

The last time Gab made national headlines, one of its users opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, killing 11 people. Violent incidents like that one have prompted major platforms like Facebook and YouTube to come under increasing public pressure to crack down on misinformation, disinformation and hate speech.

"These are private platforms, and they can exercise their terms of services how they'd like. While you have freedom of speech, you don't always have freedom of amplification," Goldenberg said.

"This claim about election fraud is disputed," reads a label Twitter applied to a tweet from President Trump on Monday. (Twitter)

But attempts by major social media platforms to dampen right-wing propaganda have led to cries of censorship from Republican politicians and pundits who are more likely to post and share information that gets flagged, labeled, algorithmically muted or deleted than are Democrats.

In hearing after hearing on Capitol Hill, conservatives have called for changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects Silicon Valley platforms from lawsuits over content.

"We have had for several years, a growing problem with big tech censorship," Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a few weeks ago told Fox's Maria Bartiromo, who has hundred of thousands of followers herself on Parler. "A handful of Silicon Valley billionaire are now telling media companies they get to decide what stories you can write and what stories the American people can read," Cruz said.

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This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg are expected to testify at a congressional hearing called by Republican lawmakers upset that the platforms limited the reach of an unsubstantiated New York Post article critical of Hunter Biden, the son of President-elect Joe Biden.

"It seems like where we're heading is two competing social media ecosystems if leaders from across the political spectrum and across civil society don’t restore public trust," Goldenberg said. "Because if there’s no public trust in our institutions, people are going to look elsewhere for answers, and where they find those answers could be very dark places."

So, if labeling certain posts as being disputed or potentially containing misinformation is pushing users toward these third-party sites, should Facebook, Twitter and YouTube stop doing it?

"I still think that they need to do what they're doing," said professor Jenn Daskal, who directs the Tech, Law and Security Program at American University Washington College of Law. "Adding labels to speech that is clearly blatant misinformation is good, adding friction to the platforms to reduce virality of conspiracy theories and other forms of misinformation is helpful."

She added, "It ought to be where all political persuasions can communicate and interact as long as they are doing so in ways that are not purposefully disseminating blatantly false information. As long as they are not engaging in ways that are inciting violence. And that seems to me to be the right set of rules."

Cable TV's fractured universe of news and talk filtered through partisan lenses suggests the future of social media, as Daskal sees it.

"The risk is that people end up on closed sites where everyone agrees with them. But the benefit is that it’s harder to reach a broader audience as a result," Daskal said.

That may not be a problem for extremists banned from the major platforms, like talk-show host Alex Jones or the neo-fascist Proud Boys, both of which have established large followings on Parler.

But it’s worth noting Facebook and Twitter rarely go so far as to delete the accounts of prominent conservatives like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, R-Kentucky — and most of them have not deleted their accounts on the big platforms. Bartiromo, for example, has publicly decried Twitter in recent weeks, but she continues to tweet even as she commonly includes the copy, "On Parler @Mariabartiromotv."

It's not hard to imagine why Bartiromo stays. Twitter has more than 300 million active users, a number that dwarfs those seen on any "free speech" alternative platform.

Then there's Facebook, which claims more than 3 billion users across its three core platforms, including Instagram and WhatsApp. #MassExitOffFacebook? Not likely.