Gab, a social media site known for attracting far right extremists, made a move on a rival on Monday — on the rival’s own platform. While “Donald J. Trump” was trending on Twitter, Gab tweeted a statement clearly designed to peel Trump fans away from the platform: “This account stans President Donald J Trump.”
The tweet took off, and for a few minutes Gab went down, possibly due to a surge in traffic. Gab was already boasting about gaining tens of thousands of new users in the wake Amazon’s decision to remove Parler from its cloud servers for failing to remove calls for violence, effectively taking the conservative social media platform offline. Twitter had already banned Trump a few days earlier, along with tens of thousands of accounts associated with QAnon, the conspiracy theory claiming Trump is battling Satanic pedophiles in the “deep state.”
Trump fans are flocking to alternatives like Gab, already a haven for Neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists kicked off other platforms. On Tuesday, Gab claimed 1 million new users in 48 hours. “RIP legacy media oligarchs,” Gab proclaimed on Twitter. On Monday, Gab’s top content included posts by QAnon proponents and a photo of a white Christian soldier in a Crusades-style getup, which garnered more than 12,000 likes. A trending link took viewers to a conspiracy theory website falsely stating that Vice President Mike Pence would be replaced by retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who has suggested that Trump instate martial law to re-run the election and was embraced by the QAnon movement.
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Websites like Gab and Rumble that cater to the right-wing are now jockeying for position in a growing social media universe that lit up with calls for “civil war” and #Stormthecapitol ahead of the mob attack on Congress by far right extremists and angry Trump loyalists last week. Conservative firebrands are getting behind various startups, urging their fans to follow them on new platforms.
The removal of Trump, along with thousands of his conspiracy-obsessed fans, from Twitter and Facebook for inciting the violence has galvanized the right wing around the issue of “free speech.” Gab bills itself as a “free speech” network — a signal to conservatives as well as white nationalist extremists that they are welcome — even as larger networks deplatform Trump and others for using conspiracy theories to light fires on the right.
Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Gab does not have rules prohibiting hate speech. Gab claims to have a “zero-tolerance” policy toward violent and “unlawful” speech that is not protected by the First Amendment, and the website cooperated with law enforcement in 2018 after Robert Bowers posted an anti-Semitic screed and killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue. However, Gab gave Bowers and others like him a platform in the first place. On Wednesday, the Anti-Defamation League released an open letter calling on the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Gab and its CEO, Andrew Torba, to determine whether the platform “intentionally aided or abetted individuals who carried out the January 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol.”
At the center of this social media “exodus” is Trump’s refusal to concede the election and the conspiracy theories behind his claims, which have provided fodder for far right content. Ever since his bid to overturn the results sparked violence at the Capitol, Trump has become increasingly isolated, with some Republicans and even conservative talk radio unwilling to continue pushing his claims. However, there is a persistent narrative on the Trumpian right conflating moderate Democrats with “communists” who are somehow stealing the nation from white Christians — and painting Twitter and Facebook as authoritarian “leftist overlords.”
By falsely claiming for months that the election was stolen from him — and his rabid fans – Trump has manufactured a false image of a president-in-exile meant to persist long after he loses the veneer of the presidency. Just as the president used Twitter to bypass traditional media, he could potentially use right-wing social media to speak directly to his followers, even as more mainstream conservative media outlets move on. Plenty of pundits, extremist preachers and conspiracy hucksters are already riding on Trump’s coattails. Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer who tried to overturn the election with conspiracy theories, already joined right-wing podcasters on Rumble.
The big question now is whether and when Trump will create accounts on Gab and other sites, which are eager to cash in on traffic driven by content recycled from Trumpian narratives and conspiracies. The Trump campaign demonstrated that conspiracy theories and narratives rooted in white grievance compel conservatives to open their wallets. As Trump’s attorneys challenged election results in Democratic areas with large numbers of Black voters, Trump’s campaign sent out daily emails making unproven claims of voter fraud. Others claimed the media “is LYING” and “The Left HATES you.” Between the election and early December, the campaign had raked in $207 million.
“It wouldn’t be surprising to see the emergence of a new platform spearheaded or promoted by Trump — whether a phoenix version of Parler or a new entity — within the next 4 to 6 months that caters to Parler’s former audience and seeks to harness their political capital,” said Ruarigh Thornton, who tracks far-right social media for the cybersecurity firm Protection Group International, in an email.
Stripe, an online payment service, stopped processing donations to the Trump campaign this week, citing the violence in the Capitol. Stripe and other payment processers also walked away from Gab in 2018 after Bowers’ deadly rampage in Pittsburgh. While experts say that websites like Gab and Parler are ideological “echo chambers” that helped spark the pro-Trump mob, Thornton warns that the viewpoints found on these platforms will not disappear if web services are pulled to shut them down. Extremists will find other venues to organize, and social media isolation could lead to further radicalization as baseless conspiracies float around unchallenged in far right bubbles that are more difficult to track.
“The Proud Boys are already back up and spreading propaganda on Telegram, Nick Fuentes of the Groyper movement has announced his own, new streaming platform will launch this evening after he was kicked off DLive (and Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitch before that), and the more serious neo-Nazi entities that cropped up last Wednesday are back to their various encrypted comms channels,” Thornton said.
This is the social media universe Trump could rule over, if he chooses. A growing sea of far right pundits, bloggers, conspiracy theorists and extremist groups such as the Proud Boys rely on what Trump says and does to generate content and recruit followers. It’s an opportunity that will be hard to resist. On a website like Gab, Trump and his family could remain the center of attention, pulling political strings in the GOP by galvanizing his populist base in one direction or another. Donald Trump Jr., Trumps eldest son and potential political heir, has already signaled that he will go elsewhere if his Twitter account is shut down, as he recruits new followers railing against internet “censorship.”
There’s plenty of hype around Gab at the moment, but traffic may decline after Trump leaves office and the mainstream news cycle moves on. Despite its stated mission to “make legacy media irrelevant,” the site remains clunky compared to Twitter and Facebook. Still, the right-wing social media universe that burst into clearer view after the invasion of Congress is not going away any time soon. Trump made a business and a political career out of his own brand, and alternative social media could allow him to maintain his fan base for years to come. He was already in the company of conspiracy believers and white nationalists when he egged them on to ransack the Capitol. Regardless of the platform, high-profile loyalists will continue using social media to spread their message — and make money in Trump’s wake.