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June 7, 2021, 1 p.m.

Deplatforming works, this new data on Trump tweets shows

It’s not just the reach that a platform offers; it’s the whole package of affordances.

Remember Milo Yiannopoulos? The right-wing, er, firebrand whose “speeches and writings often ridicule Islam, feminism, social justice, and political correctness”? The one who, for a moment there, seemed riiiiight on the edge of bringing the alt-right to mainstream respectability as some sort of provocateur? (That’s the sit-next-to-Bill-Maher level of respectability, to be clear, nothing more.)

In July 2016, Twitter permanently banned Yiannopoulos for one particular spree of bad behavior. And when it did, a common take was that deplatforming him would only drive his fans to more cloistered spaces online — Gab, Parler, Discord, whatever — and make him stronger. The same thought has popped up when other firebrands have been tossed off: “Deplatforming Alex Jones didn’t silence him — it just sent him to Gab. And Parler. And his own video streaming site, Banned.Video.”

(Remember the summer of 2016? How we talked about things like misinformation and extremism back then? Barely?)

But kicking Milo Yiannopoulos off Twitter didn’t make him stronger. It pushed him almost completely off the mainstream agenda. And part of the “fun” of being a Milo fan was precisely that prominence! You weren’t just listening to a random online crank; you were listening to an online crank who was very good at getting under prominent people’s skin. Lose that reach and some of the thrill is gone.

The takeaway: Deplatforming works.

The issue rose again when Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms banned Donald Trump in the wake of the January 6 Capitol attack. Someone like a deplatformed Yiannopoulos might struggle to get attention, sure — but an ex-president who just got 74 million votes and can still fill arenas with red-capped fans? Surely a tech company’s decision can’t cut off his attention oxygen as easily.

Some research in today’s New York Times suggests that even Trump is vulnerable.

The New York Times examined Mr. Trump’s nearly 1,600 social media posts from Sept. 1 to Jan. 8, the day Mr. Trump was banned from the platforms. We then tracked the social media engagement with the dozens of written statements he made on his personal website, campaign fund-raising site and in email blasts from Jan. 9 until May 5, which was the day that the Facebook Oversight Board, which reviews some content decisions by the company, said that the company acted appropriately in kicking him off the service.

Before the ban, the social media post with the median engagement generated 272,000 likes and shares. After the ban, that dropped to 36,000 likes and shares.

One picture tells the story.

Interestingly, the Times’ reporters (Davey Alba, Ella Koeze and Jacob Silver) focus in on the fact that some of Trump’s statements still achieved a reach on par with a pre-2021 @realDonaldTrump tweet.

Yet 11 of his 89 statements after the ban attracted as many likes or shares as the median post before the ban, if not more.

How does that happen?

Mr. Trump had long been his own best promoter on social media. The vast majority of people on Twitter and Facebook interacted directly with Mr. Trump’s posts, either liking or sharing them, The Times analysis found. But after the ban, other popular social media accounts often picked up his messages and posted them themselves…

On Oct. 8, Mr. Trump tweeted that the then-Democratic presidential candidate Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his running mate, Kamala Harris, lied “constantly.” The post was liked and shared 501,000 times on Facebook and Twitter.

On March 21, Mr. Trump published a statement on his website saying that his administration had handed over “the most secure border in history.” He went on to criticize the Biden administration’s handling of the border crisis. “Our Country is being destroyed!” Mr. Trump said. The statement was liked and shared more than 661,000 times.

Post-deplatforming, Trump became much more reliant on conservative media and personalities to get his message out to supporters.

Sure — but remember those social accounts were promoting Trump’s tweets pre-ban, too. They’ve just now moved from being additive to bring the messages’ primary carrier.

And it’s worth remembering that it isn’t just the size of all those circles — it’s also how many there are.

Twitter didn’t just give Trump reach — it also gave him material. More than 20% of his tweets as president were retweets, and that isn’t counting quote tweets that let him riff off someone else’s comment or link. That, combined with how easy Twitter makes it to post, encouraged him to tweet a lot — about 33 times a day in his last year as president.

Compare that to his near-readerless, quickly shuttered blog, where updates seemed to come much more grudgingly. (It also became clear how much Trump needed an editor.)

In other words, it’s the whole package of affordances that a platform offers that makes for a successful loudspeaker.

Of course, the importance of the social platform only makes the moderation decisions they make more important. Some people are excited that Donald Trump can’t reach as many people as easily as before. But tens of millions of other people disagree. Heck, there are probably dozens who want Milo back too! That deplatforming works so well means the people who have that awesome power had better get it right.

Illustration based on work by Alberto Miranda.

POSTED     June 7, 2021, 1 p.m.
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