As pro-Trump extremists become personae non gratae on most major social media platforms, the number of online gathering places that have the will and capacity to take them in is dwindling. As the Capitol riot was winding down on Jan. 6, Facebook announced it would remove any content supporting the insurrection, including images posted by the rioters, calls to arms, and attempts to organize more attacks. Since Friday, Twitter has banned more than 70,000 accounts promoting QAnon—the pro-Trump conspiracy theory holding that satanic pedophiles control the world’s institutions—including those belonging to Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell. (The two platforms also suspended Trump’s personal accounts, Twitter permanently and Facebook for at least two weeks.) The Apple App Store and Google Play Store booted the Parler app from their marketplaces, cutting off mobile users of the Twitter competitor, which is popular among the far-right. Then on Sunday, Amazon Web Services deplatformed Parler after having issued warnings about hate speech on the platform since November. This caused the site to go down on Monday. Discord and Reddit banned pro-Trump communities on their platforms, and YouTube blocked Trump’s official channel from posting for at least a week as well—a suspension that will last through Inauguration Day.
While many prominent pundits and lawmakers on the right have raged against these enforcement actions, claiming that Big Tech is silencing conservative voices, most of them are still able to complain about it on major sites. It’s primarily the violent and conspiratorial elements of the pro-Trump movement that have had to migrate. So where will they go?
It’s unclear where the majority of these conspiracy theorists and sedition-minded MAGA fans will settle, but leading candidates for this second home currently include Gab (a Twitter clone notorious as a hub for racist and anti-Semitic users), Telegram (mostly an encrypted messaging platform), Rumble (a YouTube competitor that’s increasingly popular among the right), and thedonald.win (a Reddit-like forum for Trump supporters). Notorious imageboards like 8kun and 4chan also remain online, though the graphic content and arcane user interfaces make the platforms inaccessible to many. Mike Rothschild, a QAnon researcher and author of The World’s Worst Conspiracies, is skeptical that a critical mass will end up gathering at any of these sites in the long run. “You don’t have liberals to troll on Gab or Parler. It’s just a giant echo chamber,” he said. “I think that’s going to get really boring for these people. They like fighting.”
One notable destination for far-right users is Telegram, which in addition to encrypted messaging allows public-facing channels. Mother Jones reports that the Proud Boys–organized Telegram channel amassed 6,000 followers in just four hours on Sunday, and that other Telegram channels associated with the hate group also gained thousands of followers shortly after the deplatforming of Parler. So far, Telegram has banned a few of these channels, which motivated others to back up their messages on the platform. Russian dissident Pavel Durov founded Telegram in 2013 as a service dedicated to free speech. It was initially popular among pro-democracy activists in places like Iran and Hong Kong, but it would eventually become a tool for white supremacists in the U.S. Telegram is based in Dubai.
At the moment, Telegram is attracting pro-Trumpers who want to stage further acts of violence in the run-up to Biden’s inauguration. NBC News reported on Tuesday that extremists in Telegram chatrooms have been calling on others to assault government officials on Jan. 20 for a “round 2,” with some of them distributing instructions on how to manufacture and conceal homemade guns and bombs. The platform has been hosting white supremacist discourse for months, though NBC notes that it has become more violent following the Capitol riot. Army field manuals and guides on how to convert Trump supporters to neo-Nazis have been circulating, and users are pumping one another up to “shoot politicians” and “encourage armed struggle.”
Violent pro-Trump content is far from exclusive to Telegram. Gab, the alternative social media site that became home to the man who allegedly perpetrated a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, saw a 40 percent spike in traffic on the day of the Capitol riot, though it’s repeatedly crashed over the past week. QAnon groups with thousands of members still run rampant on the platform.
There’s a decent chance that pro-Trump extremists will try to sneak back onto Twitter some time after Biden is inaugurated if enforcement becomes laxer. This sort of thing has happened before. In late July, Twitter said that it was cracking down on QAnon by banning Q-related accounts and removing links and hashtags related to the conspiracy theory. The Daily Dot soon found, however, that almost all of the major Q influencers who had been banned were able to return to the platform using alternate accounts.
According to Rothschild, one of the few things that could attract a sustainable presence of pro-Trump conspiracy theorists on another lesser-known platform would be the president deciding to send out his messages there. “If Trump said, ‘I’m going to Gab, and I’m only going to put new posts on Gab,’ then everyone goes to Gab,” Rothschild surmised. “He hasn’t done that yet. He hasn’t picked out a new home.” (Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly blocked an attempt by some White House officials to set up accounts for the president on fringe sites such as Gab.) There is indeed currently a leadership vacuum in the pro-Trump insurrection movement. Q, the shadowy leader of the QAnon conspiracy theory, hasn’t posted a message to his followers since early December. Major QAnon influencers have also dispersed. L. Lin Wood Jr., the pro-Trump lawyer who spread Q-related conspiracy theories, tried, after being banned on Twitter, to reestablish his presence on Parler before the entire site was deplatformed. Joe M, another Q influencer, has also taken up residence on Gab. With their leaders running in every direction, it’s becoming more and more difficult for QAnon believers and other pro-Trump extremists to figure out where to go.