Trump backers seek online refuges after big tech backlash

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Online supporters of President Donald Trump are dispersing on smaller social media platforms, fleeing what they say is unfair treatment by Facebook, Twitter and other big tech companies looking to quell disinformation and threats of violence.

The efforts of these mainstream platforms, prompted by the murderous rampage on the U.S. Capitol on Jan.6, are likely to be successful, according to social media and disinformation experts. But the crackdown could send some of Trump’s fiercest supporters to retreat into dark, secret spaces on the internet where conspiracy theories and violent rhetoric run rampant.

“We’re going to see fewer opportunities to radicalize new people” on mainstream platforms, said Kate Starbird, a leading disinformation expert at the University of Washington on Wednesday. “But for those who are already radicalized, or already in the rabbit hole with conspiracy theories, it might not make a difference if the places they go to become echo chambers.

For years, traditional tech companies had been the targets of the Conservatives’ wrath, with complaints that Facebook and Twitter apply their policies with a political bias. The platforms have also been criticized for allowing harmful conspiracy theories and hate speech to flourish on their sites.

Then came an unprecedented response from tech companies to the Capitol Riot, fueled in part by bogus and misleading social media posts that undermined confidence in the U.S. election. Twitter banned Trump’s account, along with 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. Facebook and Instagram suspended Trump until the end of his term and deleted messages fraudulently claiming that the US election was stolen. Snapchat also banned Trump, and YouTube suspended its channel for at least a week on Wednesday.

Some Tory users had briefly taken refuge on Speak, only to see the Tory alternative at Facebook got dark on Monday when Amazon stopped providing hosting services. Talk sued Amazon for the ban; Amazon responded by arguing that the platform’s “reluctance” to remove posts threatens public safety.

The crackdown has prompted many conservative posters to consider more obscure alternative platforms like Gab, which sold out to Trump supporters. Gab CEO Andrew Torba, who describes himself as an “American Christian and populist entrepreneur,” announced Wednesday that 1.7 million users have signed up in the past four days.

“This is where we take a final stand for our sacred birthright granted by God and affirmed by our founding fathers,” reads a comment shared by Torba.

Other platforms attracting Trump supporters include Signal and Telegram, messaging services already used by individuals and groups with different ideologies across the world, as well as a growing list of lesser-known platforms, such as Rumble, MeWe and CloutHub.

Telegram said on Wednesday it has more than 500 million users, with more than 25 million subscribers since Sunday.

Several Trump social media stars banned from mainstream platforms have launched their own channels on the service, gaining thousands of subscribers within days. A channel that claims to be run by conservative lawyer L. Lin Wood Jr., who has littered Twitter with false statements about the election and called Talk to Kill Vice President Mike Pence, has gained over 100,000 subscribers since its first post was published Monday. QAnon and the far-right channels also saw their membership increase by the thousands this week.

Many of these little ones sites were already havens for extremists and conspiracy theorists who were kicked out …

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