Deplatforming Trump

In about a month, Trump will no longer be president. He’ll no longer have the “political leader” exception on social media — he’ll have to play by the same rules as everyone else. I’ll game out what’s likely to happen as social networks and others consider “deplatforming” the ex-president.

How deplatforming works

All technology companies have rules — you can read them in the “terms and conditions” for each one. If you break the rules, they can label your posts, censor you, or suspend you, temporarily or permanently.

Let’s look at how some tech platforms treated Alex Jones, the alt-right podcaster and spreader of conspiracy theories.

Jones made stuff up continuously. That made little difference to the social media platforms on which he had accounts. In the end, what mattered was hate speech and harassment — especially the harassment of parents of children killed in the Sandy Hook Massacre. Here’s how Casey Newton described it on The Verge in August of 2018.

On Monday, the bottom dropped out for Alex Jones. After a series of tepid disciplinary actions, which the Infowars host evaded with ease, three of the biggest tech platforms acted in near-unison beginning late Sunday night. And the result is that one of the popular conspiracy performers on the internet has found his reach dramatically reduced.

The great de-platforming of Alex Jones began last week, when Spotify and Stitcher removed Infowars podcasts from their respective networks. (Spotify initially removed a handful of episodes before removing whole shows.) On Sunday night, Apple followed suit, removing his podcast from iTunes for violating its rules against hate speech.

Apple’s move was followed almost immediately by a rash of similar moves. Facebook removed Jones’ pages, citing repeated hate speech violations. YouTube followed suit, terminating an account that had 2.4 million subscribers. Pinterest came next. . . .

In the end it was hate speech, not misinformation, that got Jones booted from Facebook. But a close review of Jones’ posts to social networks was never going to withstand close scrutiny. A disturbing number of his fans were found to have threatened and committed real-world violence. This April, in a little-noticed incident, he repeatedly used an anti-transgender slur on Facebook and appears not to have been disciplined for it at all.

At that point, Jones still had a Twitter account. But Twitter suspended him as well a month later. Here’s their tweet about it.

Once again, it’s the harassment that gets Jones kicked off the platform, rather than lying.

Jones’s site Infowars still has a store on Amazon, but the only products on sale there are supplements and the like — you’d never know they were associated with a site that spews hate. And the registrar of the Infowars site, Epik of Seattle Washington, still allows it to remain, even though its terms of service say you cannot ” defame, abuse, harass, threaten or otherwise violate the legal rights (such as rights of privacy and publicity) of others.”

When Trump leaves office, will social networks deplatform him?

First, recognize that social networks will not hold Trump’s past tweets as president against him. He’s likely to start with a clean slate. But he and his social media team will almost certainly start filling that slate with falsehoods and threats starting at 12:01 pm on January 20, Inauguration Day, while Biden is giving his speech.

Trump will continually push the boundaries of the policies of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

I did a poll about what you expected to happen.

As I write this, half of you think Twitter will never suspend Trump’s account, and the other half think it will.

Consider the actions Trump is likely to take as ex-President:

  1. Posting lies about facts, like the state of the economy.
  2. Criticizing other political figures for their actions.
  3. Criticizing other political figures for their personal qualities.
  4. Calling on people to contribute to his 2024 campaign.
  5. Asking people to gather and protest.
  6. Posting inaccurate information about the election.
  7. Calling on people to criticize, or even harass, political figures he feels victimized by, such as the governor of Georgia.
  8. Asking people who gather and protest to bring guns.
  9. Retweeting people calling for violence or harassment.

This is far from a complete list; my imagination constantly fails to anticipate the breadth and creativity of the ways in which Trump dances around social media rules as he rallies attention.

Looking at my list, behaviors 1 through 5 are unlikely to generate much pushback from the platforms, while 6 through 9 (and other violations I’ve failed to imagine) will generate strikes against Trump’s accounts.

Some respondents to my poll have suggested that the platforms won’t kick Trump off because of the traffic he generates. I’m not that cynical. I think they’d have a hard time defending their policies if they are inconsistent in how they treat Trump as compared to other members who don’t hold a political office. I also think that he and his followers don’t account for a significant percentage of all traffic on these networks — there are millions of other users including lots of other celebrities and politicians.

The battle over Trump’s accounts will rage throughout 2021. The platforms will respond with partial measures — warnings, content labels, and removing specific posts. But in the end, I expect Trump to step over the line enough times that the platforms will have to censure, and eventually suspend, him. Trump is just incapable of seeing a rule that limits his behavior and deciding to obey it, rather than break it.

After the social networks suspend Trump’s accounts, there will be hearings about it in Congress. He’ll make speeches and rail against Facebook, Twitter, and Google. And he’ll decamp to platforms with fewer rules, like Parler. But after a deafening clatter, he’ll become far less visible and find it far more difficult to get coverage for every word he utters.

The Republican party will need to separate itself from Trump

As President, Trump is the de facto head of the Republican party. This is always the case when a president is in office. Fundraising appeals and public statements do not distinguish between Trump and the party, and the current chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, is a Trump loyalist.

As Trump’s platform weakens, though, the party will have a decision to make. Republicans who have separated themselves from Trump, such as Ben Sasse, Mitt Romney, John Kasich, and Charlie Baker, will suggest that the party tying itself to Trump does not leave room to attract a more diverse set of voters — especially after Trump lost the presidential election by 7 million votes.

This pressure will become more intense as Republicans hoping to run for President in 2024 — such as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Kasich — insist that the party allow for a fair contest, rather than being an extension of the Trump campaign.

Trump becomes a sideshow

Deprived of his platforms, Trump will become more of an entertainer than a politician.

Without Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, he’ll find it far more difficult to direct his following. Parler will get bigger with him there, but I don’t expect it to get anywhere near the size of current social networks. Fox News will no longer cover him exclusively as it shifts to a focus on criticizing and thwarting Biden. Trump loyalist networks like OAN and Newsmax will help boost his visibility, but at nowhere near current levels.

Expect Trump to start his own media and podcasts, but as with Alex Jones, if he spreads hate and harassment there, you can expect podcast platforms to kick him off.

In the next four years, Trump will continue to be the single politician with the largest and most vocal following (even moreso than Biden). But he will no longer suck up all the air in the room. Between the actions of the Biden administration and the struggle among Republicans, other political views will gain visibility.

And we may even return to a more diverse, less bi-polar set of ways to discuss political opinions.

Well, maybe that’s too optimistic. But hey, a blogger can hope . . .

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  1. Do you seriously think that’s his future? I think it’s his fantasy. He’ll be facing so many legal problems (fraud, rape, obstruction of justice), I think he’ll have the choice of whether to face endless, serious court dates with the real potential of jail time or flee the country.

    I think he’ll be overwhelmed by this, and I doubt the rubes will see any reason to send him more money. I hope the game is over.

  2. These are really interesting points that I hadn’t considered, and they’re well thought-out. I have 2 counterpoints
    1, I’d give between 10%-30% probability that 1 or more platforms interprets the political office-holder rule to confer ongoing legitimacy and shield him from the strongest punishments. The odds of this are even higher if he claims and/or officially files paperwork to be a political candidate in a future race.
    2. I think this misunderstands the causal structure of his cult, overestimating the importance of direct communications from him via mainstream social media. Trump will be able to take core supporters to any social media platform that he wants, which you acknowledge. And he has direct contact info for much of his base via campaign lists. But also, Trump’s control of the GOP apparatus stems from the allegiance of those core supporters, not from institutional factors. The factors that enabled his hostile takeover of the GOP are unchanged; his posts on social media were not necessary to that. There’s no reason to think that Trump’s candidacy for a Republican nomination to office will be less potent in the future – the mainstreaming of QAnon and Boogaloo and other conspiracism is evidence that his core base, which is at least a big proportion of the GOP primary electorate if not an outright majority, can keep ahead of social media censorship without relying on his posts to centralize or coordinate. Also this overlooks the monopolistic support his movement will continue to receive from the conservative talk radio industry. Removing his Twitter account is by no means the same as setting up a viable de-programming infrastructure.

  3. “…but as with Alex Jones, if he spreads hate and harassment there, you can expect podcast platforms to kick him off…”

    From your lips to G*d’s ears.