In the wake of the deadly January 6 riot at the US Capitol that President Donald Trump heavily promoted on social media, platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and others finally moved to ban the president.
The result? A sudden drop in the online spread of election misinformation.
According to research by Zignal Labs, which the Washington Post reported on Saturday, online misinformation about election fraud plunged 73 percent in the weeklong period following Twitter’s decision to ban Trump on January 8.
There are other factors that could have contributed to the decline, including diminished hopes on the far right of overturning the presidential election after Congress affirmed Joe Biden’s electoral victory. But to the extent that Twitter’s ban and the related scrubbing of right-wing conspiracy accounts were aimed at curbing disinformation, they appear to be working, at least in the short term. Not only has the spread of misinformation slowed, the research indicates online discussion around the topics that motivated the Capitol riot has also diminished.
“Zignal found that the use of hashtags affiliated with the Capitol riot also dipped considerably,” writes the Post, summarizing Zignal’s research. “Mentions of the hashtag #FightforTrump, which was widely deployed across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media services in the week before the rally, dropped 95 percent. #HoldTheLine and the term ‘March for Trump’ also fell more than 95 percent.”
The leading argument against banning Trump was that despite the conspiracy theories, smears, and misinformation he spent years spreading on Twitter and other platforms, as president of the United States, it was important for social media companies to allow him to freely communicate with the public.
But that line of thinking became more tenuous in the weeks following Trump’s election loss to Joe Biden, as the president’s posts increasingly fixated on spreading lies about the election being stolen from him and on fomenting unrest, including promoting the January 6 “Stop the Steal” protest that preceded the violent takeover of the Capitol.
The breaking point finally came in the days following the violence. Instead of unequivocally denouncing the rioters, Trump defended them, writing in a tweet he posted as law enforcement was still trying to clear the Capitol on January 6 that “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away.”
(Hours earlier, Trump had posted a tweet attacking Vice President Mike Pence even as rioters, some of them chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” came perilously close to encountering the vice president while he was being hastily evacuated from the Senate chamber.)
Then, on January 8, Trump posted a tweet announcing he wouldn’t be attending President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account hours later, writing in a blog post that his inauguration tweet was being interpreted online by his supporters as “encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.”
(Facebook has so far only suspended Trump’s account through the end of his presidential term.)
In the eight days since, Trump has resorted to releasing tweet-like statements through the White House press office. He’s characterized the moves by Facebook, Twitter, and others as an attack on free speech, but at no point has he retracted, or apologized for spreading, misinformation about the election — nor has he acknowledged the reality that Biden’s victory over him was legitimate.
Trump has reportedly considered opening an account on Parler, a social media platform favored by conservatives and many on the far-right for its lax approach to moderating content, where extremism flourishes.
But Amazon dropped Parler from its web-hosting service following revelations that Trump supporters had used it as a forum to organize the Capitol riot, and it’s unclear whether it’ll ever get back online.
Meanwhile, reports swirl that Trump is spending his last days in the White House isolated and embittered. It turns out that watching cable news isn’t as fun when you can’t provide live commentary about it to your tens of millions of Twitter followers. Nor, apparently, does misinformation thrive when the biggest purveyors of it are deplatformed.