It was the moment conservative Twitter tried to cancel itself.
Major social media networks were moving aggressively to crack down on serial spreaders of false and potentially inciting information, as myths about Covid and voter fraud swirled around the 2020 election. Right-wing commentators and activists vowed en masse to delete their accounts.
They included political figures like the former White House press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, and popular media personalities like Dan Bongino, who made a chest-thumping, expletive-flecked rant urging fans to follow him to the alt-social media universe of platforms — they now include Parler, Rumble, Gettr, Gab and the Trump-branded Truth Social — where he said they would be free from the “tech tyrants” of Twitter, Google and Facebook.
It didn’t take. Then, as now, it often seemed that the sport of taunting partisan adversaries in a forum they shared — “owning the libs” as many conservatives called this favorite pastime — was how some social media users had the most fun. Not to mention it was how they gained elevated status with their peers — and followers.
There is not much more of a reason today to think the dialogue on the right will migrate into its own self-policing, self-contained bubble now that Elon Musk has reached an agreement to purchase Twitter for $44 billion — a deal that would allow him to take the company private and to scrap Twitter’s newer standards for moderating what users post.
In recent months, as platforms like Gettr and Truth Social have come online and expanded, the universe of users has grown — though that growth has been uneven and difficult to substantiate independently, experts said. Gab, which markets itself as a place where “all are welcome,” has said it has 20 million users. Gettr, which is run by a onetime former senior aide to former President Donald J. Trump, Jason Miller, said this month it had exceeded five million registered users. Rumble, which has positioned itself as a video-sharing platform for people who find YouTube’s content moderation stifling, said it now had roughly 40 million monthly users.
Twitter last week reported having 229 million daily active users.
Mr. Bongino, who said he has equity in Parler and Rumble, was back on Twitter only a few months after his disavowal. Now he rarely lets a daytime hour pass without saying something. One day last week, in the span of just six hours, for instance, he Tweeted more than 20 times.
The fact that so much conservative content continues to circulate has probably helped put a cap on the overall market for platforms that cater to people who are aggrieved by the moves social media companies have made to limit harmful and extremist content. And it indicates that even a little bit of Musk-loosened moderation on Twitter might be the end of anyone needing a separate sandbox.
“There has to be incredible, demonstrated value to get people to move over,” said Joan Donovan, who studies social networks at Harvard University. “People have to think they’re going to get something special they can’t get anywhere else.” In the case of Parler, which benefited from a surge of new users after the 2020 election, Ms. Donovan said that special ingredient was a sense that they could say things they couldn’t on Twitter and Facebook.
“You had a really serious effort from sitting Republicans and right-wing journalists to get people to move over, promising special content, promising no censorship,” she added.
The assertion by conservatives that they are shouted down in the public square is not altogether untrue, if the metric is measured in a specific way — say, by mainstream conservative speakers who are no longer regulars on the college lecture circuit.
But on Twitter, voices from the right remain ample and well represented. Research has shown that Twitter’s algorithms have not stifled the spread of content from right-leaning sources, nor have they silenced right-wing political parties around the world. In fact, the reverse appears to be true, despite Mr. Musk’s intention to make it more evenhanded.
“For Twitter to deserve public trust, it must be politically neutral, which effectively means upsetting the far right and the far left equally,” he said this week.
A recent audit conducted by researchers at Twitter that looked at millions of Tweets from April to August 2020 found that the algorithms that determine what content users see actually amplified Tweets from right-wing lawmakers in seven countries, including the United States, more than for left-wing lawmakers.
Separately, the study looked at millions of news articles from American media outlets posted to Twitter in the same time frame and found that content from conservative outlets outperformed. “Outlets with a strong right-leaning bias are amplified marginally more than content from left-leaning sources,” it said.
Right-wing accounts were never purged from Twitter to the degree that the sometimes overblown commentary suggests, though some high-profile users have been temporarily suspended for violating standards meant to protect transgender people from harassment or to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation, for instance.
What has happened is that conservatives have led a campaign to brand all attempts at content moderation — a practice akin to how online news organizations or private discussion forums choose what user comments to allow — as censorship.
“The reclassification of moderation in general as censorship was really picked up by a lot of the president’s supporters, and it became a political cudgel,” said Renée DiResta, who has extensively studied the flow of information online in the Trump years for the Stanford Internet Observatory.
That sense that the social media companies have devised a plot to systematically silence voices on the right, Ms. DiResta added, “feeds a grievance narrative that they’re being censored.”
And it’s become very popular, echoed nightly on Fox News, daily on talk radio and from the halls of Congress, where Republican lawmakers like Senator Ted Cruz of Texas complain of “Big Tech’s PURGE, censorship & abuse of power.” (Mr. Cruz’s preferred platform to air that particular complaint? Twitter.)
Some have already predicted that Mr. Musk’s purchase won’t make Twitter all that much more unmanageable. Despite the company’s attempts to rein in the ugliest inciting political rhetoric, there was never going to be a way to expunge it. Much of it remains, as do bullies and saboteurs, as Ms. Donovan discovered recently when she was teaching a class and searched for puppies as part of a demonstration about Twitter’s search function. To her shock, pornographic posts appeared, she said.
The way both ends of the partisan spectrum are perceiving the Musk deal probably oversimplifies the reality of what his leadership would do to the platform — not to mention how it could be a folly to predict the whims of an eccentric billionaire whose political views are rife with inconsistencies.
“A loss for people on the left, a win for people on the right — I think the extremes are overthinking this,” said Adam Sohn, chief executive of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which studies the spread of ideological content online. “And Elon Musk is probably enjoying this,” he added.
His group’s research suggests that attempts to punish bad actors on social media are misguided. When people were barred, they simply migrated to platforms like Gab, where extremist content proliferates among a more determined population. “Our research consistently shows that deplatforming people pushes them underground and only radicalizes them more,” Mr. Sohn said.
A Network Contagion Research Institute analysis of Gab showed that after certain high-profile banning events on Twitter — ridding the platform of accounts that belonged to Proud Boys, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his website InfoWars in the summer and fall of 2018, for instance — Gab saw significant spikes in its membership growth.
One possibility for Twitter’s future that some progressive activists have talked up as Mr. Musk got closer to finalizing his deal is that users on the left will quit en masse. There is little evidence that is happening in any significant way so far. As was the case with many Twitter denouncers on the right, the protests may be a lot of bluster.
“We anticipate that there is going to be an intensification of the Twitter-quit rage,” Mr. Sohn said. “Whether it turns into actual people leaving Twitter, that remains to be seen.”
Mr. Kirk’s account was reactivated and he resumed tweeting last week, starting with a message that said, “What Thought Crimes should I commit today on Twitter?” He followed up with several more, including one that declared the existence of an “undeniable War on White People in The West.”
Then he explained his return to the platform he had spent so much time criticizing, saying, “Due to New Management, I’m back on Twitter.”
In fact, there is no new management. Mr. Musk’s deal isn’t expected to close until later this year, the point at which he would own the company and be able to do with it as he pleases.
It seems Twitter may be too big for anyone, right or left, to cancel.
Jeremy W. Peters covers media and its intersection with politics, law and culture. He is the author of “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted.” More about Jeremy W. Peters
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