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Just a few months ago, it seemed inconceivable that Twitter would actually ban Donald Trump from the platform. Sure, the social media platform might decide to censor a few of his tweets, or perhaps even lock out key members of his campaign team from tweeting, but how could Twitter actually de-platform a U.S. president? But then came the “insurrection” in the nation’s capital, rumors of a pending civil war of some kind, and threats of violence. Suddenly, Twitter could make the bold move to de-platform Trump that prominent left wingers had been arguing for ever since the Orange Man made it into the White House. So what comes next?
The emergence of Alt Tech to rival Big Tech
Perhaps the most likely scenario is the emergence of new social media platforms to challenge the reach and scale of Twitter. Many of the most popular ones – such as Gab and Parler – argue that they are the new home of “free speech” in America, and promise that people who sign up for their service will never be banned, censored or de-platformed. As a result, they have made rapid inroads with Republicans, right-leaning conservatives, and free speech champions. Spend a few minutes on Gab, and you’ll immediately realize that things are very different than on Twitter. On Twitter these days, you practically need to use codewords to communicate any more (or risk being “purged”), or avoid some topics altogether.
And it’s not just “Twitter lookalikes” such as Gab and Parler that are making headway now. There’s also the arrival of new video platforms such as DLive, Bitchute and Rumble that are signing up creators by the thousands. Moreover, we are seeing newfound popularity for robust messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram. What it all means in practical terms is that the Big Tech monopoly of the past few years may soon be a relic of the past. During the Trump administration, you had to be on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter if you wanted to communicate with others, share ideas, and become part of certain communities. Now, you can send messages via Telegram instead of Facebook Messenger, watch videos on DLive instead of YouTube, and share ideas via Gab instead of Twitter. Taking a big picture view, we can call this the emergence of “Alt Tech.”
Big Tech fights back
But do you really think Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is going to sit back and watch these platforms take over? We’re already seeing coordinated efforts by all the Big Tech giants to remove these apps from any app store, and to make using them as complicated as possible. Gab, for example, is no longer found on any of the Big Tech app stores – once you sign up for the service, you get a link for downloading the app directly to your phone. Sentiment is now mounting within Washington, D.C. to ban or censor all conservative thought, and that starts with shutting down any rival social media platforms.
Before the Capitol “insurrection,” such an across-the-board ban would have been anathema to most Americans. After all, isn’t free speech the bedrock of American democracy? But Democrats and left wing conspiracy theorists invoked the classic example used by legal scholars to define what is protected speech and what is not: if you yell “fire” in the middle of a building, that is not protected speech. And so yelling “Let’s storm the Capitol” should not be protected speech, either. (Of course, they conveniently forget about the months of fires, riots and looting during the summer of 2020, in which it might have been possible to shut down Facebook or Twitter on the same pretext).
More polarization ahead
Most likely, 2021 is going to be a defining year for social media. Alt Tech will become the new platform of choice for “the resistance,” while Big Tech will become much more like mainstream propaganda than a real forum for discussion and analysis. And so expect more polarization ahead, as the battle between Alt Tech and Big Tech lines up to be just as divisive as the battle between Republicans and Democrats.