Twitter banned then-President Donald Trump on January 8, two days after the attacks on the US Capitol, cutting off his access to a bully pulpit of nearly 90 million followers. Facebook followed the next day, severing ties between Trump and another 33 million accounts.
The details of a Trump-FreeSpace deal, if one is reached at all, aren’t yet clear, according to Axios. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
FreeSpace says its app is backed by science that makes people “‘addicted’ to doing good,” “built on the power of positivity,” and wants to “make social media fun again.” It would appear to be an odd partnership for Trump, who is one of the world’s largest promoters of misinformation and has consistently used racist, sexist, xenophobic, and violence-inciting language that eventually got him booted from mainstream platforms.
QAnon followers, unable to cope with Joe Biden’s elevation to president in January, have now coopted a new belief to argue that the next legitimate inauguration date will be on March 4.
After President Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021, some QAnon believers concluded that their conspiracy theory was a “lie.” But its most fervent followers weren’t ready to give up on their conspiratorial beliefs, clinging to an absurd hope that former President Donald Trump will be sworn in at a later date.
Using ever-shifting goalposts, the pro-Trump conspiracists have now set their eyes on March 4, 2021.
Where does the conspiracy theory come from?
The belief that Trump will be sworn in on March 4 is rooted in theories promoted by the obscure sovereign citizen movement.
The sovereign citizen movement is a highly-fragmented grouping of Americans who believe taxes, US currency, and even the US government to be illegitimate.
A minority of them believe that laws do not apply to them at all, resulting in the FBI designating some members as “domestic terrorists” and “anti-government extremists.”
A central tenet of the movement is that the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, converted “sovereign citizens” into “federal citizens.”
This belief also goes so far as to dismiss the validity of any presidency after 1868, making Ulysses S. Grant the last valid president.
The ideas are esoteric and, arguably, nonsensical.
“You really feel like you’re in an Alice in Wonderland world when you start going through the ideas of the sovereign citizens,” Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, told Insider. “It’s like you’ve gone down some kind of rabbit hole into a parallel universe.”
Some sovereign citizens also believe that an obscure law from 1871 reveals that the US has become a corporation.
The District of Columbia Organic Act established a single municipal government for Washington, DC. The use of the word “corporation,” referring to an incorporated district, has led to the mistaken interpretation of this to mean that the entirety of the US became a business.
“Some believe that President Joe Biden is the executive of a bankrupt corporation – the United States Inc.,” said Travis View said, conspiracy theory expert and host of the QAnon Anonymous podcast.
Creating an alternate reality based on a misinterpretation of a minor detail in an old law is typical of conspiracy groups, Media Matter’s deputy research director Stefanie Le told Insider.
“They can create elaborate mythologies based on the smallest and least significant details,” she said.
Why March 4?
Before the 20th Amendment in 1933, all presidents were sworn in on March 4.
It was introduced to shorten the “lame duck” period between elections and the start of new administrations.
Given that followers of the sovereign citizen movement reject all constitutional amendments passed after the 14th amendment, they do not view this date change as legitimate.
QAnon followers, who failed to see Trump inaugurated in January, have recycled the argument and reinvented the next legitimate inauguration date.
They say that on March 4, 2021, Trump will succeed the last legitimate president, Grant, to become the 19th president.
Le told Insider: “Now that one of their most highly-anticipated events – the January 20 inauguration – has failed to come true, they’re grasping for explanations from other conspiracy theories.”
View said that there is no clear logic to it besides the blind faith that Donald Trump is the chosen one to save humanity.
‘Maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4’
Adopting conspiracy theories from other groups to contribute to a specific, imaginary narrative isn’t unexpected.
It’s QAnon’s survival method “because their own predictions have fallen apart,” said Le.
The forums populated by QAnon adherents are now buzzing with chatter about March 4.
Telegram and Gab have led the way according to research by Media Matters seen by Insider, and it is widely circulating on 4Chan and right-wing forum Patriots.win, the researchers said. The rumors have also reached TikTok, reported the Independent.
There have been real-world consequences to the March 4 rumor-mill.
Notably, Trump’s DC hotel has hiked prices for March 3 and March 4. It is the only luxury hotel in the area to increase its rates for those nights.
The US Capitol Police, fearing potentially violent clashes, have ordered almost 5,000 National Guard troops to remain stationed in Washington, DC, on March 4.
Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, referred to the conspiracy theory during a hearing on the matter.
“Some of these people have figured out that apparently 75 years ago, the president used to be inaugurated on March 4,” he said. “OK, now why that’s relevant? God knows. At any rate, now they are thinking, ‘maybe we should gather again and storm the Capitol on March 4’ … that is circulating online.”
A HASC Democratic spokesperson told Insider that Smith had seen the reports identifying March 4 as “another inflection point” in the capital.
“The House Armed Services Committee’s role is to validate that military personnel are used in accordance with their aligned task and requirements,” the spokesperson said.
Will QAnon ever give up?
Security is also expected to be high throughout March to anticipate the still-unscheduled State of the Union address.
The Capitol Police plans to maintain an elevated presence due to intelligence suggesting that extremists have discussed plans to attack the Capitol building during the speech, Politico reported.
Experts, however, don’t expect the insurrectionist violence of January 6 to be replicated on March 4.
Barkun, who previously advised the FBI on security threats posed by extremist groups, said he is confident that sufficient attention is being paid to QAnon’s activities.
View also doubts that there will be widespread violence. “I think the events of January 6 spooked a lot of Q followers,” he told Insider.
But none of the experts Insider spoke to believe QAnon is going away any time soon. It is commonplace for conspiracy theory groups to deal with incorrect predictions by just kicking the can down the road.
“They will construct more and more complex rationalizations that push the events that they wish for farther and farther into the future,” Barkun told Insider.
Gab is a social media platform that has become a hot spot for far-right figures like Infowars founder Alex Jones as well as white supremacist and anti-Semitic rhetoric since it launched in 2016.
That’s because it doesn’t moderate content as Twitter does — Gab markets itself as a vehicle for free speech and doesn’t crack down on posts that would be considered hateful or containing false information.
Since launching in 2016, Gab has been suspended by Stripe, PayPal, Amazon’s cloud-hosting service, Google’s cloud platform, Apple’s app store, and its former domain registrar GoDaddy over hate speech violations.
And in 2018, the shooter of the Tree of Life Pittsburgh synagogue attack took to Gab to voice anti-Semitic rhetoric before killing 11 people.
Now, after Facebook and Twitter banned President Trump from their platforms following the US Capitol siege, many on the right are flocking to sites like Gab — the company said it’s seeing 10,000 new users every hour, but Apple and Google have long banned it from their app stores.
As mainstream social sites deplatform President Trump and other far-right users for spreading misinformation and inciting violence, smaller fringe networks appear to be absorbing the runoff.
Gab is one of them – it was founded in 2016 as an alternative social platform to Facebook and Twitter. Its founder sought to build a place where users can embrace free speech and post without moderation at a time when mainstream sites began to crack down on misinformation, efforts that coincided with Trump’s rise to the presidency.
After pro-Trump extremists violently stormed the US Capitol last week, the discourse reignited around how social media services can radicalize and provide platforms to those seeking to carry out violence. The rioters were found to have organized for weeks ahead of time on Twitter, Facebook, Parler, and TheDonald.
Since then, Facebook has blocked Trump’s access to the site and Twitter has permanently suspended the president, and smaller sites like Parler have been banned by Google and Apple’s app stores, as well as dropped from Amazon’s AWS service, over its failure to moderate threats of violence.
Apple kicked Gab off in 2016 over hate speech violations, as have Google and Amazon and yet, the platform has risen in popularity since it launched as one of a handful of online ecosystems that attracted those on the fringes.
Here’s how Gab became a favorite among the alt-right.
Gab was bred out of a desire to escape Twitter’s moderation policies on false information and hate speech
Cofounder and CEO Andrew Torba told Buzzfeed News in late 2017 he had become fed up with how major social media websites censor people’s posts. “What makes the entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly qualified to tell us what is ‘news’ and what is ‘trending’ and to define what ‘harassment’ means?” Torba said.
Gab looks a lot like both Twitter and Reddit, as the New York Times reported, and posts – called “gabs” – are capped at 300 characters.
The site quickly became a cesspool of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and other users who were booted off of mainstream tech platforms, like Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and white nationalist leader Richard B. Spencer. The website purports to be committed to anyone who shares “in the common ideals of Western values, individual liberty, and the free exchange and flow of information,” but far-right ideologies are what largely populates the small community. It had around 1 million registered users in April 2020, according to Fox Business.
Torba posted a gab early Monday showing an illustration of President Trump with an eagle resting on his shoulders standing alongside a lion. Far-right Irish YouTuber Dave Cullen, who has run the channel Computing Forever, posted a farewell video on Monday after YouTube banned him for violating its policies. He said this won’t affect how he operates.
Cullen’s Gab bio reads “If they won’t let you say it, that means it MUST be said. #AllSpeechMatters.”
Like other far-right alternatives, such as Parler, Gab markets itself as being committed to free speech. Gab’s online rules prohibit some types of posts, like threats of violence and illegal pornography. But other than that, it uses little moderation and doesn’t restrict posts that might be widely considered to be misleading or to qualify as hate speech. It does give users an option to mute posts that they find offensive.
The shooter falsely alleged that a Jewish refugee organization “likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” according to an archive of his posts on Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Gab has been banned by big tech companies regularly since it launched in 2016
Big tech companies have restricted Gab in the past, just as Google, Amazon, and Apple have taken action on Parler after pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol.
In 2016, Apple blocked the Gab app over pornographic content and hate speech, and Google banned it from its Google Play store as well. Gab filed a lawsuit against Google over the block before dropping it.
In 2017, the site’s online domain registrar threatened to kick Gab off for violating hate speech laws with more racist and anti-Semitic posts. A company spokesperson said it removed the posts’ author but that it was “looking for a domain registrar provider that supports lawful, politically incorrect free speech.”
In August 2018, Microsoft threatened to boot Gab off of its Azure cloud computing service over anti-Semitic posts calling for “vengeance” against Jews and for the vandalism of Holocaust memorial museums. The Gab user who wrote the posts later deleted them.
After the 2018 Pittsburgh shooter was found to have posted anti-Semitic posts on Gab, PayPal announced it was banning the platform from using it as a payment option. Stripe followed suit shortly after, as did Medium, Shopify, and GoDaddy, Gab’s domain registrar. Gab soon found a new domain registrar with the company Epik.
And in 2019, Amazon announced it would stop allowing Gab to raise money via its Amazon Web Services platform because the site “promotes content that constitutes hate speech.” It attempted to solicit up to $10 million from investors beforehand.
The far-right can spread more lies on Gab because the site doesn’t heavily moderate content – and it’s rapidly gaining new users
These sites commonly tout themselves as upholding free speech and say the likes of Twitter are infringing on the First Amendment by cracking down on misinformation. But as Business Insider’s Tyler Sonnemaker reported, it is within both Twitter and Gab’s rights to moderate their platforms as they see fit since they are private companies. The First Amendment prevents the government from censoring private citizens and firms, not the other way around.
Almost immediately after the attack on the Capitol building last Wednesday, social media platforms began suspending and permanently disabling accounts they say disseminate violent rhetoric.
The most prominent ban was Twitter’s permanent suspension of President Donald Trump’s account Friday night.
After his account got disabled, top conservatives began sharing their Parler accounts on the platform, encouraging their followers to gravitate there. Parler has become a mainstay in alt-right communication, advertising itself as a platform for unregulated language and “free speech.”
Days after the presidential election, Parler download counts surged, signaling that the platform was at the time seeing an influx of new users.
After Twitter banned Trump, Gab another far-right website that bills itself as a “free speech” platform, reported massive growth. About 10,000 new users signed up every hour on Saturday, according to Gab, signaling the gravitation from mainstream social media accounts to less-popular ones like Gab known for the circulation of alt-right speech.
Alt-right content is still available on mainstream social media accounts like Twitter. But after the Capitol riots, social media platforms have begun removing accounts they suspect will incite violence. Some users whose accounts have been removed have previously spread misinformation related to the 2020 election results and QAnon content.
These accounts, social media platforms said, violate their rules of engagement and pose a risk to the public.
Here are the people who’ve been banned since the Capitol riot attacks:
Trump has been suspended from accessing multiple social media platforms almost immediately after the Capitol riots.
He was permanently suspended from Twitter on Friday “due to the risk of further incitement of violence,” the company said in a tweet.
Facebook blocked Trump “indefinitely” a day earlier, saying the ban will last at least until President-elect Joe Biden gets sworn into office on January 20.
That same day, Twitter banned the account of Ron Watkins, a crucial QAnon figure who ran the alt-right platform 8kun.
Watkins’ misinformation posts have frequently often been amplified by Trump himself. When his account was active, Trump retweeted posts from Watkins.
Other QAnon accounts were also suspended on Friday, and Twitter has been taking steps to reduce the influence and misinformation that comes out of the group. The same day, for example, Twitter removed thousands of QAnon-affiliated accounts.
Still, there are several other QAnon accounts that continue to thrive on the platform.
Though Trump posted a video briefly denouncing the violence, he then continued to use social media platforms to praise his supporters and once again repeat debunked conspiracy theories about the election.
Twitter and Facebook, both of which have policies against inciting violence, undermining democratic processes, and spreading election misinformation, decided that – given the impact that the president’s comments were having and continue to have – they would no longer let him use their platforms.
Within hours of Twitter’s ban on Friday, Trump tried to bypass it by tweeting from the official presidential account, @POTUS. He posted a series of tweets railing against the social media company for “banning free speech” and taking aim at one of his favorite targets, Section 230. (Twitter quickly removed the tweets.)
But Trump’s implication – that Twitter somehow violated his First Amendment right to free speech – is a complete misunderstanding of what the First Amendment says.
Here’s why Twitter and Facebook, like other social media companies, have the right to ban Trump, and why Trump and other far-right politicians often take it out on Section 230.
What is the First Amendment?
The First Amendment to the US Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” [emphasis added].
In other words, it bans the government from infringing on free speech (with some limited exceptions).
What does that mean for social media companies?
“The First Amendment is a constraint on the power of government. It doesn’t apply to Twitter,” said Daphne Keller, an attorney and internet law expert who leads the program on platform regulation at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, adding: “Twitter is not a state actor.”
Why are Trump and his allies so mad then?
Trump, his allies, and others who have been hit with account suspensions, had warning labels applied to their posts, or had their advertising revenue shut off by companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may disagree with those companies’ rules or approach to enforcing them – or they may just be mad that they can’t get their message out or make money from their audience or advertisers.
But legally, there’s very little they can do.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 gives legal protections to “interactive computer services” – like social media companies – that: 1) prevents them from being held liable for content posted by their users (with some limited exceptions), and 2) allows them to moderate content on their sites as they see fit.
“Section 230 makes it relatively easy for platforms to go to court and win saying ‘we have the right to enforce whatever policies we want,'” Keller said. But even without Section 230, she said, Twitter would win if Trump sued “based on their own First Amendment right to set editorial policy on the platform.”
So, why do Trump and his allies still want to get rid of Section 230?
Trump and many far-right politicians have repeatedly claimed (without evidence) that social media companies are systemically biased against them, and they believe repealing or curbing Section 230 would allow them to use the government to deny Section 230’s legal protections to platforms that aren’t “politically neutral.”
Ironically, that’s exactly what the First Amendment prohibits, which legal experts quickly pointed out when Trump tried to use executive orders to accomplish that last summer. (Still, Trump loyalists in the Federal Communications Commission tried to implement it anyway.)
What would happen if they did repeal Section 230?
Ignoring for a second that it’s legal for social media companies to be “biased” when enforcing content rules, right-wing politicians’ criticisms of Section 230 tend to ignore several key facts about who social media currently benefits – and who it would benefit if they repealed the law.
First, the evidence has consistently shown that conservatives tend to enjoy some of the widest reach and engagement on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – or at the least, conservatives have failed to produce evidence that their views are being silenced or their reach is being throttled.
Second, if social media companies lost the legal protections offered by Section 230, they would be more, not less likely to remove questionable content from their sites, because they’d (rightfully) be fearful of getting sued.
And increased legal liability could also make it harder for new competitors, like “alternative” social media sites Parler, Gab, and MeWe – where Trump supporters have flocked due to their lax approaches to regulating content – to get off the ground in the first place.