Driven off popular websites and mainstream social media, Donald Trump and his supporters are being forced to find new places to gather online.
A purge of the US president’s online accounts following the insurrection in Washington DC last week saw him blocked or restricted on more than a dozen major tech platforms, due to fears he may incite more violence. The scale of his digital downfall led one commentator to describe his phone to be as useful as a “paperweight”.
The full extent of the events of 6 January, which left five people dead, is still being uncovered, but what is clear is that large parts of it were organised publicly in forums and other pockets of the internet faithful to Trump.
For some adherers to the QAnon conspiracy theory, the storming of the United States Capitol was the long-awaited arrival of the so-called Great Awakening. This moment, also referred to online as The Storm, was the judgement day for the cabal of cannibalistic paedophiles that the anonymous ‘Q’ claimed inhabited the highest levels of government.
QAnon followers believed this day would see politicians rounded up and executed in a public forum. Pictures from inside the Capitol building showed people carrying zip ties in the apparent hope of arresting lawmakers and bringing them to justice on behalf of Donald Trump, while outside others erected a gallows.
If there ever was a moment for the mysterious Q to reveal himself and give orders for the next phase of the plan, this was it. Instead, the only message they received was from Trump, telling them: “Go home, we love you, you’re very special.”
This message shared across his social media channels, together with Trump’s failure to fully denounce the insurrectionists, proved to be the final provocation needed for tech giants to remove him from their services. Along with Trump’s account, Twitter removed more than 70,000 accounts associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google and more than a dozen companies also took action alongside Twitter against the outgoing president and his followers.
It demonstrated the scale of influence held by a handful of corporations and their executives over the internet as most people know it. Within just a few days, they had removed arguably the most powerful person on the planet.
The cull faced inevitable criticism from conservative figures, with Donald Trump Jr. claiming in a tweet that “free speech is under attack”. Free speech in the US is protected by the First Amendment, but it was added to the constitution to prevent the government from silencing private citizens and companies, not the other way around.
A number of self-proclaimed “free speech apps” have surged in popularity in recent months in response to Big Tech’s alleged censorship, most notably Parler.
In the week after Trump lost the presidential elections in November, Parler became the most-downloaded app in the US with more than 2 million people signing up in a single day. Despite its claims to offer “free expression without violence and no censorship”, Parler has faced familiar anti-free speech accusations from left-leaning users who claim they were banned for expressing contrarian opinions.
Notable Parler users included Republican Senator Ted Cruz, the president’s son Eric Trump and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany – all of whom lost access to the app when Amazon decided to drop its web hosting service to Parler over the weekend.
It is not the first time the world’s largest website hosting provider has refused business to controversial sites, and precedent suggests Parler will be able to find another way to host their content.
Another social network popular with the far right, Gab, has already been through what Parler and Trump is currently going through. Apple and Google both removed it from their app stores, Amazon dropped support for their servers, and PayPal, Stripe and Visa all blocked payments through their networks.
Over the last few years Gab has been building all the infrastructure required to run a social media company by themselves: From email systems and cryptocurrency payment platforms, to computer servers and web browsers.
“We bought our own servers, we own them. We cannot be banned from them,” said Andrew Torba, chief executive of Gab. “That’s how you’re going to take back control of the internet. We will build the free speech internet that is grounded in American law and First Amendment free speech protections for everyone from around the world, even if we have to do it from the ground up.”
When Amazon Web Services ditched Parler, many called for the tech giant to do the same to Gab. The upstart social network responded to one user, tweeting, “Bad news communist, Gab isn’t hosted by Amazon. Gab is hosted by Gab.”
Gab is not completely immune from restrictions imposed by large corporations and authorities. It can still be banned by internet service providers and the FBI could seize the website, as they have done with illicit online drug markets in the past.
Gab saw a huge spike in new users following the Capitol insurrection, with Torba claiming 40 million new visitors to the site and roughly 700,000 sign-ups per day.
In the build-up to the events on 6 January, people on Gab began threatening violence against elected officials – though site moderators cracked down and claimed to have removed any posts calling for violent action.
“It looks to me like the majority of the protest action that went on last week happened on Facebook,” said Torba.
Other apps owned by Facebook, such as WhatsApp and Messenger, could provide a place for conspiracists and agitators to gather in private groups and organise. They offer end-to-end encryption, which means tracking or removing individual users requires infiltrating the groups.
Other popular messaging apps with strong privacy features, such as Telegram, continue to play host to channels set up by the Proud Boys, an extremist pro-Trump group whose members were among those at the Washington DC riots.
According to an FBI bulletin this week, armed protests are being planned in all 50 state capitals from 16 January ahead of Joe Biden’s inauguration, though it is not clear where or how these protests are being organised online.
Online forums that Trump supporters used to organise the 6 January protests, such as TheDonald.Win, remain online, largely thanks to protections from cyber protection service CloudFlare, but do not appear to be facilitating the organisation of new protests.
The moderators of TheDonald.Win denied that the website was being used to plan armed protests, saying: “We have not seen any evidence of anything being organised through our site.”
The website, which was set up after Reddit banned the hugely popular r/TheDonald sub-reddit last year, has also distanced itself from the events at the Capitol last week, though users continue to call for insurrection.
Cloudflare has previously discontinued support for sites popular with the most extreme fringes of Trump’s base, including white supremacist website The Daily Stormer in 2017.
The company is yet to be taken against TheDonald.Win and the US firm did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Independent.
If Cloudflare were to drop TheDonald, and all other web hosts abandoned it, there is another option for sites shunned by commercial platforms: The dark web.
When The Daily Stormer was blacklisted by Silicon Valley in 2017, the neo-Nazi site set up its site through Tor, a decentralised web browser that is immune to censorship.
Tor Project contributor Steph wrote in a blog post at the time that Tor was “disgusted, angered, and appalled by everything these racists stand for and do… But we can’t build free and open source tools that protect journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary people around the world if we also control who uses those tools.”
The disadvantage of the dark web is that it is not easy to access for ordinary web users. Even sharing the link on the open web can get a user banned, and currently the only place to find it on a social network is through Gab.
In tweets posted to the official presidential Twitter account following the ban on his personal account, Trump also hinted that he is working on his own social network.
“We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future,” he wrote in a series of tweets that Twitter swiftly deleted.
“We will not be SILENCED! … STAY TUNED.”