Sylvain Gaboury/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images.
The clash between conservatives and Big Tech has been brewing since the 2016 election, when Twitter and Facebook began taking more aggressive steps to crack down on hate speech—stripping some users of their “verified” statuses, banning others without a clear explanation, and in some cases disappearing politically toxic pages (before restoring them again). Some of the controversy is to be expected, given the ad hoc nature of content moderation, the mind-boggling volume of content in need of moderation, and the fallibility of said moderators. Both Twitter and Facebook say they are trying to do better. In recent weeks, however, Donald Trump has elevated the discontent over Silicon Valley’s alleged political bias to the status of a full-blown culture war. The president has declared that “too many voices are being destroyed” by social networks; that Google’s results for the search query “Trump news” are somehow biased against conservative outlets; that Facebook, Twitter, and Google are “treading on very, very troubled territory and they have to be careful”; and that Google failed to promote his State of the Union address.
Perhaps hoping to score points with his dad, Donald Trump Jr. took up the mantle on Thursday, telling Axios that tech companies must self-regulate better; that there is “exactly zero doubt in my mind” that tech bias exists; and that he would “love to” build a social-media platform that promotes conservative viewpoints, “but what I would prefer is, take one of the two Silicon Valley conservatives and let them start it. And then I’d help promote the platform and be all over that.”
Logistically speaking, Don’s dream is within the realm of reality: the president’s oldest son has nearly 3 million Twitter followers and 1.3 million Instagram followers, who he promised to usher over to the new site. It’s also possible there are enough investors and engineers to get a conservative social network off the ground—if consistent revenue can be derived from a small, loyal user base, the platform wouldn’t need to achieve the scale of Facebook or Twitter to be successful. But there’s a major problem with Don’s plan, as exhibited by the only extant platform that comes close to fulfilling his vision: Gab, a right-wing Twitter alternative that markets itself as an explicitly “free-speech” platform. The site initially gained steam (or at least press attention) in 2016 after Twitter banned “alt-right” troll Milo Yiannopoulos.
But almost as quickly, it became overrun with racists, Nazis, and white nationalists. Earlier this year, its chief operating officer, Utsav Sanduja, threatened to call law enforcement when users posted a picture of a noose surrounded by swastikas and asked him: “It’s coming for you, are you excited?” “What am I supposed to do?” Sanduja asked the Daily Beast at the time. “Not protect myself?” In at least one instance, other tech giants have felt compelled to bring the hammer down on Gab: this month Patrick Little, a neo-Nazi who ran for Senate in California, deleted two posts in which he threatened physical harm against Jews after Microsoft threatened to block the platform. If Gab is any indication, any right-wing site operating according to the Don Jr. model would be forced to grapple with similar issues, alienating potential advertisers and normal people who wouldn’t want to be associated with its more extreme viewpoints. Eventually, like Gab, 4chan, and particularly offensive parts of Reddit, the platform would become so toxic that it would be shoved to the far corners of the Internet and roundly ignored by the masses.
This phenomenon is more commonly seen on the conservative end of the spectrum, which tends to attract the lion’s share of blatant racists and sexists. But a similar case study exists on the left in the form of Liker, a sort of Facebook alternative for liberals founded by Omar Rivero, the creator of the Occupy Democrats Facebook page, which claims to be devoid of “meaningless nonsense.” Left unchecked by moderators and governed solely by “likes,” however, the site has sprouted seemingly endless false claims about Trump and his administration. (“Liker is not in the business of arbitrating what is good content or not,” Rivero told the Daily Beast. “The people vote, and they vote with their likes.”)
Of course, the viability of said social-media platform for conservatives isn’t necessarily the point. The right’s arguments that its members are being “shadow banned” by Twitter (they’re not), or that their political views are being described inaccurately (they’re not) are intended to stoke controversy and rile up voters, not create a viable solution—a goal that received a boost on Tuesday, when White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, confirmed that the government will be “taking a look” at whether Silicon Valley is discriminating against Trump. Their complaints may have gained steam, propelled by Trump officials eager to curry favor with the base. But the fact of the matter is that a legitimate “Facebook for conservatives” would look . . . a lot like Facebook.