Twitter’s vision of decentralization could also be the far-right’s internet endgame

This week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey finally responded publicly to the company’s decision to ban President Trump from its platform, writing that Twitter had “faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance” and that he did not “feel pride” about the decision. In the same thread, he took time to call out a nascent Twitter-sponsored initiative called “bluesky,” which is aiming to build up an “open decentralized standard for social media” that Twitter is just one part of.

Researchers involved with bluesky reveal to TechCrunch an initiative still in its earliest stages that could fundamentally shift the power dynamics of the social web.

Bluesky is aiming to build a “durable” web standard that will ultimately ensure that platforms like Twitter have less centralized responsibility in deciding which users and communities have a voice on the internet. While this could protect speech from marginalized groups, it may also upend modern moderation techniques and efforts to prevent online radicalization.

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive officer of Twitter Inc., arrives after a break during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. Republicans pressed Dorsey for what they said may be the “shadow-banning” of conservatives during the hearing. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What is bluesky?

Just as Bitcoin lacks a central bank to control it, a decentralized social network protocol operates without central governance, meaning Twitter would only control its own app built on bluesky, not other applications on the protocol. The open and independent system would allow applications to see, search and interact with content across the entire standard. Twitter hopes that the project can go far beyond what the existing Twitter API offers, enabling developers to create applications with different interfaces or methods of algorithmic curation, potentially paying entities across the protocol like Twitter for plug-and-play access to different moderation tools or identity networks.

A widely adopted, decentralized protocol is an opportunity for social networks to “pass the buck” on moderation responsibilities to a broader network, one person involved with the early stages of bluesky suggests, allowing individual applications on the protocol to decide which accounts and networks its users are blocked from accessing.

Social platforms like Parler or Gab could theoretically rebuild their networks on bluesky, benefitting from its stability and the network effects of an open protocol. Researchers involved are also clear that such a system would also provide a meaningful measure against government censorship and protect the speech of marginalized groups across the globe.

Bluesky’s current scope is firmly in the research phase, people involved tell TechCrunch, with about 40-50 active members from different factions of the decentralized tech community surveying the software landscape and putting together proposals for what the protocol should ultimately look like. Twitter has told early members that it hopes to hire a project manager in the coming weeks to build out an independent team that will start crafting the protocol itself.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment on the initiative.

Bluesky’s initial members were invited by Twitter CTO Parag Agrawal early last year. It was later determined that the group should open the conversation up to folks representing some of the more recognizable decentralized network projects, including Mastodon and ActivityPub, which joined the working group hosted on the secure chat platform Element.

Jay Graber, founder of decentralized social platform Happening, was paid by Twitter to write up a technical review of the decentralized social ecosystem, an effort to “help Twitter evaluate the existing options in the space,” she tells TechCrunch.

“If [Twitter] wanted to design this thing, they could have just assigned a group of guys to do it, but there’s only one thing that this little tiny group of people could do better than Twitter, and that’s not be Twitter,” said Golda Velez, another member of the group who works as a senior software engineer at Postmates and co-founded civ.works, a privacy-centric social network for civic engagement.

The group has had some back and forth with Twitter executives on the scope of the project, eventually forming a Twitter-approved list of goals for the initiative. They define the challenges that the bluesky protocol should seek to address while also laying out what responsibilities are best left to the application creators building on the standard.

Parrot.VC Twitter account

Image: TechCrunch

Who is involved

The pain points enumerated in the document, viewed by TechCrunch, encapsulate some of Twitter’s biggest shortcomings. They include “how to keep controversy and outrage from hijacking virality mechanisms,” as well as a desire to develop “customizable mechanisms” for moderation, though the document notes that the applications, not the overall protocol, are “ultimately liable for compliance, censorship, takedowns etc.”

“I think the solution to the problem of algorithms isn’t getting rid of algorithms — because sorting posts chronologically is an algorithm — the solution is to make it an open pluggable system by which you can go in and try different algorithms and see which one suits you or use the one that your friends like,” says Evan Henshaw-Plath, another member of the working group. He was one of Twitter’s earliest employees and has been building out his own decentralized social platform called Planetary.

His platform is based on the secure scuttlebutt protocol, which allows users to browse networks offline in an encrypted fashion. Early on, Planetary had been in talks with Twitter for a corporate investment as well as a personal investment from CEO Jack Dorsey, Henshaw-Plath says, but the competitive nature of the platform prompted some concern among Twitter’s lawyers and Planetary ended up receiving an investment from Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s venture fund Future Positive. Stone did not respond to interview requests.

After agreeing on goals, Twitter had initially hoped for the broader team to arrive at some shared consensus, but starkly different viewpoints within the group prompted Twitter to accept individual proposals from members. Some pushed Twitter to outright adopt or evolve an existing standard while others pushed for bluesky to pursue interoperability of standards early on and see what users naturally flock to.

One of the developers in the group hoping to bring bluesky onto their standard was Mastodon creator Eugen Rochko, who tells TechCrunch he sees the need for a major shift in how social media platforms operate globally.

“Banning Trump was the right decision though it came a little bit too late. But at the same time, the nuance of the situation is that maybe it shouldn’t be a single American company that decides these things,” Rochko tells us.

Like several of the other members in the group, Rochko has been skeptical at times about Twitter’s motivation with the bluesky protocol. Shortly after Dorsey’s initial announcement in 2019, Mastodon’s official Twitter account tweeted out a biting critique, writing, “This is not an announcement of reinventing the wheel. This is announcing the building of a protocol that Twitter gets to control, like Google controls Android.”

Today, Mastodon is arguably one of the most mature decentralized social platforms. Rochko claims that the network of decentralized nodes has more than 2.3 million users spread across thousands of servers. In early 2017, the platform had its viral moment on Twitter, prompting an influx of “hundreds of thousands” of new users alongside some inquisitive potential investors whom Rochko has rebuffed in favor of a donation-based model.

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Inherent risks

Not all of the attention Rochko has garnered has been welcome. In 2019, Gab, a social network favored by right-wing extremists, brought its entire platform onto the Mastodon network after integrating the platform’s open-source code, bringing Mastodon its single biggest web of users and its most undesirable liability all at once.

Rochko quickly disavowed the network and aimed to sever its ties to other nodes on the Mastodon platform and convince application creators to do the same. But a central fear of decentralization advocates was quickly realized, as the platform type’s first “success story” was a home for right-wing extremists.

This fear has been echoed in decentralized communities this week as app store owners and networks have taken another right-wing social network, Parler, off the web after violent content surfaced on the site in the lead-up to and aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, leaving some developers fearful that the social network may set up home on their decentralized standard.

“Fascists are 100% going to use peer-to-peer technologies, they already are and they’re going to start using it more… If they get pushed off of mainstream infrastructure or people are surveilling them really closely, they’re going to have added motivation,” said Emmi Bevensee, a researcher studying extremist presences on decentralized networks. “Maybe the far-right gets stronger footholds on peer-to-peer before the people who think the far-right is bad do because they were effectively pushed off.”

A central concern is that commoditizing decentralized platforms through efforts like bluesky will provide a more accessible route for extremists kicked off current platforms to maintain an audience and provide casual internet users a less janky path towards radicalization.

“Peer-to-peer technology is generally not that seamless right now. Some of it is; you can buy Bitcoin in Cash App now, which, if anything, is proof that this technology is going to become much more mainstream and adoption is going to become much more seamless,” Bevensee told TechCrunch. “In the current era of this mass exodus from Parler, they’re obviously going to lose a huge amount of audience that isn’t dedicated enough to get on IPFS. Scuttlebutt is a really cool technology but it’s not as seamless as Twitter.”

Extremists adopting technologies that promote privacy and strong encryption is far from a new phenomenon, encrypted chat apps like Signal and Telegram have been at the center of such controversies in recent years. Bevensee notes the tendency of right-wing extremist networks to adopt decentralized network tech has been “extremely demoralizing” to those early developer communities — though she notes that the same technologies can and do benefit “marginalized people all around the world.”

Though people connected to bluesky’s early moves see a long road ahead for the protocol’s development and adoption, they also see an evolving landscape with Parler and President Trump’s recent deplatforming that they hope will drive other stakeholders to eventually commit to integrating with the standard.

“Right at this moment I think that there’s going to be a lot of incentive to adopt, and I don’t just mean by end users, I mean by platforms, because Twitter is not the only one having these really thorny moderation problems,” Velez says. “I think people understand that this is a critical moment.”

How Twitter is handling the 2021 US presidential transition

Twitter has set out its plans for US Inauguration Day 2021, next Wednesday, January 20, when president-elect Joe Biden will be sworn into office as the 46th US president and vice president-elect Kamala Harris will become VP.

“This year, multiple challenging circumstances will require that most people experience this historic ceremony virtually,” the social media firm writes in a blog post detailing how it will handle the transition of power on its platform as the Trump administration departs office.

“As Twitter will serve as both a venue for people to watch and talk about this political event, and play a key role in facilitating the transfer of official government communication channels, we want to be transparent and clear about what people should expect to see on the platform.”

The inauguration will of course be livestreamed via Twitter by multiple accounts (such as news outlets), as well as the official inauguration accounts, @JCCIC and @BidenInaugural.

Twitter will also be streaming the ceremony via its US Elections Hub, where it says it will share curated Moments, Lists and accounts to follow as well.

Once sworn into office, Biden and Harris will gain control of the @POTUS and @VP Twitter accounts. Other accounts that will transition to the new administration on the day include @WhiteHouse, @FLOTUS and @PressSec.

Twitter has also confirmed that Harris’ husband, Douglas Emhoff, will use a new official account — called @SecondGentleman. (It’s not clear why not ‘SGOTUS’; aside from, well, the unloveliness of the acronym.) 

As it did when president Obama left office, Twitter will transfer the current institutional accounts of the Trump administration to the National Archives and Records Administration (Nara) — meaning the outgoing administration’s tweets and account history will remain publicly available (with account usernames updated to reflect their archived status, e.g. @POTUS will be archived as @POTUS45).

However Trump’s personal account, which he frequently used as a political cudgel, yelling in ALL CAPS and/or spewing his customary self-pitying tweets, has already been wiped from public view after Twitter took the decision to permanently ban him last week for repeat violations of its rules of conduct. So there’s likely to be a major gap in Nara’s Trump archive.

Since late last year we’ve known the transitioning @POTUS and institutional accounts will not automatically retain followers from the prior administration. But Twitter still hasn’t confirmed why.

Today it just reiterated that the current (33.3M) followers of @POTUS and the other official accounts will receive a notification about the archival process which will include the “option” to follow the new holders of the accounts.

That’s another notable change from 2017 when Trump inherited the ~14M followers of president Obama’s @POTUS. Biden will instead have to start his presidential tweeting from scratch.

Given the chaotic events in the US capital last week, when supporters of the outgoing president broke through police lines to cause mayhem on the hill and in the House, there’s every reason for tech platforms to approach the 2021 transition with trepidation, lest their tools get used to livestream another historic insurrection (or worse).

Since then Trump has also continued to maintain his false claim that the election was stolen through voter fraud.

Although he avoided any new direct reference to this big lie when he circumvented Twitter’s ban on his personal account earlier this week, by posting a new video of himself speaking on the official @WhiteHouse account.

In the video he decried the “incursion at the US capital”, as he put it; claimed that he “unequivocally condemns the violence that we saw last week”; and called for unity. But Twitter has put tight limits on what Trump can say on its platform without having his posts removed (as well limiting him to the official @POTUS channel). So he remains on a very tight speech leash.

In the video Trump limits his verbal attacks to a few remarks — about what he describes as “the unprecedented assault on free speech we have seen in recent days” — dubbing tech platforms’ censorship “wrong” and “dangerous”, and adding that “what is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another”.

There’s a lot going on here but it should not escape notice that Trump’s seeming contrition and quasi-concession and his very-last-minute calls for unity have only come when he actively feels power draining away from him.

Most notably, his call for unity has only come after powerful tech platforms acted to shut off his hate-megaphone — ending the years of special dispensation they granted Trump to ride roughshod over democratic convention and tear up the civic rulebook.

It’s very interesting to speculate how different the 2021 US inauguration might look and feel if platforms like Twitter had consistently enforced their rules against Trump from the get-go.

Instead we’re stuck in all sorts of lockdown, counting the days til Biden takes office — and above all hoping for a smooth transition of power.

So Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is quite right when he said this week that Twitter has failed in its mission to “promote healthy conversation”. His company ignored warnings about online toxicity for years. Trump is, in no small part, the divisive product of that. 

In a brief section of Twitter’s transition handling blog post, entitled “protecting the public conversation”, the company refers back to a post from earlier this week where it set out steps it’s taking to try to prevent its platform from being used to “incite violence, organize attacks, and share deliberately misleading information about the election outcome” in the coming days.

These measures include permanently suspending ~70,000 accounts it said were primarily dedicated to sharing content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory; aggressively beefing up its civic integrity policy; and applying interaction limits on labeled tweets plus blocking violative keywords from appearing in Trends and search.

“These efforts, including our open lines of communication with law enforcement, will continue through the inauguration and will adapt as needed if circumstances change in real-time,” it adds, preparing for more unrest.

Snapchat permanently bans President Trump’s account

Quite a bit has happened since Snap announced last week that it was indefinitely locking President Trump’s Snapchat account. But after temporary bans from his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts as well as a permanent ban from Twitter, Snap has decided that it will also be making its ban of the President’s Snapchat account permanent.

Though Trump’s social media preferences as a user are clear, Snapchat gave the Trump campaign a particularly effective platform to target young users who are active on the service. A permanent ban will undoubtedly complicate his future business and political ambitions as he finds himself removed from most mainstream social platforms.

Snap says it made the decision in light of repeated attempted violations of the company’s community guidelines that had been made over the past several months by the President’s account.

“Last week we announced an indefinite suspension of President Trump’s Snapchat account, and have been assessing what long term action is in the best interest of our Snapchat community. In the interest of public safety, and based on his attempts to spread misinformation, hate speech, and incite violence, which are clear violations of our guidelines, we have made the decision to permanently terminate his account,” a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Snap’s decision to permanently ban the President was first reported by Axios.

Trump circumvents Twitter ban to decry ‘unprecedented assault on free speech’

Following a comprehensive ban from Twitter and a number of other online services following last week’s assault on the Capitol by his followers, President Trump managed to put out a tweet in the form of a video address touching on the “calamity at the Capitol”… and, of course, his deplatforming.

In the video, Trump instructs his followers to shun violence, calling it un-American. “No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence,” he said, days after calling rioters “great patriots” and telling them “we love you, you’re very special” as they despoiled the House and Senate.

He pivoted after a few minutes to the topic that, after his historic second impeachment, is almost certainly foremost on his mind: being banned from his chief instrument of governance, Twitter.

“I also want to say a few words about the unprecedented assault on free speech we have seen in recent days,” he said, although the bans and other actions are all due to documented breaches of the platforms’ rules. “The efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens are wrong, and they are dangerous. What is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another.”

After having his @realdonaldtrump handle suspended by Twitter, Trump attempted to sockpuppet a few other prominent accounts of allies, but was swiftly shut down. What everyone assumed must be plans to join Parler were scuttled along with the social network itself, which has warned it may be permanently taken offline after Amazon and other internet infrastructure companies refused to host it.

In case you’re wondering how Trump was able to slip this one past Twitter’s pretty decisive ban to begin with, we were curious too.

Twitter tells TechCrunch:

This Tweet is not in violation of the Twitter Rules. As we previously made clear, other official administration accounts, including @WhiteHouse, are permitted to Tweet as long as they do not demonstrably engage in ban evasion or share content that otherwise violates the Twitter Rules.

In other words, while Trump the person was banned, Trump the head of the Executive branch may still have some right, in the remaining week he holds the office, to utilize Twitter as a way of communicating matters of importance to the American people.

This gives a somewhat unfortunate impression of a power move, as Twitter has put itself in the position of determining what is a worthwhile transmission and what is a rabble-rousing incitement to violence. I’ve asked the company to clarify how it is determined whether what Trump does on this account is considered ban evasion.

Meanwhile, almost simultaneous with Trump’s surprise tweet, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey unloaded 13 tweets worth of thoughts about the situation:

I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.

That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.

Jack neither reaches any real conclusions nor illuminates any new plans, but it’s clear he is thinking real hard about this. As he notes, however, it’ll take a lot of work to establish the “one humanity working together” he envisions as a sort of stretch goal for Twitter and the internet in general.

San Francisco police are prepping for a pro-Trump rally at Twitter headquarters

San Francisco police are preparing for a pro-Trump protest at Twitter’s headquarters, a building which has been essentially abandoned since the start of the pandemic last year, with most Twitter employees working remotely.

The potential protest comes days after Twitter banned the President from using its service — his favorite form of communication to millions of followers — following what the company called his continued incitements to violence in the wake of the January 6th assault on the Capitol last week by a mob of his followers.

“The San Francisco Police Department is aware of the possibility of a demonstration on the 1300 block of Market Street (Twitter) tomorrow, Monday January 11, 2021. SFPD has been in contact with representatives from Twitter. We will have sufficient resources available to respond to any demonstrations as well as calls for service citywide,” a police department spokesperson wrote in an email. “The San Francisco Police Department is committed to facilitating the public’s right to First Amendment expressions of free speech. We ask that everyone exercising their First Amendment rights be considerate, respectful, and mindful of the safety of others.”

The San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported the preparations from SF police, noted that posts on a popular internet forum for Trump supporters who have relocated from Reddit called for the president’s adherents to protest his Twitter ban outside of the company’s headquarters on Monday.

Twitter is one of several tech companies to deplatform the current President and many of his supporters in the wake of the riot at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Parler reportedly removed posts by Trump affiliate Lin Wood calling for execution of VP Mike Pence

It seems that even the “free speech” social network Parler has its limits.

The social network that has attracted scores of conservative commentators because of its commitment to free speech has taken down several posts from Trump affiliate Lin Wood, according to a report in Mediaite.

In one of the posts removed from the social media platform, Wood called for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence .

In a statement to Mediaite, Parler chief executive John Matze confirmed that the service had taken action against Wood’s posts to the platform.

“Yes, some of his parleys that violated our rules were taken down,” Matze told Mediaite. “Including the ones you are talking about.”

The move from Parler is significant because it would mark one of the first instances of a high profile conservative figure having their content removed from the service.

Parler, despite its reputation as a social platform dedicated to free speech, does have some rules governing content.

And, as Mediaite flagged, the posts from Wood likely ran afoul of a rule in the company’s terms of service that states “reported parleys, comments, or messages sent using our service will be deemed a violation of these Guidelines if they contain: an explicit or implicit encouragement to use violence, or to commit a lawless action, such that: (a) the Parleyer intends his or her speech to result in the use of violence or lawless action, and (b) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of the parley, comment, or message.”

Wood, whose account remains active on Parler, had his Twitter account suspended on Thursday, as Forbes reported at the time.

Meanwhile, the incitements to execute Pence seem to have been animating factor for at least some of the rioters who stormed the Capitol building on Wednesday. Reuters Photo News Editor Jim Bourg tweeted about hearing at least three different rioters hoping to “find Vice President Mike Pence and execute him by hanging him from a Capitol Hill tree as a traitor.”

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

The deplatforming of a president

After years of placid admonishments, the tech world came out in force against President Trump this past week following the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. From Twitter to PayPal, more than a dozen companies have placed unprecedented restrictions or outright banned the current occupant of the White House from using their services, and in some cases, some of his associates and supporters as well.

The news was voluminous and continuous for the past few days, so here’s a recap of who took action when, and what might happen next.

Twitter: a permanent ban and a real-time attempt to shut down all possible account alternatives

Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to electron integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.

This week, however, Twitter’s patience seemed to have been exhausted. Shortly after the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter put in place a large banner warning its users about the president’s related tweet on the matter, blocking retweets of that specific message. A few hours later, the company instituted a 12-hour ban on the president’s personal account.

At first, it looked like the situation would return to normal, with Twitter offering Thursday morning that it would reinstate the president’s account after he removed tweets the company considered against its policies around inciting violence. The president posted a tweet later on Thursday with a video attachment that seemed to be relatively calmer than his recent fiery rhetoric, a video in which he also accepted the country’s election results for the first time.

Enormous pressure externally on its own platform as well as internal demands from employees kept the policy rapidly changing though. Late Friday night, the company announced that it decided to permanently ban the president from its platform, shutting down @realDonaldTrump. The company then played a game of whack-a-mole as it blocked the president’s access to affiliated Twitter handles like @TeamTrump (his official campaign account) as well as the official presidential account @POTUS and deleted individual tweets from the president. The company’s policies state that a blocked user may not attempt to use a different account to evade its ban.

Twitter has also taken other actions against some of the president’s affiliates and broader audience, blocking Michael Flynn, a bunch of other Trump supporters, and a variety of QAnon figures.

With a new president on the horizon, the official @POTUS account will be handed to the new Biden administration, although Twitter has reportedly been intending to reset the account’s followers to zero, unlike its transition of the account in 2016 from Obama to Trump.

As for Trump himself, a permanent ban from his most prominent platform begs the question: where will he take his braggadocio and invective next? So far, we haven’t seen the president move his activities to any social network alternatives, but after the past few years (and on Twitter, the last decade), it seems hard to believe the president will merely return to his golf course and quietly ride out to the horizon.

Snap: a quick lock after dampening the president’s audience for months

Snap locked the president’s account late Wednesday following the events on Capitol Hill, and seemed to be one of the most poised tech companies to rapidly react to the events taking place in DC. Snap’s lock prevents the president from posting new snaps to his followers on the platform, which currently number approximately two million. As far as TechCrunch knows, that lock remains in place, although the president’s official profile is still available to users.

Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the concomitant Black Lives Matter protests, the company had announced back in June that it would remove the president’s account from its curated “Discover” tab, limiting its distribution and discoverability.

The president has never really effectively used the Snap platform, and with an indefinite ban in place, it looks unlikely he will find a home there in the future.

Facebook / Instagram: A short-to-medium ban with open questions on how long “indefinite” means

Facebook, like Twitter, is one of the president’s most popular destinations for his supporters, and the platform is also a locus for many of the political right’s most popular personalities. It’s moderation actions have been heavily scrutinized by the press over the past few years, but the company has mostly avoided taking direct action against the president — until this week.

On Wednesday as rioters walked out of the halls of Congress, Facebook pulled down a video from President Trump that it considered was promoting violence. Later Wednesday evening, that policy eventually extended into a 24-hour ban of the president’s account, which currently has 33 million likes, or followers. The company argued that the president had violated its policies multiple times, automatically triggering the one-day suspension. At the same time, Facebook (and Instagram) took action to block a popular trending hashtag related to the Capitol riots.

On Thursday morning, Mark Zuckerberg, in a personal post on his own platform, announced an “indefinite” suspension for the president, with a minimum duration of two weeks. That timing would neatly extend the suspension through the inauguration of president-elect Biden, who is to assume the presidency at noon on January 20th.

What will happen after the inauguration? Right now, we don’t know. The president’s account is suspended but not deactivated, which means that the president cannot post new material to his page, but that the page remains visible to Facebook users. The company could remove the suspension once the transition of power is complete, or it may continue the ban longer-term. Given the president’s prominence on the platform and the heavy popularity of the social network among his supporters, Facebook is in a much more intense bind between banning content it deems offensive, and retaining users important to its bottom line.

Shopify / PayPal: Ecommerce platforms won’t sell Trump official merchandise for the time being

It’s not just social networks that are blocking the president’s audience — ecommerce giants are also getting into moderating their platforms against the president. On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand.

That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.

PayPal meanwhile has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters this week, who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill. PayPal has been increasingly banning some political accounts, banning a far-right activist in 2019 and also banning a spate of far-right organizations in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.

Given the president’s well-known personal brand and penchant for product tie-ins before becoming president, it’s a major open question about how these two platforms and others in ecommerce will respond to Trump once he leaves office in two weeks. Will the president go back to shilling steaks, water and cologne? And will he need an ecommerce venue to sell his wares online? Much will depend on Trump’s next goals and whether he stays focused on politics, or heads back to his more commercial pursuits.

Google removes Parler from the Google Play Store, while Apple mulls a removal as well

For supporters of Trump and others concerned about the moderation actions of Facebook and other platforms, Parler has taken the lead as an alternative social network for this audience. Right now, the app is number one in the App Store in the United States, ahead of encrypted and secure messaging app Signal, which is at number four and got a massive endorsement from Elon Musk this week.

Parler’s opportunism for growth around the riots on Capitol Hill though has run into a very real barrier: the two tech companies which run the two stores for mobile applications in the United States.

Google announced Friday evening that it would be removing the Parler app from its store, citing the social network’s lack of moderation and content filtering capabilities. The app’s page remains down as this article was going to press. That ban means that new users won’t be able to install the app from the Play Store, however, existing users who already have Parler installed will be able to continue using it.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that Apple has reportedly sent a 24-hour takedown notice to Parler’s developers, saying that it would mirror Google’s actions if the app didn’t immediately filter content that endangers safety. As of now, Parler remains available in the App Store, but if the timing is to be believed, the app could be taken down later this Saturday.

Given the complexities of content moderation, including the need to hire content moderators en masse, it seems highly unlikely that Parler could respond to these requests in any short period of time. What happens to the app and the president’s supporters long-term next is, right now, anyone’s guess.

Discord / Twitch / YouTube / Reddit / TikTok: All the socials don’t want to be social anymore with President Trump

Finally, let’s head over to the rest of the social networking world, where Trump is just as unpopular as he is at Facebook and Twitter HQ these days. Companies widely blocked the president from accessing their sites, and they also took action against affiliated groups.

Google-owned YouTube announced Thursday that it would start handing out “strikes” against channels — including President Trump’s — that post election misinformation. In the past, videos with election misinformation would have a warning label attached, but the channel itself didn’t face any consequences. In December, the company changed that policy to include the outright removal of videos purveying election misinformation.

This week’s latest policy change is an escalation from the company’s previous approach, and would result in lengthier and lengthier temporary suspensions for each additional strike that a channel receives. Those strikes could eventual result in a permanent ban for a YouTube channel if they happen within a set period of time. That’s precisely what happened with Steve Bannon’s channel, which was permanently banned Friday late afternoon for repeated violations of YouTube’s policies. Meanwhile, President Trump’s official channel has less than 3 million followers, and is currently still available for viewing on the platform.

Outside YouTube, Twitch followed a similar policy to Facebook, announcing Thursday morning that it would ban the president “indefinitely” and at least through the inauguration on January 20th. The president has a limited audience of just about 151,000 followers on the popular streaming platform, making it among the least important of the president’s social media accounts.

In terms of the president’s supporters, their groups are also being removed from popular tech platforms. On Friday, Reddit announced that it would ban the subreddit r/DonaldTrump, which had become one of a number of unofficial communities on the platform where the president’s most ardent supporters hung out. The social network had previously removed the controversial subreddit r/The_Donald back in June. Discord on Friday shut down a server related to that banned subreddit, citing the server’s “overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence.”

Lastly, TikTok announced on Thursday that it was limiting the spread of some information related to the Capitol riots, including redirecting hashtags and removing violent content as well as the president’s own video message to supporters. The president does not have a TikTok account, and therefore, most of the company’s actions are focused on his supporters and broader content surrounding the situation on Capitol Hill this week.

Why Twitter banned President Trump

Twitter permanently banned the U.S. president Friday, taking a dramatic step to limit Trump’s ability to communicate with his followers. That decision, made in light of his encouragement for Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, might seem sudden for anyone not particularly familiar with his Twitter presence.

In reality, Twitter gave Trump many, many second chances over his four years as president, keeping him on the platform due to the company’s belief that speech by world leaders is in the public interest, even if it breaks the rules.

Now that Trump’s gone for good, we have a pretty interesting glimpse into the policy decision making that led Twitter to bring the hammer down on Friday. The company first announced Trump’s ban in a series of tweets from its @TwitterSafety account but also linked to a blog post detailing its thinking.

In that deep dive, the company explains that it gave Trump one last chance after suspending and then reinstating his account for violations made on Wednesday. But the following day, a pair of tweets the president made pushed him over the line. Twitter said those tweets, pictured below, were not examined on a standalone basis, but rather in the context of his recent behavior and this week’s events.

“… We have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service,” Twitter wrote.

Screenshot via Twitter

This is how the company explained its reasoning, point by point:

  • “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate and is seen as him disavowing his previous claim made via two Tweets (1, 2) by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Scavino, that there would be an ‘orderly transition’ on January 20th.
  • “The second Tweet may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.
  • “The use of the words ‘American Patriots’ to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
  • “The mention of his supporters having a ‘GIANT VOICE long into the future’ and that ‘They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!’ is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition’ and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.
  • “Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.”

All of that is pretty intuitive, though his most fervent supporters aren’t likely to agree. Ultimately these decisions, as much as they do come down to stated policies, involve a lot of subjective analysis and interpretation. Try as social media companies might to let algorithms make the hard calls for them, the buck stops with a group of humans trying to figure out the best course of action.

Twitter’s explanation here offers a a rare totally transparent glimpse into how social networks decide what stays and what goes. It’s a big move for Twitter — one that many people reasonably believe should have been made months if not years ago — and it’s useful to have what is so often an inscrutable high-level decision making process laid out plainly and publicly for all to see.

President Trump responds to Twitter account ban in tweet storm from @POTUS account

After Twitter took the major step Friday of permanently banning President Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter account, the President aimed to get the last word in through his government account @POTUS which has a fraction of the Twitter followers but still offered the President a megaphone on the service to send out a few last tweets.

The tweets were deleted within minutes by Twitter which does not allow banned individuals to circumvent a full ban by tweeting under alternate accounts.

In screenshots captured by TechCrunch, Trump responds to the account ban by accusing Twitter employees of conspiring with his political opponents. “As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me — and YOU, the 75,000,000 great patriots who voted for me.”

The President’s rant further contends that he will soon be joining a new platform or starting his own. Many contended Trump would join right wing social media site Parler following the ban, though Friday afternoon the site was removed from the Google Play Store with the company saying Apple had threatened to suspend them as well.

“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,” other tweets from the @POTUS account read in part.