Trump is threatening to start his own social network. Could it actually work?
Donald Trump once seemed omnipresent on social media, an unavoidable source of eye rolls, dread, and norm-breaking lunacy that left us all wondering if he was immune to accountability. That came to an end after last week’s attempted coup, instigated by the president himself, which finally prompted social media companies and Big Tech more broadly to crack down on Trump. Since Wednesday, he and his supporters have been cut off by dozens of platforms, and Trump himself has been banned from posting on Facebook indefinitely, and on Twitter permanently.
Cut off from his direct channels of communication with more than 100 million people, Trump did what he always does. He made a big, boisterous claim. Tweeting from the @POTUS account as an attempt to get around his Twitter ban, he teased the possibility of launching his own social network to compete with the ones that gave him the boot. "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 said in a tweet that was removed by Twitter.
It has long been theorized that Trump's presidential candidacy and time in office was actually just a media play. Rumors swirled that Trump was only trying to stir up attention so that he could eventually launch his own media company. That theory has persisted throughout his presidency and popped up again shortly after it became clear that he lost the 2020 election. But the prevailing wisdom was always that he would try to start something like a more Trump-centric version of Fox News, a traditional media company with Trumpian touches.
But now, with bans coming down from Facebook and Twitter and four years' worth of antagonistic posturing toward those platforms during his presidency, it seems Trump might be planning to add a social network to his broader media ambitions.
There's some logic to this, at least in theory. Trump still has a massive following, one that apparently is willing to tear down the country for him if that's what he really wants. He had nearly 89 million followers on Twitter and more than 33 million likes on Facebook, giving him a huge and engaged audience that seems eager to follow him wherever he goes. There's also a new void to fill in the social media landscape, as the right-wing Twitter alternative Parler has effectively been cut off from the internet by Apple, Google, and Amazon. White nationalists, QAnon believers, Trump loyalists, and others are scrambling to find a new gathering place, which would certainly give Trump the chance to strike while the iron is hot, and he is nothing if not an opportunist.
This guy's not a social media whiz. - Scott Talan
The problem, according to Scott Talan, assistant professor at American University's School of Communication, is that Trump isn't really all that good at social media. "He's old media, he's TV and newspapers," Talan tells Mic. "There's one platform he personally worked well: Twitter. But that's no more."
Talan notes that while Trump certainly drew a lot of attention through his personal account — something that he became quite adept at doing even before his Presidential run — he would have made a pretty terrible social media manager in basically every other aspect of the job. "He wasn't that good with @POTUS, the official Twitter handle of the President. Even the campaign website for the Republican convention wasn’t updated, they used the same platform from 2016 as they did in 2020. The point is, this guy's not a social media whiz," Talan says.
Trump certainly gets a lot of credit (or blame) for running a particularly effective campaign on Facebook in 2016, but even that was not his own doing. Much of that has been attributed to Brad Parscale, Trump's former campaign manager, who this week threw his support behind Trump's seemingly haphazard suggestion that he would start his own platform. “I believe the best avenue for POTUS is to use his own app to speak to his followers," Parscale told The Washington Post.
There's certainly a path for Trump to do just that, particularly if he taps folks around him who actually know what they are doing. "It would be pretty simple for Trump to set up a Mastodon node and slap his name on it," Ethan Zuckerman, an associate professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, tells Mic.
Mastodon is a free and open-source microblogging platform, similar to Twitter in interface and design. What separates it, though, is the fact that Mastodon is a decentralized and federated network. That means all of its data is distributed across thousands of servers around the world, similar to how torrents allow users to access files from other hosts. Anyone can set up a Mastodon “instance,” which is similar to a subreddit on Reddit. This effectively allows the creator to start their own social network, which has its pros and cons. On one hand, there are some absolutely fascinating and wholesome communities on Mastadon, as well as growing anarchist and leftist groups that gave the software the early reputation of being like "Twitter without Nazis." On the other hand, the Nazis have since discovered Mastadon and brought their own brand of hate over. Gab, a far-right and supposedly uncensored version of Twitter that has served as the preferred platform of a mass shooter and child porn peddlers, operates as a forked version of Mastadon.
Zuckerman expressed doubt that Trump would be able to effectively scale a social media platform to support his audience, particularly with the crackdown from tech companies, including Amazon's decision to pull hosting from Parler last week.
I am not sure how many folks would be willing to invest in something like that on his behalf... given the number of failed enterprises Trump has left in his wake. - Megan Squire
Megan Squire, a professor in the department of computer science at Elon University, notes that Trump would run into the same challenges that every tech upstart faces, including getting enough funding to compete with the existing players like Facebook and Twitter. "This funding would normally be used to build robust infrastructure and to hire talented people to make the technology, market it, bring in revenue, fight legal challenges and so on," she tells Mic. "I am not sure how many folks would be willing to invest in something like that on his behalf — especially at the dollar amounts he would need — given the number of failed enterprises Trump has left in his wake."
Multiple experts suggested that Trump could simply buy another social network and slap his name on it, the type of branding exercise that made him famous and also resulted in Trump Steaks getting sold at Sharper Image. That might bypass some of the technical challenges of building a platform from the ground up. But assuming he goes that route, he'd still have a hard time finding a pathway to his audience. "There would be significant challenges, most notably getting, and remaining on consumers’ phones," Jim Anderson, CEO of social media optimization platform SocialFlow, tells Mic. He explains that about 80 percent of social networking happens on mobile devices, and Apple and Google are the gatekeepers for nearly 99 percent of smartphones. "There would need to be strong moderation, to convince the App Store owners that the social network is not tacitly supporting calls for violence," he explains.
Squire is not convinced that Trump could meet those requirements. "If he doesn't want to end up like Parler, banned from the app stores and from hosting providers, he will need to have a comprehensive, transparent, well-funded, and coherent content moderation strategy as well as heavy investment in security. Based on his prior statements and his actions on both content moderation and cybersecurity, it seems unlikely that this would be a priority for him," she says.
If Trump were to somehow get a Trump-centric social media platform off the ground, there is little doubt that it would be popular, at least at first. "Many people are interested in him, both supporting and opposing," Talan notes. His most fervent supporters and detractors managed to grift their way to attention simply by replying to his tweets, and folks like that are sure to follow him over to his own platform, with plenty of other curious eyes following. Anderson similarly noted that he'd likely attract millions of followers and, "If history is any guide, he would also try to get the attention of people who oppose him, much as he’s been able to do with Twitter."
With all of that attention, Trump would likely need to act quickly to capitalize, perhaps by launching a subscription model. "He could probably charge money to be on it," Talan says. "Maybe he adds a wrinkle, 'I'll give you a 50 percent discount if you post the statement supporting Donald Trump.'" Anderson also suggested that a subscription-based service would make the most sense for Trump. "Charging subscribers five dollars a month for a service that costs fifty cents a month would be wildly profitable," he says. "Usually the biggest cost of such an effort is in marketing, and in getting enough people to join to create some sense of critical mass. Donald Trump would have a running head start on that."
Trump has long attracted media attention, and he commanded it while holding the office of president, but he's returning to civilian life on January 20. There is currently a lot of fervor from his backers, generated in large part by his month’s worth of posts on Twitter claiming that the election was stolen from him. But just how long does that last? Zuckerman notes that while Trump would surely draw attention to a new platform, it's hard to predict the staying power. "Right now whatever the president says on Twitter is news. Will that be the case once he is not president and talking to a few million people on a new network? Maybe not," he says.
As Trump's pull on the public consciousness wanes and the semblance of power fades, his plans for a social network just might fade with it, or turn into something else entirely. Talan says he expects plenty of politically motivated social sites and communities to crop up in the coming years, but is unsure if they'll be able to hold on to the forces that sustain them in the long run. "It'd be interesting if they start political and then morph into something, in sort of a reverse fashion, about life. 'Okay, we're here because we like Trump,' but then they start saying, 'Oh, what movie did you see?' And, 'You're from there? I have a sister there.'" He notes that this is because people are social creatures and don't want the combative, antagonistic nature of politics in their life all the time. "They're not called political networks, they're called social networks," he says.