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Still barred from major platforms, Trump weighs launching new social network

In this Feb. 28, 2021, photo, former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
In this Feb. 28, 2021, photo, former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
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Former President Donald Trump has renewed speculation about launching a new social media platform to compete with the social networks that banned him earlier this year, but experts say it could be harder than he thinks to regain the political and cultural cache his Twitter and Facebook accounts once had.

“I’m doing things having to do with putting our own platform out there that you’ll be hearing about soon,” Trump told Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe on her podcast, “The Truth,” Monday.

Trump senior adviser Jason Miller was more definitive, telling “Fox News Sunday” the platform would be up and running within “probably two to three months.”

“This is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media,” Miller said. “It’s going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does.”

The statements drew eye rolls from the former president’s critics, recalling his tendency to promise announcements like a health care reform plan “in two weeks” while in office that never came. Still, if Trump moves forward with the project, it could have wide-reaching political and technological ramifications.

Starting a social media platform is a costly and complicated enterprise, and getting one off the ground while also building out a political operation to influence the 2022 midterm elections—and possibly run again in 2024—would pose significant challenges for the former president. It is also not clear a Trump-centric network would bring him the audience and influence he seeks.

A new venture would likely encounter many of the same hurdles that other platforms attempting to usurp Twitter and Facebook’s dominance have faced. The political fallout from Trump’s final weeks in office and his impeachment for inciting an insurrection could also make it difficult to locate partners and web hosting services.

According to Miller, Trump has been holding “high-powered meetings” at Mar-a-Lago and many companies have approached the former president about working with him. He did not specify whether Trump’s aim is to start an independent social media company or partner with existing ones.

Experts are skeptical of both Trump’s intentions and his ability to launch a successful social media site in a matter of months. Platforms that explicitly cater to conservatives and Trump supporters have typically descended into echo chambers filled with right-wing memes and conspiracy theories.

“It doesn’t seem likely such a venue would reach out to people who weren’t already opting into the former president’s narrative,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor at the University of Mary Washington and author of “Presidential Communication and Character: White House News Management from Clinton and Cable to Twitter and Trump.” “It’s also important to note that talking about is something very different than doing it.”

Popular social networks create connections between users and typically fill a unique purpose. A Trump network might not appeal to the average person who is generally not that interested in politics and is satisfied with existing platforms.

“Twitter was good for Trump because it let him reach his base, his detractors, and the press all in one place,” said Libby Hemphill, associate director of the University of Michigan Center for Social Media Responsibility. “It's unlikely that all those groups would travel to whatever other platform he joins, especially now that he's no longer in office.”

Miller offered no details about how this new platform would function or how it would differ from others. If former reality TV producer Trump approached it as an entertainer rather than a politician, Mike Horning, an associate professor of multimedia journalism at Virginia Tech, suggested it could survive.

“He comes from an entertainment background before he was president...,” Horning said. “If he’s not just thinking about how it could be a bully pulpit for his politics, it might be successful.”

Trump’s Twitter account was a central communications device of his campaign and his presidency, firing off threats, insults, abrupt policy changes, staffing announcements, and random thoughts at all hours of the day. His tweets regularly drove news cycles and shifted political debates on Capitol Hill.

All that changed on Jan. 6, 2021, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to disrupt the certification of electoral votes after the president urged them to fight. In the days afterward, major social media platforms suspended Trump’s accounts out of fear he would incite further violence, and his access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube still has not been restored nearly three months later.

Trump first teased his plan to launch a new social media platform in January hours after Twitter banned him, posting a series of tweets to the @POTUS and @TeamTrump accounts that were quickly deleted. He accused Twitter of conspiring with “Democrats and the Radical Left” and said he was looking at the possibility of creating a new platform.

“We will not be SILENCED!” Trump wrote in January, threatening social media sites’ legal protections and promising a “big announcement soon.”

Facebook’s independent oversight board is now weighing whether to allow Trump back on the platform, and YouTube has said his suspension could be lifted if the risk of violence subsides. Twitter has given no indication of when or if it would consider letting Trump back on its site.

The former president and his allies have claimed in recent weeks that he is content with staying off social media. Former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said on Fox News earlier this month that Trump was “doing just fine” and found his exile from Twitter “freeing.”

The latest statements from Miller and Trump suggest that is not the case. The former president’s impact on public discourse has been severely curtailed since he was deplatformed, and he has not yet found a viable alternative venue.

Trump has granted a handful of interviews to conservative news outlets, including the chat with Boothe and an appearance on Fox News Monday. Mostly, though, he has been communicating through statements released by his office and his political action committee, which have been blasted out with increasing frequency in the last couple of weeks.

Trump has used those statements—often short missives with tweet-like punctuation—to settle scores with political enemies, reward allies with endorsements, and attack President Joe Biden’s immigration policies amid a surge of migrants at the southern border. He has also continued promoting false assertions that the 2020 election was stolen.

During the podcast interview, Trump claimed his statements are getting “tremendous pickup” in the media and are getting out there “much better than any tweet.” Journalists and Trump supporters often share links and screenshots of the former president’s statements, but he no longer has the ability to blast his unfiltered thoughts directly into the feeds of nearly 90 million followers.

“The voice is out there, I think, maybe in a certain way, maybe as big as ever,” Trump said.

Trump’s voice is not nearly as big as it once was, though that is partly because a former president’s words are rarely as newsworthy as the current president’s. Having to count on others to share his message for him also blunts the impact, though.

“There’s no substitute for doing these things yourself,” Farnsworth said. “Certainly, having people pass along your messages is better than not, but it’s not the same thing as being able to shape the narrative directly yourself.”

As a former president occasionally interjecting in political debates, releasing statements might be sufficient for Trump. As a Republican leader who fashions himself a kingmaker in 2022 primaries and potential 2024 candidate, he will inevitably need a larger megaphone.

“Being on a major platform will matter more for Trump as we get closer to primaries for the next election,” Hemphill said. “He's able to reach his base without a major platform, and the press keeps covering him.”

Trump is not alone in seeking out a new alternative to existing platforms. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a prominent Trump backer facing a $1.3 billion lawsuit for promoting election conspiracy theories, has announced he will soon launch a social network called VOCL that he claims will make YouTube and Twitter obsolete. That project is already facing legal difficulties, with the parent company of publishing platform Vocal threatening to sue if he does not change the name.

While he was in office, advisers said Trump was reluctant to engage actively with platforms like Parler and Gab because they lacked the sway and reach of Twitter and Facebook. Some aides also cautioned him against aligning himself with platforms that were known to be hangouts for domestic extremists.

Those concerns remain valid, but experts say embracing an existing fringe platform would be easier, cheaper, and possibly more effective for Trump than building one from scratch. With the former president racing to remain relevant before the next election cycle heats up, it would be much faster than developing a new platform and finding an audience.

“That strikes me as the more appealing alternative for the former president, to use existing platforms that have already been constructed to maximize his outreach,” Farnsworth said. “Building something from the ground up will be a lot more work and it’s not clear it would have a greater return.”

It is not even clear how many of the president’s supporters would be eager to follow him to a new platform at this point. According to Vice, Trump fans on message boards, Gab, and Telegram largely shrugged off Jason Miller’s comments Sunday.

“Best wishes and God bless,” Gab CEO Andrew Torba said in a brief statement Sunday.

As Republican frustrations with content moderation decisions by Facebook and Twitter grew last year, Parler pitched itself to Trump’s base as a haven for free speech, and data shows many participants in the Capitol riot were active users. Although the platform was temporarily forced offline in the aftermath, it is back up and running and would surely welcome the former president as an active user.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee is currently investigating media reports that Trump was offered a significant ownership stake in Parler if he made it his primary social network last year. Former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale confirmed the discussions with Parler executives to BuzzFeed News, but the deal was never finalized.

“I'm surprised Parler isn't his new home given their policies and the moderate engagement Fox reporters and Republican politicians have had there,” Hemphill said. “There's no need to waste resources reinventing the wheel.”

Horning agreed creating a new platform is not necessary to achieve Trump’s political goals, but he acknowledged the former president could see some appeal in having complete control of a network he creates.

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“’Need’ and ‘want’ might be two different questions,” he said.

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