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Trump joins Rumble as his search for alternative social media platform continues

Former President Donald Trump throws 'Save America" hats to the audience before speaking at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Wellington, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
Former President Donald Trump throws 'Save America" hats to the audience before speaking at a rally at the Lorain County Fairgrounds, Saturday, June 26, 2021, in Wellington, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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Three months after a senior adviser to former President Donald Trump predicted he would launch his own social media site “in probably about two or three months,” Trump is still seeking new ways to get his message out to supporters without access to major platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

“This is something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media, it’s going to completely redefine the game, and everybody is going to be waiting and watching to see what exactly President Trump does," then-Trump adviser Jason Miller said of Trump's planned platform in a March 21 Fox News interview.

Since then, Trump has launched and shuttered a blog site, replaced Miller as his primary spokesperson, and joined Rumble, a video-sharing service similar to YouTube that has gained popularity with Republicans and Trump supporters amid complaints that mainstream sites are censoring conservative views. Aside from recent GOP fundraising emails promising Trump is “getting ready to launch his very own social media platform,” there has been no indication the arrival of Trump’s new platform is imminent.

Trump set up his Rumble account Saturday, hours before his first campaign-style rally since leaving office. Current Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington told Reuters the former president still plans to start his own platform, but for now, Rumble is “a great way to reach the American people in a time of unprecedented assault on free speech in our country by Big Tech tyrants."

The rally in Wellington, Ohio, Saturday night was the first video streamed from Trump’s Rumble account. As of Monday afternoon, the rally video had been viewed 842,000 times and Trump had 342,000 followers, a fraction of the 88.7 million followers his Twitter account had when it was suspended in January.

Trump was barred from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube after a mob of his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol during the certification of election results on Jan. 6. The platforms said Trump’s persistent false claims of election fraud violated their content policies and created a risk of further violence.

Earlier this month, Facebook announced Trump could be allowed back on its sites in 2023 if public safety concerns recede, but he might face new sanctions—including a permanent ban—if he violates the rules again. Trump’s political action committees recently resumed advertising on Facebook, and the company clarified that groups affiliated with Trump can post as long as they are not doing so in his voice.

YouTube executives have said they would lift Trump’s suspension when the threat of violence decreases, but they have offered no timeline. Twitter banned Trump permanently on Jan. 8, citing multiple violations of its “glorification of violence” policy and concerns he would incite supporters to replicate the attack on the Capitol.

In a June 5 speech before the North Carolina Republican Party, Trump declared he was “not too interested” in returning to Facebook in two years. He also baselessly accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of breaking the law by promoting get-out-the-vote efforts.

“We can’t let it happen,” Trump said. “So unfair, they’re shutting down an entire group of people, not just me. They’re shutting down the voice of a tremendously powerful, in my opinion, a much more powerful and a much larger group.”

As both a candidate and a president, Trump’s social media accounts were vital tools for communicating with his supporters, the media, and the general public. He has not yet found a way to draw attention or dictate public conversation the way he could with a well-timed tweet as recently as six months ago.

That is partly a function of no longer being the president of the United States, but Trump has made only a handful of public appearances and given few interviews since Jan. 20. He remains an overbearing force in the Republican Party, though, and his endorsement or criticism still carries enormous weight with the GOP base.

“Former presidents have never been able to dominate the discourse because the vast majority of the attention is directed toward the president in office, and fewer still have tried to remain as publicly visible as former President Trump is trying to be,” said Stephen Farnsworth, director of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies 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.”

Trump has issued increasingly frequent statements to the media through his Save America PAC—often several a day—that are reminiscent of his Twitter missives in tone, substance, and length. Several statements over the weekend touted the size of the crowd at his Ohio rally, while others took aim at fellow Republicans like former Attorney General William Barr who have not supported his election fraud claims.

“Had Mitch McConnell fought for the Presidency like he should have, there would right now be Presidential Vetoes on all of the phased Legislation that he has proven to be incapable of stopping...,” Trump said in a statement Monday. “He never fought for the White House and blew it for the Country.”

In May, Trump’s official website added a “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” page, which was essentially a blog where those statements were posted in an easily shareable format. It was taken down weeks later after generating disappointingly low engagement.

“It was just auxiliary to the broader efforts we have and are working on,” Miller said at the time.

Social media experts have been skeptical Trump would follow through on his promises to launch a new platform, particularly one that could be set up in a matter of months. Getting a social media site off the ground is difficult, labor-intensive, and costly under the best of circumstances, and any site associated with Trump would need to be prepared to handle heavy user traffic from the start.

“It’s not easy to create a new social media platform, regardless of how much money you have or how many users might follow you to it,” said Andrew Selepak, a lecturer at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that Trump’s advisers were in talks with several platforms about either hosting his content or providing the digital infrastructure for a new site. He was reportedly seeking a fee for bringing his millions of supporters with him to a site, and he was looking for a platform that would be “indestructible.”

Rumble was one of the platforms discussed at the time, with Trump allies weighing a substantial investment in the site. CloutHub and FreeSpace were among the other options under consideration, but no platform would afford Trump the audience of roughly 150 million people who followed the accounts that have been suspended.

Rumble, which first launched in 2013, has positioned itself as a service where small creators have the same access and tools as larger creators. CEO Chris Pavlovski told The National Desk last month the site has “really strict moderation policies” regarding racism, anti-Semitism, and violent speech, but he claimed Rumble enforces those policies more consistently than bigger platforms and vowed, “We’re not getting involved in other people’s opinions.”

In the last year, Rumble’s traffic has increased dramatically, going from 1 million monthly visits last August to nearly 60 million visits in April. Featured channels on the site currently include prominent Republicans like Trump, his son, New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as well as a number of popular conservative media commentators.

Even if the audience viewing Trump’s posts is smaller, Selepak said a niche platform could still deliver the former president the megaphone he seeks. Much of the impact his tweets had during his presidency came from the media reporting on what he was saying rather than Americans seeing his posts directly.

Trump’s absence from the headlines has dragged down website traffic and cable news ratings, and reporting on his words and actions still spurs clicks and engagement. According to Selepak, the former president’s return to social media in some capacity could be a “lifeline” for the press, even for outlets that are often critical of him.

“If CNN and MSNBC had maintained their ratings since December, it wouldn’t be much of an issue, but you’ve got to believe these news outlets that lean more to the left are excited Donald Trump will be posting on social media again,” he said.

A New York Times analysis found some of Trump’s post-suspension statements have achieved a similar reach to his median post as president on Twitter and Facebook, although most have barely registered with the public. The ones that have drawn hundreds of thousands or millions of engagements have been shared widely by pro-Trump accounts like the President Donald Trump Fan Club, Breitbart News, as well as some mainstream media and left-leaning accounts.

Without a more visible platform of his own, Trump has continued to wield power over the Republican establishment. Farnsworth observed Republicans have advanced dozens of “election integrity” bills at the state level in response to his fraud allegations, and GOP primary candidates in some races are fighting over who is most loyal to his agenda.

“The loudest voices in the Republican Party continue to listen to the former president, and that’s where he’s likely to have his greatest impact, in shaping the identity of the Republican Party through nomination battles between Trump supporters and other Republicans,” he said.

Trump has hinted at a 2024 presidential bid in his recent speeches, but his future plans are still uncertain. He has positioned himself to play a major role in the Republican drive to take back control of Congress in the 2022 midterms, but his viability as a national political figure might be muted if he does not have an unfiltered platform from which to speak.

A future run for the White House by Trump could upend his social media suspensions and create new challenges for content moderators. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have historically given political candidates and officeholders more latitude to bend content policies, and silencing a major party candidate for the presidency would surely trigger a harsh backlash from the right.

Selepak also pointed to laws passed in Florida and under consideration by GOP-led legislatures in other states that would prohibit platforms from banning candidates for public office. Legal experts have cast doubt on the constitutionality of those laws, but they could still present complications for efforts to keep Trump offline if lawsuits are not resolved by the time the 2024 campaign gets underway.

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“I don’t think he can have nearly the influence he did in the past without being on social media,” Selepak said.

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