'They want to take your speech away,' censorship cry unites Trump supporters and extremists after Capitol attack

Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY
·6 min read

Anger over perceived censorship by social media companies is bridging the divide between far-right extremist groups and Trump supporters.

And that growing solidarity could increase the likelihood of violence over the weekend and on Inauguration Day, researchers who study hate and extremism warn.

“That’s largely to do with the rhetoric that we are seeing and the degree to which people are unifying around this issue of censorship or perceived censorship from tech companies,” said Michael Edison Hayden of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “It has provided a unifying grievance between groups that had no connection with one another before.”

The rallying cry that unaccountable companies run by liberal elites are silencing conservative voices has been taken up by everyone from Jack Posobiec, a Trump supporter known for advancing conspiracy theories such as “Pizzagate,” to Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website.

These grievances only escalated following the attack on the U.S. Capitol, as social media companies suspended President Donald Trump’s accounts and cracked down on QAnon and other extremists advocating violence.

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a QAnon supporter, wore a mask that read “CENSORED” while delivering nationally televised remarks from the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"It’s sort of become a secondary version of the Second Amendment: 'They want to take your guns away.' Now it’s become 'they want to take your speech away,'" said Hayden, a senior investigative reporter with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

'Biggest imaginable crackdown on the right wing'

A Pro-Trump Twitter account quoted Fox News host Tucker Carlson saying: "This isn't really about Donald Trump, it never was. It's definitely not about what happened last week at the Capitol. It's about controlling you & the country you thought was yours forever."

Darren Beattie, who was fired as a Trump speechwriter in 2018 after attending a conference with white nationalists, tweeted Friday: “Even Chinese media and scholars are deriding the censorship regime the corrupt Globalist American Empire has become.”

And a post from The Daily Stormer appeared to suggest people should be willing to die over the cause of censorship.

“The elite have made the decision to do the biggest possible, the biggest imaginable crackdown on the right-wing. We are all going to be portrayed as terrorists, Donald Trump is being stripped of his assets and is probably going to jail, they’re shutting down all the websites and apps and everything else and the feds are coming to your house,” the post reads.

Election erodes buffers between mainstream GOP and extremists

The barriers in right-wing politics that once buffered mainstream GOP supporters from neo-Nazis and more extreme elements eroded after the election.

Not all of these groups turned out on Jan. 6 to keep Trump in office, but pro-Trump forces and far-right extremist groups united around their shared belief that social media companies are engaging in systematic censorship that targets their political speech.

“This idea that conservative voices are being taken away from the public, that they are being deleted by elites, has surged as something you can put forth that is not really about Trump,” Hayden said.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on Capitol Hill Jan. 13, wearing a "CENSORED" face mask.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on Capitol Hill Jan. 13, wearing a "CENSORED" face mask.

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A recent poll shows how widely held these views are. Majorities in both parties think political censorship is likely occurring on social media, and that belief is most prevalent on the political right.

Nine in 10 Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party say it’s at least somewhat likely that social media platforms censor political viewpoints they find objectionable, up slightly from 85% in 2018, according to a recent report from the Pew Research Center.

The First Amendment prohibits government censorship but does not apply to decisions made by corporations. However, there is growing discomfort across the political spectrum with a handful of companies controlling what speech is acceptable.

No evidence to support claims Facebook, Twitter target conservatives

Still, researchers say they’ve found no evidence to support GOP grievances that tech companies target conservative voices​​​​​. They say the algorithms that determine what people see on these platforms don’t have a political affiliation or party, but instead favor content that elicits strong reactions, much of it from the political right.

“I know of no academic research that concludes there is a systemic bias – liberal or conservative – in either the content moderation policies or in the prioritization of content by algorithms by major social media platforms," Steven Johnson, an information technology professor at the University of Virginia McIntire School of Commerce, told USA TODAY in November.

That has not stopped the rapid spread of anti-conservative bias claims in recent years, boosted by Trump, who made “social media abuses” a major plank of his administration and reelection campaign.

With tens of millions of followers on Twitter and Facebook, Trump wielded one of social media’s largest megaphones until mainstream platforms yanked his accounts out of concern that his posts would incite more violence.

A spike in mentions of censorship followed Twitter’s decision to permanently suspend the president on Reddit, Gab, Parler, 4chan, 8kun and TheDonald, a message board formed after the group was banned from Reddit, as the political right cried foul.

Most Americans, but not most Republicans, supported the suspension, according to a new survey from The Harris Poll shared exclusively with USA TODAY.

Twitter purge inflames Trump supporters, conservatives

Twitter’s subsequent decision to purge at least 70,000 accounts linked to QAnon, causing Republicans to lose thousands of followers, prompted another angry outcry.

Trump ally and powerful House conservative Jim Jordan of Ohio lost the most followers: 176,672, or about 9% of the 2 million followers he had on Jan. 6, a USA TODAY analysis found. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul shed 142,156, and House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy 103,815.

A total of 37 lawmakers, all Republicans, lost at least 10% of their followers. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., lost 18%, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., lost 15% and Kelly Loeffler, an incumbent Georgia senator who was defeated in Georgia’s runoff elections, lost 14%.

Ethan Zuckerman, associate professor of public policy, information and communication at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said it's more likely that GOP officials lost followers because their followers included QAnon adherents.

“It's not a very flattering explanation, but it's more plausible, in my opinion, than a broad crackdown against conservatives on these networks,” Zuckerman told USA TODAY.

Contributing: Kevin Crowe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Facebook, Twitter censorship outcry unites Trump supporters, Neo-Nazis