Donald Trump shuts down his blog, irked by low traffic

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

After being banned from both Facebook and Twitter for his role in spreading disinformation about the election and the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, former president Donald Trump’s team of advisors started talking about a “new social platform” he would soon be launching, which they said would provide a direct conduit for his views, and restore him to his rightful place at the top of the social-media firmament. Trump advisor Jason Miller told Fox News in March that Trump would be returning to social media “in two or three months, with his own platform,” which Miller said would be “the hottest ticket in social media,” and would “completely redefine the game.” On May 4, the Trump website unveiled a new social feature, but it was more like a recapitulation of an old game rather than the definition of a new one: in sum, it was a blog, with short posts in Trump’s voice (although most were likely not written by him) and a series of buttons with which to share his comments on the social platforms where he could no longer post them himself.

Now, less than a month after this much-hyped launch, Trump has shut down the blog, according to a number of reports. The page formerly known as “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump” has been removed from the site and will not be returning to it in the future, Miller confirmed to CNBC on Wednesday. According to a report from the Washington Post, based on interviews with anonymous sources close to the Trump camp, the former president’s decision was driven by the relentless mocking the feature got from established media outlets and political commentators, combined with a significant lack of traffic and engagement. “Upset by reports from The Washington Post and other outlets highlighting its measly readership,” the paper reported on Wednesday, “Trump ordered his team Tuesday to put the blog out of its misery.”

In May, NBC News looked at data from a social-media analytics company called BuzzSumo and found that the Trump blog as a whole had only attracted about 200,000 forms of engagement, including links and other social interactions (likes, shares, etc.) on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Reddit. Before he was banned from those and other platforms, a single tweet from the former president would often be liked or reshared hundreds of thousands of times within a matter of hours, thanks to his 88 million followers. The Post reported that on the final day of the blog’s existence, the Trump website got just 1,500 shares and comments on Facebook and Twitter.

As NBC News pointed out at the time, the low traffic numbers suggest that there is some merit to what sociologists call “de-platforming,” a term for the process of removing extremist voices from social networks. And while some of the voices that have been de-platformed in this way have found a home on other right-wing social platfoms, Trump’s blog didn’t do much to encourage anyone to stick around or share any of the content, which helps explain why his content disappeared into an internet black hole. “It is so technologically primitive that there is no way for his followers to even migrate,” Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor of computer science at Binghamton University in New York who has studied this phenomenon, told NBC. “Who cares about a platform where you can’t even own the libs? There are plenty of other newsletters that people have been adding to their spam boxes for years.”

One thing that has made it more difficult for Trump to extend his social-media reach beyond his blog is the ongoing de-platforming efforts of social networks like Twitter, which not only banned the former president’s account, but has also continued to block or remove accounts that exist primarily or solely to re-post his blog content. Just last week, the company permanently removed an account with more than 2,100 followers that mostly shared Trump’s blog posts, even though the account said in its bio that it was not Donald Trump tweeting (the service’s rules forbid attempts to “circumvent a ban”). De-platforming has been used more or less successfully against right-wing commentators such as Milo Yiannopolous and Alex Jones of InfoWars, and has even been used against platforms themselves: Amazon removed Parler, a right-wing social network, from its AWS cloud-hosting service because it advocated violence, and Gab, another would-be Twitter replacement, was blocked by hosting service CloudFlare.

According to Miller and others, the Trump advisor, the former president is still planning to launch some kind of social platform later this year, and the blog was just an interim solution. After some of the initial criticism of the blog in May, Miller tweeted that it was “not a new social media platform,” and that the Trump team would “have additional information coming on that front in the very near future.” But there seems to be a possibility that Trump might also join an existing social network: following the shutdown of the blog on Wednesday, Miller tweeted at someone who suggested the move might be a precursor to Trump joining another social media platform: “Yes, actually, it is! Stay tuned!” he said. Whether the platform Trump is planning to join is Gab or one of the other Twitter alternatives popular with right-wing extremists remains to be seen.

Here’s more on Trump and social media:

Nasty: After the Washington Post wrote about his site’s low traffic numbers, Trump responded in a now-deleted post on his blog, claiming the paper’s figures were incorrect, and that the site had gotten more than 36 million views over the past month, more traffic than it got in 2020. “This number would be even greater if we were still on Twitter and Facebook,” he or one of his advisors wrote, “but since Big Tech has illegally banned me, tens of millions of our supporters have stopped using these platforms because they’ve become boring and nasty.”

Oversight: After Trump’s account was banned indefinitely by Facebook, the social network asked its independent oversight board to rule on the decision. After several months of deliberation, the group of researchers, journalists, and former legal experts told the company that it was justified in banning Trump, but that its own policies don’t allow it to block someone indefinitely. The board told Facebook to either unblock the former president, or to come up with a coherent policy that would allow it to ban him permanently. Facebook has six months to comply.

Speech: After Trump was banned by Twitter and Facebook, CJR surveye a number of fre-speech advocates for their opinion on the moves. Jameel Jaffer of the Knight First Amendment Institute said while the platforms should be biased in favor of leaving the speech of political leaders up, but “a political leader who uses his account to incite violence is causing harms that can’t be countered by speech.” Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out that when you look outside the US, you see Facebook kicking senior politicians off its platform routinely.

Other notable stories:

The Trump Justice Department secretly seized the phone records of four New York Times reporters in 2017 as part of a leak investigation, the Biden administration revealed on Wednesday, according to a report from the Times. This was the latest in a series of similar revelations about the Trump administration obtaining reporters’ communications records. Last month, the Justice Department disclosed that the Trump administration got access to the phone logs of reporters who work for the Washington Post and CNN.

The Guardian reports that staff at Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK have been told not to report on any political stories, as the government in mainland China tightens its grip on the island. Normally at this time of year media in Hong Kong media would be getting ready to cover the anniversary of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, including a huge vigil in Victoria Park. Such events are illegal in China but have been held in Hong Kong for decades. “We were informed that no political story is allowed,” one RTHK employee told the Guardian.

Vanity Fair wonders whether Gawker’s “swashbuckling style will survive its upcoming relaunch” in a piece about the rebirth of the legendary website, which went bankrupt along with the rest of the Gawker Media empire after founder Nick Denton lost a lawsuit launched by former wrestler Hulk Hogan. “Pugilistic” new editor in chief Leah Finnegan and her burgeoning masthead are drawing raves, Vanity Fair says, but Gawker veterans wonder whether Gawker can serve the same kind of role that it used to in the current media environment, and whether new owner Bryan Goldberg of Bustle Digital will give it the same kind of free rein that Gawker had under Denton.

By the end of May, at least 474 Indian journalists had died of COVID-19, according to a database compiled by the Network of Women in Media India, the Reuters Institute at Oxford reports. In most cases, these deaths were linked to the reporting they were doing from the field. In India, most journalists don’t work for one of the large English outlets that offer life insurance, health insurance, and a pension. They often work for smaller digital and local outlets and are unlikely to have insurance or even a fuel or food allowance. The Institute says the situation is compounded by an increasingly press-hostile government that labels journalists as “presstitutes”, “vultures” and “unpatriotic.”

The Federal Election Commission has chosen not to punish Donald Trump for “hush money” payments made to a woman who said she had a relationship with the former president, CNBC reports, but the publisher of The National Enquirer agreed to pay more than $187,500 for its role in the payments to Trump’s alleged ex-mistress, Playboy centerfold Karen McDougal. The FEC also recently failed to sanction Trump for directing a $130,000 payout to former porn star Stormy Daniels, who said she had sex with him years ago.

Australia’s competition regulator has declared victory in a three-year battle to make Facebook and Google pay for news after the platforms signed deals with publishers that could be worth about $200 million a year, according to the Financial Times. Rod Sims, chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, told the the paper the country’s media code had forced big technology platforms to negotiate deals with publishers. “We are on track for deals all around. It’s been a big success,” Sims said.

Substack now publishes hundreds of newsletters from journalists based outside the US, co-founder Hamish McKenzie told Axios. He says the company is looking to expand even further internationally in the coming months, and will start hiring more people with experience in expanding globally. Substack just raised $65 million in funding that values the company at around $650 million, and chose 12 journalists who will be awarded $1 million in total to jumpstart local newsletters, with half of them outside the US.

Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open tournament rather than do post-game interviews reinforces the fact that such press conferences “are almost always a waste of time,” writes Jeremy Littau, a professor of journalism at Lehigh University. “A room full of reporters assembled, all writing down the same quote to put into tens or hundreds of different stories that will be differentiated not by quotes but by the writer’s analysis, voice and imagination. Quotes in pressers often are plodding, perfunctory and lacking in insight.”

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