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After Trump Ban, Serbian Politicians Migrate To Alternative Networks 'Until Something Better Happens'

Some members of Serbia's ruling party were active on Parler before Amazon's cutoff made the social network untenable.
Some members of Serbia's ruling party were active on Parler before Amazon's cutoff made the social network untenable.

BELGRADE -- Donald Trump and his American supporters have complained loudly about bans on the outgoing U.S. president by the biggest names in social media since the violence at the Capitol that sparked Trump's impeachment this week.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Amazon Web Services are among nearly a dozen tech giants to cut off Trump or his allies over their unfounded accusations of vote fraud or perceived incitement of political violence ahead of the U.S. inauguration.

There has been a huge ripple effect in the United States, including a robust debate about free speech and a social-media shakeout that could further insulate like-minded users from being challenged by those outside their "epistemic bubbles."

Some of the political Twitterati in Serbia have meanwhile sought to affect their own minor social-media shake-up in the Balkans in response to the Trump bans.

"We're hanging out here until something better happens," Vladimir Djukanovic, a lawmaker from President Aleksandar Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), shared on the Gab social network on January 11, under a cover photo that zoomed in on the left-wing Antifa movement's logo.

It was the Serbian politician's first post on the 3-year-old microblogging platform, which employs a sort of mash-up of the Facebook and Twitter formats and has thrived as a digital congregating ground for the alt-right.

The @RealDonaldTrump account on Gab has some 1.2 million followers, including Djukanovic and at least a handful of his SNS party colleagues, a fraction of the 88 million who followed the U.S. president's now-deleted Twitter account.

Vladimir Djukanovic's profile on the Gab social network
Vladimir Djukanovic's profile on the Gab social network

Gab's algorithms are proprietary, but an initial browse on January 15 featured a long list of dubious pro-Trump and conspiracy-minded accusations without evidence, including blaming leftists and the media for the January 6 storming of the Capitol, praise for exposing "deep state" conspiracies, and memes targeting Democratic President-elect Joe Biden.

Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner this week reportedly discouraged the outgoing president from migrating to "fringe social-media platforms such as Gab and Parler," Bloomberg reported, citing three unnamed sources "familiar with the matter." They said a social-media aide had also questioned the management and capacity of the sites.

Djukanovic is a part-time talk-show host and former Radical Party member who is regarded as being well to the right within President Vucic's SNS.

He has publicly celebrated convicted Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic's birthday and backed anti-Western positions on issues like Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and China's claims to disputed South China Sea territories.

Djukanovic was a frequent Parler user, too, until Amazon Web Services effectively shut it down by denying services the same day he turned up on Gab.

Free-Speech Debate

The free-speech debate around the actions of the commercial tech giants has continued.

A survey of Americans suggested more than 60 percent of them backed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey's decision to ban Trump over the risk he might incite violence.

Abroad, public regrets about the ban on Trump have been expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and France's leadership, as well as by Chinese leaders and Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

Meanwhile, Djukanovic and a few other prominent politicians in Serbia have deleted their Twitter accounts and taken public stands as they migrated to Gab and other sites generally seen as more welcoming of nationalist and right-wing posts.

"If they change their crazy censorship decisions, maybe I'll return," Djukanovic said, via Parler, about Twitter's policy.

A number of Djukanovic's ruling-party colleagues were also active on Parler before Amazon's cutoff made Parler untenable.

The leader of Serbia's euroskeptic, anti-vaccine, nonparliamentary Enough Is Enough party, Sasa Radulovic, announced he had abandoned Twitter for that platform on January 8.

He has since also joined Gab, where in his first post he suggested most Serbian citizens believe a pharmaceutical "mafia" is involved in spreading the coronavirus and one-third of them believe the Chinese government created it.

"And that's a 'conspiracy theory'? People ask obvious questions," Radulovic said, going on to accuse the media of "insulting and making fools" of them.

Gab's founder once said that while he hadn't "set out to build a 'conservative social network' by any means," he had "felt it was time for a conservative leader to step up and to provide a forum where anybody can come and speak freely without fear of censorship."

The Pennsylvania-based platform said on January 9 that it was getting "10,000+ new Gab users every hour" to add to a base of monthly users that was said to be 3.7 million in April.

Sasa Radulovic, the leader of Serbia's Enough Is Enough party, said that he had abandoned Twitter and now has a profile on Gab.
Sasa Radulovic, the leader of Serbia's Enough Is Enough party, said that he had abandoned Twitter and now has a profile on Gab.

But as the social-media migration continued this week, other platforms also appeared to see a ripple effect from the bans on Trump and propagators of unfounded alt-right theories.

CNN's Brian Fung said instant-messaging platform Telegram told him that 97 percent of the "explosion of growth" that took it over 500 million active users came from outside the United States.

Last year, the Simon Wiesenthal Center human rights organization described Telegram as an "online weapon of choice for [the] violent far-right."

Djukanovic remains active on Telegram, where he urged others to leave Twitter.

Although launched with an eye to serving pro-democracy activists, critics suggest that Telegram's relaxed content rules have been abused to spread disinformation, hate, and bigotry.

"Telegram has transformed into a nerve center for far-right sympathizers, many of whom come from the former Soviet Union," an investigative article asserted last week in Rest Of World.

Trump's banned private Twitter account had about 88 million followers.

Trump still appeared to have some access to the @POTUS Twitter account for the president of the United States, where a denunciation of Twitter and suggestion that Trump might create his own "platform" appeared before it was quickly deleted, according to AP.

That account currently has around 33 million followers, but will be transformed into Biden's recent @PresElectBiden account on inauguration day, January 20.

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    Dusan Komarcevic

    Dusan Komarcevic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Maja Zivanovic

    Maja Zivanovic is an investigative journalist based in Prague.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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