On 6 January 2021, like most Americans, Jason Miller watched on television as Donald Trump’s supporters tried to overthrow the government. Trump himself watched from the dining room of the White House. Miller, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential election campaigns, was at home in the suburbs of Washington DC, celebrating his daughter’s birthday.
At a nearby Stop the Steal rally earlier that day, the president had complained that armed protesters weren’t being allowed to join the crowd. This week, on 28 June, the Congressional select committee examining the riot at the Capitol was told by another former aide, Cassidy Hutchinson, that Trump had demanded the metal detectors be removed. “I don’t f’ing care that they have weapons,” he told staff. “They’re not here to hurt me… They can march to the Capitol from here.”
From his sofa, watching Trump’s rally, Miller ordered a hot chicken sandwich from one of his favourite restaurants, a bar a few blocks from the Capitol. He watched Trump falsely declare that he beat Joe Biden in the 2020 election “by a landslide”; that the result was “pure theft”, “illegal”. The word “fraud” recurred in his speech 22 times.
Outside the Capitol, a crowd coordinated by right-wing extremists with assault rifles began to chant: “Hang Mike Pence!” A makeshift gallows appeared, with a noose of orange electrical cable. The previous day Miller had drafted a statement, largely dictated by Trump and issued without Pence’s knowledge, which falsely claimed that the vice-president had the legal authority, and the inclination, to block the certification of the election result and thus keep Trump in office.
The 6 January committee has shared filmed testimony from Miller about this and other events leading up to that day. Wearing a face mask, he told the panel that Trump had rejected his data expert’s verdict – that he was “going to lose” – as the results arrived on the night of the election, and instead sought the advice of a “definitely intoxicated” Rudy Giuliani. Miller has subsequently accused the committee of selectively editing his interviews to make him appear more critical of Trump, although he told me that he “caution[ed] the President about announcing too early… Obviously, he disagreed.”
In conversations over the past few weeks – in London, via email and on video chat – Miller said he had “watched in horror” as the events of 6 January unfolded. He claims to have been shocked by the contrast between “this joyous event of a rally, where there was only peaceful behaviour, and then a little over a mile away these acts of illegality”.
But he had known Trump for over a decade by then; the two men had first discussed a presidential run in 2011. They had reached the White House not through joy and peace but through social media, and the cruelty and misinformation that proliferate on it. It was Trump’s social media campaign against the 2020 election result that brought the mob to the Capitol, and it is through social media that Miller hopes to bring Trump back.
In the spring of 2016, Miller was working for Ted Cruz’s campaign to become the Republican presidential candidate. He and Cruz watched on TV as Trump spoke to a huge crowd about building a wall on the US-Mexico border. Cruz was incredulous. “I’m the one who pushed for building the wall in subcommittee,” he complained, “and he gets 20,000 people?”
Miller remembers staring at his boss. It was suddenly clear to him who was going to win, and why. “Senator,” he told Cruz, “the words ‘subcommittee’ and ‘success’ have never been used in the same sentence.” He left shortly afterwards to become the Trump campaign’s chief spokesman, and after the 2016 election remained a regular media presence in support of the administration. He returned in 2020 as a senior advisor to Trump’s re-election campaign, and stayed on to “quarterback” his defence against a second impeachment after the Capitol riot.
The former president’s “superpower”, as Miller described it to me on a recent visit to London, “was his ability to evade the traditional media and just go direct to voters”. He did this largely through his unmediated and often insulting tweets, five times as frequent and three times as engaged-with as those of Hillary Clinton. That bigger social presence translated into a bigger television presence: Miller remembers Trump sitting in a green room, letting half an hour tick by while TV networks broadcast footage of the empty podium where he was due to speak. “He was ratings gold. Trump was ubiquitous.” The most popular tweet of Clinton’s campaign – in which she told Trump to “delete your account” – came to sound more like a plea than a command.
But in 2020, Miller argues, “the goalposts were changed”. Like many on the American right, he believes the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook responded to the 2016 result by tweaking their algorithms or intervening to suppress – “shadow ban” – the people and messages that might have led to a second Trump victory.
There is little evidence for this – but if it did happen, it wasn’t in the least bit effective. On Twitter and Facebook, Trump maintained an even greater lead over Joe Biden than he had over Clinton. Two years on, right-wing or pro-Trump media such as Fox News, Breitbart and the commentators Dan Bongino and Ben Shapiro continue to dominate the top-performing link posts on Facebook in the US, while the pro-Trump anchor Tucker Carlson remains America’s best-known journalist.
Nevertheless, Miller describes 2020 as “the worst year for political discrimination that we’ve seen in US history”. This is clearly not true of a country in which slavery was widespread for almost a century. But a large majority of Republican voters (more than two thirds, in repeated polls) continue to believe that the 2020 election was rigged. Miller says millions of people stopped using the main social media platforms after Trump was suspended from them for inciting the violence of 6 January. This creates a political and business opportunity that Miller is determined to seize: a huge, monetisable audience, awaiting the return of its top performer.
Anyone interviewed for a job at Miller’s social media platform, Gettr, has to answer in the affirmative to two questions: “Do you support free speech? Do you oppose cancel culture?”
Gettr was launched on 4 July 2021 as a network dedicated to these principles. It looks a lot like Twitter, only in red and white, and (from my experience of browsing over several days) has a user base that seems entirely dedicated to the politics and culture of the American alt-right. It joins a growing sphere of “alt-tech” platforms: Gab was launched in 2016 and Parler in 2018; Trump’s own social media platform, Truth Social, was launched in February this year. Gettr now claims a user base of 5.5m registered accounts.
In person, Miller is an American political strategist from central casting: he is affable, with a good suit, a gruff voice and the easy confidence of someone who spends a lot of time on camera. He has worked on Republican campaigns since the late 1990s, and has a knack for pushing a lot of words into each answer and staying on message. “I want to get people from all across the ideological spectrum,” he says of Gettr, despite the evidence to the contrary. “Our north star is to make sure that no one’s political free speech is ever encumbered.”
Miller was in London to meet opponents of the UK’s Online Safety Bill, including Laurence Fox and Toby Young. The bill contains measures designed to make online platforms more responsible for issues such as bullying, exploitation and children’s access to pornography. It also contains a plan to regulate speech deemed “legal but harmful”, and it is widely feared – by platforms from GB News to the Economist – that it could give the culture secretary broad powers to limit what is said on the internet. Miller’s fear is that any precedent set in the UK could enable similar laws in Europe (which is preparing to adopt a Digital Services Act), as well as influence the way the US regulates its social media.
“It’s such a slippery slope to an authoritarian-type regime,” Miller said. “You start taking away free speech, and then there’s not much difference between the Western world and, say, Russia or Venezuela or China.”
He should know. While Miller worked for Trump, the president declared the free press “the enemy of the American people”, and in 2017 threatened to change libel laws so he could sue his critics (these laws are limited in the US by the free speech protections of the First Amendment). The Trump administration even policed the language used by its own officials: the Energy Department was required to refrain from using the phrase “climate change”.
While no politician has benefited more from social media, Trump was outraged by the freedom it gave people to criticise him, and threatened to repeal the law that gives it such power: section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code. This small but crucial piece of American legislation states that websites such as Twitter and Facebook are not responsible for the posts or comments of their users. Miller told me he advised the president against repealing 230 – Gettr could not operate without it – but he does think it “has to be reformed”. In his view, it is a “privilege” which comes with an obligation not to “play around with the numbers or tweak things, so that certain people are heard and certain people aren’t heard”.
In the days before and after we met, I spent many hours on Gettr, and it seems very much a place in which one type of person is heard: the paranoid and prejudiced contrarians of the populist far right.
For a bien-pensant progressive hand-wringer such as myself, to scroll through Gettr is to stare into what Hannah Arendt called, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, an “unorganised, structureless mass of furious individuals” linked only by the conviction that “the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent”.
Part of the business opportunity for Miller is that the world in which most of Gettr’s users live is indeed fraudulent. Told that they live in the richest country in the world, almost a third of American workers – 52 million people – make less than $15 an hour, with no paid holiday or pension entitlement; a million of these people don’t even make the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour. Medical debt bankrupts half a million Americans a year. People on low incomes in the United States live in such a completely different world to Bill Gates that it is hardly surprising if some of them imagine him to be an extraterrestrial. On Gettr, they find negative solidarity in rejecting everything the elites have to offer: vaccines, climate change warnings, gun control.
Cruelty thrives on Facebook and Twitter, but on Gettr it is inescapable. As Arendt wrote of the interwar Europeans who came to embrace totalitarianism, Gettr’s users appear “satisfied with blind partisanship in anything that respectable society had banned… they elevated cruelty to a major virtue because it contradicted society’s liberal and humanitarian hypocrisy”.
It is, for example, a conventional opinion on Gettr that the murder of 19 primary school children in Uvalde, Texas, on 24 May was a “false flag” operation, the real purpose of which was to limit Americans’ access to assault rifles. (Uvalde was the 212th mass shooting of a year in which, at the time of writing, 825 children under the age of 17 have been killed by guns in the United States.) Such views are also easily found on Twitter and Facebook, but they are held by a tiny minority; on Gettr, they are the mainstream.
On his own timeline, Miller recently shared the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s claim that the war in Ukraine is “a money-laundering operation for global elites”. He defended this assertion to me by suggesting that unverified emails allegedly recovered from the laptop of Hunter Biden, the president’s son, “raise definite questions as to what’s framing Joe Biden’s decision-making process when it comes to [Ukraine]”.
This kind of accusation would once have been confined to crank radio and the weirder corners of the internet. (To be clear, Miller is implying that the president of the United States is risking war with Russia solely to cover up a claim that he was inappropriately involved in his son’s foreign business interests.) One of the great achievements of social media is the normalisation of deviance in ideas and discourse – to the point where someone like Miller can deliver a wild conspiracy theory like this with an affable shrug, as if it were reasonable analysis. He could be any talking head on any TV in any hotel lobby.
For all that he opposes the idea of “cancel culture”, it now provides Miller with a kind of production line. Gettr’s value as a business is predicated on signing up people whose views have been denounced as offensive on a mainstream platform, and helping them to forge new careers as controversialists: “Anyone who gets cancelled or attacked, they’d probably get a phone call from me”. He has won over the former LBC host Maajid Nawaz, the retired footballer Matt Le Tissier and the ‘90s pop duo Right Said Fred, all of whom have shared conspiracy theories about Covid vaccines. When Nicki Minaj claimed to have been suspended from Twitter (she had tweeted that the vaccine makes your testicles swell), Miller was on the phone immediately. “I didn’t get the call back from Nikki. I understand. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t trying.” Miller says his priority is to recruit “people who just aren’t inherently political, people who are maybe in pop culture, or people who are in sports or acting. They’re known for a different career, but they’ve just become more interested in speaking out recently.”
Miller’s biggest win has been the controversial podcaster Joe Rogan, who joined Gettr in January “in case shit over at Twitter gets even dumber”. Days later, however, Rogan noticed that his follower count on Gettr, at nine million, far exceeded the number of people on the platform, and described the site in a podcast as “fugazi” (fake). Gettr explained that this was the combined count of Rogan’s Twitter and Gettr followers, and has since split the number to make it clearer. While Rogan remains on the platform, he hasn’t posted since January.
Research suggests that recruiting loud, status-seeking voices is an astute strategy. Last year the Dutch political psychologists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen published a study examining why online debate seems to make people more aggressive. Their answer was, it doesn’t: it’s not being on a computer that makes people hostile, but the way social networks connect people to hostile individuals, who “have a significantly larger reach online – they can more easily identify targets and their behaviour is more broadly visible”.
For Facebook, “connectivity” has always been the fundamental aim and, in the 2016 words of one of its vice-presidents, Andrew Bosworth, a “de facto good”. In practice, the high number of connections created by social media has enabled people with horrible things to say to say them to more people than ever before.
Miller’s Gettr feed is filled with examples. In one post he’s shared, Elise Stefanik (a “good friend”, chair of the House Republican Conference and tipped as a Trump 2024 running mate) claims that Democrats are “pedo grifters”. Miller doesn’t accuse Democrat politicians of being paedophiles himself, although many on Gettr have (it is part of the QAnon conspiracy theory). So why post it? “I just thought it was funny,” he explains. “It was a hot take. And I found because of the reaction on the left that it caused, and the swirl in the media – it was fun to watch the conflict.”
“Oh, it’s a business,” Miller said when I asked if the point of Gettr was to make money or to get Donald Trump, or someone like him, back into the White House.
The reality is that, like the Trump movement itself, Gettr is both a business and a political project. Perhaps the platform will make money – Miller has a plan to bring in advertising using a cryptocurrency model – but it is currently unmonetised. “It takes millions of dollars” to build a new social network, he said, though he wouldn’t name the two private equity companies that have provided these millions.
He did tell me that “seed money” came from people who were “close to” the family foundation of the exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui, a close associate of Steve Bannon. In the period while the platform was being developed, he said, “some people who had worked for Mr Guo previously came and worked for Gettr. But neither [Mr] Guo nor Steve Bannon are direct investors or have management roles within the company.”
Last month, journalists at Australia’s ABC News reported that they had gained access to chat rooms dedicated to monitoring Gettr. They took screenshots of teams agreeing to delete posts that were critical of Guo, Bannon or the two men’s organisation, the New Federal State of China (NFSC), which is dedicated to criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. The investigation found that “criticism on the platform of Mr Bannon and Mr Guo, their organisations and Gettr itself is often quickly identified by NFSC members and removed”.
I asked Miller if he rejected ABC’s findings. “I can’t speak to the authenticity of the ABC screenshots,” he said. “All I can speak to is the authenticity of our protocols and standards. Content moderation is regularly reviewed by superiors to ensure that our moderators conduct their work in accordance with our terms of service and community guidelines, and without favour or disfavour to any person, group, or political viewpoint.”
I conducted a basic test of ABC’s claims by setting up three different Gettr accounts. Two posted random updates or nothing at all, while the third posted links to the ABC report and to a Reuters news item in which Donald Trump was critical of Guo Wengui. The first two accounts continue to function and gain followers; the third was deactivated within a week, without explanation.
Does Miller himself really believe the Big Lie? His take is that the 2020 election was “legally rigged”. When I pointed out that this is an oxymoron, he said that “the rules were changed. And they were changed in an unconstitutional manner.” He “did not see enough fraud specific to election day itself, that would have overturned it on its own”, but believes that the 62 legal cases the Trump administration launched to challenge the election result were “of great merit”. The courts disagreed, throwing out 61 of them; the 62nd won Trump a few more votes in Pennsylvania, but not enough to change the result.
But it may be that the legal challenges, and the doubt each one sows about the integrity of America’s next election, are part of something bigger. The Big Lie is older than most people think: the “Stop The Steal” movement began before the 2016 election, as a campaign by the political strategist Roger Stone to pre-emptively cast doubt on a Clinton victory. It has been building ever since.
Steve Bannon calls it the “precinct strategy”: a plan to install the paranoid far right as Republican precinct committee members, minor officials, poll workers, party lawyers and district attorneys, in order to challenge votes on a massive scale at the next general election. According to meetings seen by Politico, these people are largely being recruited by the idea that the 2020 election was a fraud. There are signs that it’s working: at the recent Texas Republican convention, the party adopted a resolution that the rights of the people who attacked the Capitol on 6 January “have been violated” and that Biden “was not legitimately elected”.
Texas has also passed a new law designed to protect the Big Lie. Texas House Bill 20 (which is temporarily blocked by the Supreme Court) rules that “a social media platform may not censor a user, a user’s expression, or a user’s ability to receive the expression of another person”. While the UK and Europe are preparing laws designed to inhibit misinformation, “HB20” would allow Texas Republicans to sue any major platform that refused to accommodate the claim that Trump never stopped winning.
Meanwhile Trump himself is energetically endorsing candidates for elected positions in the Senate, House of Representatives and at state level. The majority are people who have openly supported the Big Lie. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies,” wrote Hannah Arendt, “their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts.” The Origins of Totalitarianism was written five decades before social media, but describes perfectly the new world it constructs: “a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself”.
This, in the end, is what Gettr, Truth Social and the other alt-tech platforms are for. Any appearance of competition between them is an illusion: they are all nudging people towards the same rabbit hole. The goal is not so much a community as a swarm of links that can then be shared on the wider fields of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and TikTok, pushing wild ideas into mainstream debate, and repeating them in a reasonable voice until millions of people agree that the news is fake, that guns are safe, and that their president, like the presidents of China and Russia, is a person no right-thinking voter would ever betray.
[See also: Uber and the Big Tech ego trip]