On Sunday night, former President Donald Trump finally launched Truth Social, the social media platform he promised last year, on the Apple App Store. Truth Social describes itself as a “platform that encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology.” The site takes after Twitter, which banned Trump following the Capitol riot, and was created using an open-source software for building independent social media networks called Mastodon. Instead of “tweets” and “retweets,” posts and shares on the site are called “Truths” and “ReTruths.”
Truth Social quickly shot to the top of the App Store’s most popular downloads list, and still holds the No. 1 spot as of Wednesday. This is despite the fact that there were reportedly a ton of bugs, a 13-hour outage, and an extremely long waitlist to actually get on the platform. (The app told me I was No. 406,296 in line.) Though there appears to be quite a bit of demand for the app, Truth Social joins a crowded field of other alternative “free speech” social networks that are jockeying to be the main hub for conservatives who are spurning Big Tech. Truth Social received 170,000 downloads during its first day online, though its user base is tougher to determine given the waitlist situation. It’s certainly impressive, but has a long way to go to catch up with the likes of Parler (11.3 million downloads and 20 million users), Gettr (6.7 million downloads and 4 million users), and Rumble (4.6 million downloads and 30 million users).
The front-runner of the pack, though, is a platform called MeWe. With 13 million downloads and 20 million users, MeWe edges out Parler as arguably the most successful alternative social media platform at the moment. (Rumble does claim to have more users, but the platform is built around video rather than text, so the comparison can’t be exact.) If Truth Social really wants to overtake the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as Trump has suggested, it’ll have to trounce MeWe first.
MeWe was founded in 2016 as a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook with laxer moderation. Unlike Gettr and Parler, which are backed by Republican insiders, MeWe doesn’t have a particularly political origin story. Its founder and CEO, Mark Weinstein, is a privacy advocate and critic of surveillance capitalism who wanted to create an ad-free platform. Rather than making money from ads, which typically requires harvesting user data for targeting, MeWe sells subscriptions for special features like emoji and video calling. In terms of its moderation policies, MeWe is more permissive than Facebook or Twitter, but stricter than Parler or Gettr. Weinstein has criticized Facebook for not tolerating disagreement on its site, but then taken pains to distinguish MeWe from self-proclaimed free speech alternatives, claiming that he doesn’t want to “be around hate speech” or “violence inciters.”
MeWe has taken a harsher stance than its free speech brethren on QAnon and Stop the Steal content on the basis that such posts can lead to violence. It’s nevertheless served as a haven for anti-vax misinformation and far-right extremism. A search for the term “vaccine” on the site produces pages for the likes of the National Vaccine Information Center, the oldest anti-vaccine advocacy organization in the country, and Robert Malone, a controversial doctor and medical researcher who has promoted discredited claims about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and their link to heart inflammation. (It was his appearance, in part, that kicked off a recent controversy about anti-vaccine misinformation on Joe Rogan’s popular podcast.) An overwhelming majority of the search results notably feature content that is critical of vaccines. MeWe also previously attracted violent extremists like the Oath Keepers, though it seems to have taken action against such groups and users in response to questions from the press.
MeWe’s future success relative to Truth Social, or other conservative-leaning social networks for that matter, may eventually be a revealing data point in determining just how powerful political allegiances can be for driving a platform’s user growth. If Truth Social ever does get off the ground, its user base will presumably consist mostly of MAGA supporters who are primarily animated by the conservative strain of grievances against Big Tech. (Another notable group will surely be journalists and political researchers keeping tabs on the platform and its users.) Given how divisive a figure Trump is, it’s hard to see how a site he’s backing could have any sort of appeal beyond the right. MeWe, on the other hand, is trying to capitalize on the general wariness of Big Tech that has become a mainstream issue over the past half-decade or so, without relying too much on partisan animus. As Weinstein told the New York Times this week, “The problem with Truth Social, Gettr and Parler is these are Twitter competitors and they are echo chambers for a narrow political spectrum.” It’s a tough balancing act for MeWe, which essentially needs to attract users who are discontented enough with Facebook to consider alternatives, but who also aren’t too keen on finding a home among more hardcore conservatives where hate speech is tolerated. Yet based on its numbers, this niche seems to be working pretty well for MeWe thus far.