Donald Trump’s new social network, Truth Social, was released in the United States last month. The app is essentially a Twitter copycat, and it had an undeniably messy rollout: most of the people who signed up were placed on a massive waitlist, and many others received an error message when they tried to log in. Less than three weeks later, on March 9, Truth Social had slid all the way to 97th on Apple’s App Store chart – one slot behind the TurboTax: File Your Tax Return app.
Despite the disappointing debut, Truth Social has big aspirations. Even though it claims to be a “big tent” social media, it’s clear that the platform’s real target is conservatives angry at what they see as the tech industry’s bias against the right. Truth Social’s parent company, Trump Media & Technology Group (TMTG), doesn’t take any pains to hide this fact: in its press release announcing the development of Truth Social, TMTG said that their “mission is to create a rival to the liberal media consortium and fight back against the ‘Big Tech’ companies.” And TMTG’s ambitions go far beyond competing with Twitter. In its pitch deck for investors, TMTG imagines a future where it rivals the nation’s other tech giants, including Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Disney, Netflix, Microsoft and Google.
TMTG is far from the only company trying to take advantage of conservative anger at the tech industry. There’s a conservative alternative for every social media company out there — from WeMe (an alternative for Facebook) to Rumble (an alternative for Youtube) to Righter (an alternative for the dating app Tinder).
The question, of course, is if these alternative platforms are on to something real, or if they’re destined to fizzle out. With the many barriers to success, each of these companies could (and very likely will) tank. But that’s not a given. There is a chance that this is the start of a new internet era in which there are two parallel ecosystems: one for the political left and one for the political right. Such a divide would create a society even more polarized and divided than the one we have today – an outcome that all of us, regardless of our political persuasion, should hope to avoid.
There is a precedent for media splintering in this way: television news. Through most of the 20th Century, American television news viewers had three choices – NBC, CBS, or ABC – all of which were mostly straightforward news. But after the FCC revoked the “fairness doctrine,” which required broadcasters to give a diversity of viewpoints, and as cable became mainstream, more explicitly partisan networks like MSNBC and Fox News appeared. Rather than having to rely on broad appeal, these new networks could draw eyeballs by catering more narrowly to viewers’ political allegiances. This trend quickly spread to other forms of media with the advancements of technology like satellite radio, broadband, and high-speed internet.
Perhaps the internet will follow a similar trajectory and splinter into two partisan camps. Entrepreneurs hoping to capitalize on this potential split are wasting no time, and, by now, every prominent tech company has a conservative alternative.
Notably, this trend goes beyond just social media. PayPal, Netflix, Airbnb all have right-wing copycats. There are even conservative options for the nuts and bolts of the internet, like website hosting. Perhaps the most far-flung of these conservative companies is the “Freedom Phone,” which markets itself as a “free speech and privacy first focused phone” but has been consumed by criticism over its poor quality and cheap hardware.
For now, these alternative companies are struggling to compete with the tech giants. For all the noise about Truth Social’s rollout, the platform received only about half a million sign-ups in the first two days. It’s unclear exactly how many users have downloaded the app since then, but it’s safe to assume the total number of users is, at most, somewhere in the single-digit millions. That seems like a lot until you compare it to its prime competitor, Twitter, which has over 200,000,000 daily active users.
The other Twitter imitators, Parler and Gab, have similarly small active user bases – around 1,000,000 and 100,000, respectively. Perhaps the most successful of the alternative platforms, Rumble, has 39 million monthly users. This again sounds impressive until you consider that its main competitor, YouTube, has 2.3 billion. Similarly, a previous generation of alternative platforms that you’ve probably never even heard of (Voat or PewTube) quickly failed and were forgotten.
These failures shouldn’t be surprising. The business model of these alternative companies is considerably flawed in a way that makes widespread adoption unlikely. The most obvious of these flaws is that a social network is only valuable if there are other users to network with. The strategy and purpose of these platforms – appealing to conservatives – inherently restricts the number of potential users to a subsection of Americans.
The other shortcomings of these platforms become apparent after using them for just a few minutes. Because they are marketed as a place for conservatives, the vast majority of users they attract are, unsurprisingly, conservatives. This creates an environment that is strictly political and that lacks any diversity of thought. There are no funny memes, no real political debates, no dunking on political opponents. In essence, there is none of the content that makes social media fun or engaging.
The laissez-faire approach to moderation, when taken to the extreme, causes a similar problem. Consider Gab, which takes the lightest touch of the alternative platforms. This has attracted the most depraved parts of the internet – white supremacists, chauvinists, and other provocateurs who most of us have no interest in interacting with. When platforms fail to moderate their content beyond what is legally required, they get taken over by hate, making for an incredibly unpleasant experience for typical users.
Perhaps the most important barrier these companies face, however, has nothing to do with their content or their users. Instead, it’s the institutional roadblocks that they face from the power structures of Silicon Valley. Gab, for example, has been banned from both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store for violating their terms of service for hosting “mean-spirited” content and hate speech. Parler, too, was briefly cut off from the app stores after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capital for hosting various kinds of objectional content. Amazon Web Services — the infrastructure that keeps around a third of the internet sites online — has also cut off Gab and Parler.
Truth Social, Rumble, and several other alternative platforms haven’t faced the same kind of punishing restrictions from the tech giants. But if they end up taking a more freewheeling approach to moderation that many on the right are demanding, they would likely be punished by the major tech players.
Given these obstacles, the alt-tech platforms will have a tough time finding and retaining users. That said, it’s not altogether unthinkable that they will catch on and spur on a politically divided internet. So it is worth considering the consequences of such a division.
One outcome would be heightened polarization. A paper published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last December found that “when people preferentially connect to people with similar opinions, they create an echo chamber that increasingly polarizes the views of everyone in the network. On the other hand, people who are part of a network consisting of a variety of viewpoints tend to moderate one another.” It’s easy to see how a fractured internet, where progressives only interact with progressives and conservatives only interact with conservatives, would lead to heightened polarization.
Another consequence would be increased radicalization and extremism. If a given platform has only left-wing or right-wing users, the posts and content that is explicitly ideological will likely get the most attention and praise. This can quickly turn to extremism, as those with opposing viewpoints either won’t be around to push back against more extreme content or will be drowned out. An environment like this is ripe for creating and spreading radical politics, conspiracy theories, and fringe ideas.
Considering the consequences of a conservative internet ecosystem, it’s not surprising that partisan actors who would benefit from heightened polarization and extremism are working to build one. Of all these projects, Truth Social is the most conspicuously political in its aims: a platform that fires up right-wingers will strengthen Trump’s political faction. It also will bring back the political bullhorn and direct line to supporters Trump lost when he was kicked off Twitter. Other MAGA politicians (including Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz) and pundits (Sean Hannity, Charlie Kirk, Dan Bongino) who will similarly benefit from a popular far right platform were quick to sign up and encourage their supporters to do the same.
This unfortunate political incentive exists beyond just Truth Social: conservatives who benefit from heightened partisanship and polarization have a practical incentive to bring about an internet ecosystem stratified along political lines. That is why nearly every right-wing tech platform has received support from conservative leaders looking to grow their movement and audience.
Those of us concerned more with the overall state of our democracy than political incentives should do all we can to avoid a divided internet and the extremism and polarization it could bring. For the sake of holding the internet together, platforms and users could start with these three actions:
- First, the big tech platforms should welcome all viewpoints – from far left to far right – as long as they don’t clearly violate their terms of service. If Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were to make it clear that they are not biased against conservative voices then there would be less reason for those on the right to leave in search of new platforms.
- Second, the big tech platforms should be completely transparent about what content they censor. The rules right now are opaque and are open to politically-motivated interpretation. In fact, even Twitter banning Former President Donald Trump on the grounds that he incited violence is extremely dubious. To prevent political bias as well as the appearance of political bias, social media companies need to dedicate themselves to being radically transparent about their moderation policies.
- Third, users of the big tech platforms should do our best to make the platforms less hostile. Making the internet a more welcoming place will reduce the allure of political isolation offered by alternative tech platforms like Truth Social and Parler. This might sound overly earnest, but it is the most tangible thing that each of us can do on our own to prevent an internet divide and is something worth striving for.
The internet we have is far from perfect. It has plenty of anger, condescension, and political hostility. But even those problems are preferable to division and extremism that would come from an internet divided along political lines. Fortunately, alternative tech platforms have not caught mainstream interest. With a few million downloads at most, Trump’s Truth social has drawn a tiny percentage of Americans and is plummeting down the app store chart.
Those of us who care about having a functional public discourse and democracy should celebrate that we don’t seem to be heading down the path towards a split internet — at least not yet.
Seth Moskowitz is a freelance journalist writing about American politics, technology, and democracy. He is also an associate editor for Persuasion.
Cover Photo: Chris Delmas / AFP.
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