On the same day that Republicans used a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee hearing on proposed legislation to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to rail against “Big Tech’s censorship,” it emerged that billions more in investment is flowing towards projects to establish alternative social media platforms that favor the right.
It was reported Wednesday that former President Donald Trump’s social media venture- Trump Media & Technology Group- was seeking to raise $1 billion by “selling shares to hedge funds and family offices at several times the valuation it commanded in a deal with a blank-check acquisition firm” called Digital World Acquisition Corp. The former President has reportedly been making calls to investors himself– and apparently they are answering, despite the danger he represents to democracy and his dismal record as a businessman. On Saturday, the company announced it had achieved its $1 billion goal, but did not disclose its investors.
But while the fundraising for the venture appears to be going well, the company missed its goal to launch a beta app by the end of November. Its technically challenged initial offering ran into difficulty after the company failed to acknowledge it was based on open-source software.
Also last Wednesday, Canadian video platform Rumble announced it would go public on NASDAQ at a $2.1 billion valuation via a SPAC deal that will leave its founder and Chief Executive Officer, Chris Pavlovski, with voting control of the entity. The platform’s growth has been driven in part by investments from Trump-aligned figures such as J.D Vance, an Ohio Senate candidate whose venture capital firm invested in it alongside money from Peter Thiel and Darren Blanton, both former Trump advisors. Right wing investors, politicians and media personalities laud the site for its laissez-faire approach to content moderation, which leaves it rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Other projects to establish right-leaning social media sites are in various phases of development. With the continued backing of major Republican donor Rebekah Mercer and with a former leader of the Tea Party Patriots, Mark Meckler, installed as CEO, Parler has reconstituted itself after being kicked off the web after the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Gettr, run by Trump advisor Jason Miller, has enjoyed the backing of Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who is an associate of Steve Bannon. Gab, which The New Republic recently called “a hotbed of bigotry and racial hatred,” reportedly raised a modest amount via stock offerings and crowdfunding. And, apps such as MeWe and Telegram have emerged as popular alternatives.
While there is little evidence that the major social media platforms are systematically biased against American conservatives– and indeed growing evidence that right-leaning voices are more prominent on the platforms, may be favored by recommendation algorithms, and are coddled by executives frightened even of the impression of bias– many on the right continue to propagate the idea that content moderation decisions taken against their political allies nevertheless constitute politically motivated censorship.
At Wednesday’s Energy & Commerce Committee hearing, Kara Frederick, Research Fellow in Technology Policy at The Heritage Foundation, criticized tech platforms for ‘censoring’ the right and referred to a “litany of suspensions of ordinary Americans by Big Tech platforms for expressing right-leaning political views.” The same day, a federal judge blocked a Texas law advanced by Republican lawmakers that sought to restrict social media companies’ moderation practices on the grounds that “the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content,” according to The Texas Tribune.
Either way, investors are clearly betting some combination of money, fervent claims of censorship from Republican elites, and ever tighter content moderation practices by the major platforms may be sufficient to push users to alternative platforms. But, it’s not exactly well understood what circumstances might drive users from platforms such as Facebook in meaningful numbers,
“There is a clear conflict that exists that we may see increase as content moderation gets tighter on the major platforms. It’s not clear where the inflection point is, but if you ban or deplatform enough people you may effectively create demand for the alternative platform,” said Manoel Ribeiro, a researcher at EPFL who has studied the way people migrate between platforms.
But will these communities be as compelling as the major platforms? That remains to be seen. As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte has pointed out, it may be less fun to hang out in a space that is too homogenous. More likely, users will maintain accounts on the major platforms, and occasionally visit alternative platforms to commune with the like-minded– just like Republican political elites that rail against Big Tech do today.
Even if users do turn up, alternative platforms may not be as popular with advertisers, who may seek to steer clear of problematic content that seems to thrive in spaces that take a more laissez-faire approach to content moderation.
Even if massive scale or commercial success is elusive, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the sites won’t be influential. With fewer than a million subscribers at its peak before being banned by Reddit, r/The_Donald, a community that has survived two domain migrations, continues to play a substantial role on the right– even if it is somewhat diminished after serving as a hotbed of organizing for the January 6 insurrection. And there may be some advantages to staying small, particularly if Congress ever gets around to new regulations on social media. The research firm Oxford Analytica has noted that “legislation to rein in ‘big tech’ may exclude smaller platforms, leaving some that cater to the radical right unregulated.”
A key challenge for these alternative platforms may just be getting the technology to work. While Rumble has so far been stable, other right wing experiments on social media have faced technical challenges.
“Some of these alternative providers have messed up- they’ve been hacked, had leaks. There is a lot of incompetence behind the people doing this stuff. I don’t know if they will find enough advertisers, or be able to manage their technology well enough to scale,” said Ribeiro.
For his part, after being deplatformed from Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol, the former President– and potential Presidential candidate– has clearly played a substantial role in inspiring this alternative platform ecosystem. From the messianic role he continues to play for users of Patriots.win to the hundreds of millions of dollars now riding on his ability to breath life into his Truth Social platform, Trump may soon tout that he spurred a new age of Bigly Tech.
This piece was updated on Saturday, December 4th to reflect news that Trump Media and Technology Group announced it achieved its investment goal.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.