I Downloaded Trump's Truth Social, So You Don't Have To
It could be what Twitter looks like.
This past week, Donald Trump's Truth Social surged to become the most downloaded app from Apple's App Store. The surge appears related to the platform clearing its waitlists for users and moving to a new cloud system. While it remains to be seen whether the surge in interest will last, the chart topping is nevertheless notable for an app that has been floundering for months. (Twitter still likely exceeds Truth Social in downloads on all mobile devices, as Truth Social is now only available on Apple's App Store.)
In addition, Truth Social was helped by a tweet from an unlikely source -- Elon Musk, who was fresh off of buying Twitter for $44 billion.
I wanted to see what the hubbub was about. So, I downloaded the app to my iPhone. The setup was ordinary -- I was asked for my email and phone number, created a handle and display name, and chose my profile picture. Just like Twitter, Truth Social asked me if I wanted to follow suggested accounts. Truth Social did not suggest the likes of the New York Times, CNN and President Joe Biden. It was Trump, his sons, Breitbart, right-wing personalities like Sean Hannity, The Babylon Bee (a conservative satire site suspended from Twitter for making a transphobic joke about a Biden appointee), and One America News Network (a conspiracy theory news site). I followed them all. I was good to go.
What did I see in my feed? My feed looked like the right-wing posts that surge to the top of Facebook's most interacted. Right-wing concerns about big tech censorship, transgender people, and immigrants were ubiquitous. Many posts were "re-truthed," which is the same as a retweet, just with a different name. There were also plenty of phony accounts imitating real people, something that Facebook and Twitter prohibit -- for example, a search for "Elon Musk" turned up 18 results, and none of them were Elon Musk.
Now onto the platform's raison d'etre -- the Trump account. His inaugural post read: "I'M BACK #COVFEFE" and a picture of him. It got around 113,000 "re-truths," 61,000 comments, and 357,000 likes. That amount of interaction was a fraction of the number on his frozen Facebook page. That page was getting, on average, 2-4 million interactions per day in the runup to the 2020 election, according to the New York Times.
There are two reasons to care about Truth Social. The first is that it could be a platform where right-wing ideas grow in popularity, left alone by lax content moderation. For example, during the Trump Administration, the QAnon conspiracy theory grew on Facebook and YouTube, without intervention. Intensified by the forced isolation of the COVID pandemic, many people fell into believing this theory and became detached from reality, their families, and their jobs. Facebook and YouTube finally banned QAnon content before the 2020 election. Truth Social will have little moderation, except for sexual content, depictions of violence, or false and defamatory or libelous conent. (A lot of false content has been left up, anyway -- it's up to Truth Social to decide.) Lax moderation would leave a lot of room for the next right-wing idea to bubble up and cross over to Fox News, just like QAnon and anti-vaccine conspiracies did.
Secondly, Truth Social could be the future of what Twitter will look like under the reign of "free speech absolutist" Elon Musk. Musk is inclined to let Trump and other right-wing personalities back onto the platform. He hasn't spoken publicly about cases in specific but has said that he wanted to be "very cautious" with permanent bans and preferred "timeouts." In addition, Musk's tweets suggest he is more concerned with left-wing extremism -- which has no megaphones akin to Trump and Fox News -- rather than right-wing extremism. This past week, Musk shared a meme suggesting that the left had become extreme, while the right had not.
Musk also tweeted, "I strongly supported Obama for President, but today’s Democratic Party has been hijacked by extremists." Although Trump launched Truth Social to be the next Twitter, Musk's purchase may turn Twitter into the next Truth Social.
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