‘Free Speech’ Social-Media Apps See Enormous Growth After the Election

EJ Dickson
·10 min read

Dave Wright, a Trump supporter based in Decatur, Illinois, was sick and tired of Facebook. A video he had posted in September of a woman reportedly being arrested for not wearing a mask was flagged for spreading misinformation, and last week during the election, a screengrab he shared hinting at false claims of electoral fraud in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was similarly flagged by the platform. Someone close to him was also permanently banned from Twitter for posting in support of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was charged with killing two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin last August.

So Wright decided to start an account on MeWe, a social networking app that has touted itself as the “free-speech” alternative to Facebook. He’s only been on it a day, but so far, he’s a fan. “MeWe ought to start planning, cuz a red wave is coming!” he wrote in a post.

In the wake of the 2020 election, as Facebook and Twitter are taking increasingly more rigorous stances against the spread of disinformation, Trump supporters like Wright are migrating elsewhere — specifically, to less moderated, more extremist-friendly social networks.

In the days since the election, Parler and MeWe, two apps that angle themselves as uncensored alternatives to mainstream social media, have overtaken TikTok and Zoom as the most-downloaded apps on the iTunes and Google Play stores. Last week alone, Parler was downloaded approximately 580,000 times worldwide, with the majority of those downloads in the United States — a roughly 353-percent increase from its rate of downloads last October, according to data the analytics firm Apptopia shared with Rolling Stone. The influx of new users on Parler has been so great that the app is reportedly experiencing technical glitches as a result.

MeWe has seen a smaller, yet still explosive, bump: within the past week, it has been downloaded more than 130,000 times, with 100,000 of those downloads in the United States. By contrast, it received a little more than 50,000 U.S. downloads within a one-week period in September.

As Wright explains it, he downloaded the apps due to his perceptions of anti-right-wing bias on big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter. “I’m just entirely fed up with Facebook & Twitter contradicting the truth by placing deceptive ‘fact checking’ on posts, banning free speech, and pushing targeted ads by selling my information,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’m not quite ready to ditch Facebook and Twitter just yet, but I’m ready enough to start rebuilding my social networks on the new platforms.” Other tweets echoed this sentiment. “Joined MeWe today. I will rebuild what FB took from me because of my love for DJT [Donald J. Trump],” one person tweeted on November 8th; another who said they joined both Parler and MeWe echoed, “We need other forums besides the two biggies who are censoring us based on their own agendas.”

The migration to platforms like MeWe and Parler came shortly after Facebook and Twitter started taking more aggressive action against election-related content, such as Twitter blocking sharing of a dubiously sourced New York Post story about files found on a laptop that supposedly belonged to Hunter Biden, a move that incensed conservatives. Last week also saw the Facebook purge of various Stop the Steal groups, which were formed in protest of the presidential election being called for Biden, and rapidly amassed hundreds of thousands of followers in less than 48 hours. As Rolling Stone previously reported, Facebook shut down one of the largest groups for inciting violence and propagating disinformation about the electoral process; though dozens of new ones popped up in their place, many members posted about how fed up they were with what they viewed as censorship, and urged others to follow them to platforms like Parler and MeWe.

Trump himself has been the primary feeder of this disinformation cycle. In a speech on Thursday, he partially blamed the platforms for his loss, falsely claiming that he won the election “despite historic election interference from Big Media, Big Money, and Big Tech.” Many of his tweets erroneously claiming victory were flagged as misleading or false by Twitter, a move that Media Matters CEO Angelo Carusone says may have served as a “catalyzing moment” for Trump supporters to migrate to platforms with fewer guidelines like Parler and MeWe. “They took the enforcement actions by Twitter and FB as evidence of intense censorship, and they were able to genuinely leverage this moment for commercial purposes,” he says.

Parler and MeWe have also benefited from shoutouts from right-wing influencers, politicians, and popular Facebook groups, who in the past few days have vocalized their frustration with big tech platforms. “Thousands of people are flocking to Parler by the minute as they give the [middle finger emoji] to the tech tyrants at Twitter. It’s beautiful to watch!” tweeted Dan Bongino, a right-wing influencer whose content is usually among the top 10 most shared on Facebook. “Hey Guys, I can’t even post here right now because of the censorship. I honestly feel like we are living in Communist China with State run news. Big Tech won’t let Conservatives talk,” reads a typical post from the Conservative Mama, a page with nearly 200,000 followers, before advertising her newly created Parler and MeWe accounts. “Hang in there guys, THE TRUTH is going to come out! Do NOT GROW WEARY!,” the post concludes.

Founded in 2018, Parler has long positioned itself as a right-wing alternative to Twitter, offering relatively lax content moderation guidelines in comparison to big tech platforms (even though, in at least a few regards, it is actually more restrictive than Twitter, such as its censorship of pornography). In so doing, it has attracted far-right luminaries who have previously been kicked off of Twitter, such as Laura Loomer; as well as members of the Trump inner circle who are still on mainstream social media platforms, like Eric Trump and Rudy Giuliani. Founder and CEO John Matze has been explicit about his desire to essentially build a right-wing mirror image of Twitter by luring such figures to the platform. “You’re seeing highly influential people or those with large followings move over there, and then aggressively recruit people to follow them,” Carusone says.

In the months leading up to the election, this strategy has paid off: Parler has seen tremendous growth, adding four million users this year and one million in the past six weeks alone. Despite Parler being almost exclusively right-leaning, in a statement to Rolling Stone, Parler COO Jeffrey Wernick denies that the platform’s recent growth is “attributable to any one person or group, but rather to Parler’s efforts to earn our community’s trust, both by protecting their privacy, and being transparent about the way in which their content is handled on our platform.”

MeWe, by contrast, has not positioned itself as a right-wing bastion, even as those on the right have flocked to the platform. “They’re just getting an influx much more by osmosis, as opposed to a deliberate intentional effect,” says Carusone. Founded in 2016 by Mark Weinstein, a libertarian who previously described himself to Rolling Stone as “one of the guys who invented social media,” MeWe sees itself as an ad-free, privacy-protecting alternative to Facebook. In the years since, it has played host to general interest communities related to music and travel, but it has also come to be a haven for anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and, as reported by OneZero, far-right militia groups.

Unlike Parler, the migration from Facebook to MeWe has been more organic, with users in various right-wing groups and pages popping up in the comments to urge their friends to join them on the platform. “They’re gonna have a little bit of a smaller growth bump” than Parler, says Carusone, but the end result is that it will attract community members with “much more extreme and distilled” views — those who have been banned from Facebook for repeated rule violations, not just the upper echelons of right-wing influencers. (That’s not to say, however, that extremism does not exist on Parler, as evidenced by the Arkansas police chief who was recently suspended from his position for using Parler to call for the murder of Democrats.)

Weinstein previously denied to Rolling Stone that MeWe attracts extremists, and refuted that many of the examples reported on by Rolling Stone, such as Holocaust denialist content, constituted hate speech. He did, however, say that his platform intentionally takes a laissez-faire approach to disinformation. “There’s nowhere in our terms that says you may not post fake news,” he said. When asked about the recent influx of users, Weinstein tells Rolling Stone, “MeWe’s growth is deserved and timely. Right now, people of all walks of life are coming to MeWe in droves rallying against the problems perpetrated by Facebook…people in the USA and around the world are drawing the line and are no longer tolerating the rampant targeting, manipulative algorithms, privacy violations, and political censorship by Facebook, Twitter, and the current social media giants.”

In practice, however, in addition to the rampant and fraudulent claims of election malfeasance circulating on right-wing and conspiracy theorist groups on MeWe, some of the discourse on these groups verges on violent rhetoric. On one militia group based in Pennsylvania, Rolling Stone found a call to carry arms to a Protect the Vote rally in Pittsburgh; a post on a Florida militia group refers to members “who plan to use the Second Amendment against The DNC and its candidate-criminal.” (In a statement, MeWe said it had banned the member for violating the platform’s terms of service.)

As those on the right feel increasingly targeted by big tech, causing them to gravitate toward smaller, less regulated platforms, there’s a heightened risk of them getting access to more extremist ideas, essentially creating crucibles of hateful rhetoric and disinformation. “I don’t want to be glib about taking a bunch of extremists and moving them to another platform where they can cross-pollinate and amplify their ideas and politics,” Carusone says. Such amplification also carries with it a heightened risk for increasingly violent rhetoric. “I think what you’re going to see is a leaner, meaner group of folks” migrating from larger platforms to smaller ones like MeWe and Parler, says Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, California State University San Bernardino. “[And] that will be problematic.”

But from a purely strategic organizing standpoint, leaving a huge platform with enormous potential reach in exchange for a smaller, more insular one is likely to have a self-sabotaging effect. Even as these platforms continue to grow, they’ll more likely than not remain echo chambers, a platform for the right to spout extremist views in a vacuum, without any of these ideas spreading or being mainstreamed to a larger audience. “Ultimately you just want to quarantine misinformation and limit its effects,” says Carusone. In this sense, right-wing Facebook and Twitter expats “are basically doing my job for me. They’re self-quarantining their lies.”

Still, one irrefutable fact remains: despite the increasing bluster on the right about perceived Big Tech censorship, most people — particularly, most right-wing influencers with large platforms — are not actually giving up their Facebook and Twitter accounts. “You’re seeing a little bit of a flex on the right wing, but my honest belief is they don’t want to leave Twitter, they just want a show of force,” says Carusone. Despite the recent exodus, it’s unclear whether platforms like MeWe and Parler will actually create an alternative social media ecosystem, or if they’ll serve as little more than tiny echo chambers for those who foster fringe right beliefs, a place for them to create quite a bit of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying nothing.

Thurs. Nov. 12, 2020: This post has been updated with additional statement from MeWe.

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