Truth Social: will Trump’s ‘free speech haven’ overcome its rocky start?

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Donald Trump last week launched his long-awaited social media app, Truth Social, luring users with the promises of a platform free from “discrimination against political ideology”.

But with tech glitches plaguing the platform and early criticisms of its content policies the rollout is already raising questions about its future.

Even though social media was instrumental to his rise, Trump for years had accused platforms like Facebook, Twitter and others of censorship. In 2021, he was permanently removed from most major sites for his role in inciting the insurrection at the Capitol. In response, he promised to launch his own firm, establishing Trump Media & Technology Group (TMTG) and positioning his new company as a champion of free speech.

“Our main goal here is to give people their voice back,” said former Republican US congressman Devin Nunes, who became TMTG’s president earlier this year, adding that the app offers “the opposite of some Silicon Valley tech oligarch freak telling people what they want to think and deciding who can or cannot be on the platform.”

But experts say Trump’s new venture faces an uphill battle to attract users in a crowded field, and is looking at mounting regulatory issues.

Off to a rocky start

Truth Social had been available to some users in a test phase since early last week, and became available to the general public in Apple’s App store late Sunday night. The app quickly became the top-downloaded free social networking app. But even as it rose in popularity, it ran up against a number of tech setbacks.

Early users reported receiving error messages when attempting to create accounts. Many of those who were ultimately able to register reported they were not able to actually enter the app, being told they had been placed on a waitlist of hundreds of thousands of people.

Others reported the app’s “terms of service” page was down and the company confirmed that on Monday it experienced a 13-hour partial outage related to “application launch traffic”.

As of Wednesday morning, Trump’s account on Truth Social had just under 50,000 followers, according to the New York Times. Users on Thursday reported being told they were 600,000th in line to join.

Nunes told reporters that the app would be “fully operational” in the US by the end of March, several months behind the launch date the former president had put forth when announcing the platform.

‘A big part of Trump’s appeal is conflict’

To observers, the delay and technological challenges did not come as a surprise. “Since Trump wants to run for office again, the timeline of the app is driven by political objectives – not by readiness of the platform,” said Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communications at Syracuse University.

Truth Social has been pegged as an attempt by Trump to reclaim the massive power of his social media empire of the past. The former president, when he was removed from Twitter, had a direct line to speak to his 88 millon followers. At his height, a single tweet from Trump could launch a cable news cycle, and move the stock market. Trump’s “first post” on Truth Social read “Get Ready! Your favorite President will see you soon!” But whether his new platform will provide him the megaphone he seeks remains to be seen.

Related: A ‘non-cancellable’ community: the ‘truth’ about Trump’s social media platform

Truth Social will need to go toe-to-toe with bigger social media players like Facebook and Twitter, which have had years to build up loyal bases.

Meanwhile, newer “free speech” startups including Parler, MeWe, Gettr, and Rumble are crowding the field and competing for a similar pool of social media users.

The user base of those platforms, and the one Trump is eying, seeks partisan feeds, but such activity may not actually be good for business, said Paul Barrett, deputy director at New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

“A big part of Trump’s appeal on social media is conflict,” he said. “The right wing often goes back to this idea of ‘owning the libs’ – well, there are not going to be any libs to own on Truth Social, which begs the question, why is this going to be interesting?”

Others have pointed out that the supposed main selling point of Truth Social – that it is an anti-censorship alternative to “mainstream” media – doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. These skeptics point to the app’s terms of service – which, according to Mike Masnick of Techdirt, imply the site will be “one of the most aggressive in moderating content”.

In its rules, Truth Social promises to take down any content that is “false, inaccurate, or misleading” and says users need to “have the written consent, release, and/or permission of each and every identifiable individual person” in every post.

‘Everything has a grifter angle’

Truth Social may face additional challenges. The platform shows an eerie resemblance to Twitter, with a nearly identical layout but different labels, swapping terms like “truths” for “tweets” and “re-truths” for “retweets”.

Twitter declined to comment about whether it planned to pursue any action against Truth Social for copyright infringement.

Trump Media also has to confront financial and regulatory hurdles to access millions of dollars in funding. In 2021 it announced a merger with Digital World Acquisition Corp (DWAC), a special purpose acquisition company, through which it stands to receive $293m in cash.

But the merger is stalled pending scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

TMTG raised an additional $1bn from private investors, which also will not be available until the DWAC deal closes – which could be months away, according to regulatory filings.

Those mergers and deals have led some to say that Truth Social, like many Trump ventures in the past, is simply a shameless money grab.

“Everything Trump does has a grifter angle to it,” Barrett said. “We all may be spinning our wheels wondering about how the app is to affect Trump politically, or as a potential vehicle for his reconquering social media, when he just may be in it for a quick profit.”