The strange new political rivalry between Truth Social and Twitter

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Few stories have captivated the country’s attention this week as much as one that would have seemed hard to predict even a month ago: tech billionaire Elon Musk making a successful bid to purchase the social media company Twitter. Nor might many people have predicted what came next, as Musk — presumably on Twitter’s behalf — engaged in an effort to define how he would reshape the platform that included drawing comparisons to former president Donald Trump’s faltering Truth Social.

There wouldn’t seem to be much overlap between 16-year-old Twitter and its hundreds of millions of users and the newborn platform endorsed by Trump. But Musk has repeatedly indicated that his focus for the platform is similar to the one Trump’s allies use in promoting Truth Social: opposition to a specific concept of censorship. The result, at least for now, is that the social media giant appears to be trying to compete with Trump’s tiny start-up for the same pool of attention.

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Some of that is a function of timing. Last week, Truth Social announced that it was migrating to a hosting platform that would expand its capacity for users. Since the social media app formally launched earlier this year, it’s been hobbled by a slow rollout that has left even enthusiastic users unable to participate. By migrating to Rumble’s hosting platform, though, the company will be able to “scale significantly,” it said in a news release — adding “on a new and cancel-culture-free cloud platform.” (By “cloud platform,” the company meant a separate company that operates the servers on which Truth Social’s content will live.)

This is important. Part of what Trump Media & Technology Group’s CEO has been hyping as he makes the rounds on television this week is that Truth Social “cannot be canceled,” as he said on Newsmax. That is a reference to the idea of “cancel culture,” of course, a loosely defined idea that Americans are being unfairly held to account for things they say or do. It’s a term that’s been applied liberally (so to speak) to efforts by social media platforms to moderate content, as Twitter and others began doing in earnest several years ago when abuse and misinformation were running rampant.

“All the woke corporates, we’re not using them,” he said on Fox News, using another loosely defined code word (“woke”) to suggest that other corporations with cloud hosting platforms are inherently tainted by political bias. The Newsmax host pointed to the social media platform Parler being booted from its cloud-service providers, something that the TMTG executive agreed wouldn’t happen to Truth Social.

You might recall, though, that Parler was removed from its existing cloud-service provider after it was criticized for not stamping out incitement to violence at the time of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob. This is the same reason that Trump himself was suspended from Twitter: not because of his opinions but out of concern that he might again foment violence in Washington.

But Trump had spent years stoking the idea that companies like Twitter were unfairly cracking down on conservative voices, echoing a line that his son Donald Trump Jr. had repeatedly elevated and one that allowed him to again position himself with his base against the Big Tech elites.

There’s not robust evidence that conservatives were being disproportionately targeted by Twitter’s efforts to uproot abuse and misinformation for political reasons; some research indicated that right-leaning rhetoric actually spreads better on the platform. Research has shown, though, that conservatives are more likely to share misinformation, perhaps triggering more crackdowns from moderating algorithms. And once the perception of bias was born, it was trivial to find anecdotes to back up that perception. (In fact, the Trump White House actively sought out such anecdotes.)

Truth Social’s move to Rumble and its apparent subsequent ability to quickly scale up usage lead to both more uptake of the app organically and that flurry of TMTG media appearances. The CEO was on “Fox & Friends,” for example, Fox News’s popular morning program, encouraging the hosts to be more active on the platform. He was on in prime time; he was on Fox News’s competitors. And the news about Musk’s acquisition of Twitter gave him even more reason to be booked as a guest.

On Monday, the day that the acquisition was announced, Twitter surged from the 47th most-downloaded app on Apple’s U.S. app store to the second-most downloaded, according to Data.ai. And there was a new most-downloaded app: Truth Social.

Notice that downloads of Truth Social increased after the Rumble switch-over. But it only surged to the top of the downloads on Monday. Twitter is almost certainly still downloaded more overall, since it’s not Apple exclusive. But it’s still noteworthy.

People took note. Trump did one of his weird “send out a news release that’s actually a blog post that my spokesperson will then tweet” things celebrating the rise of his app. And Elon Musk noticed, too.

He wasn’t complimentary, really, suggesting that “Truth Social” was a bad name and “Trumpet” a better one, which isn’t necessarily wrong. But it made explicit the subtext of Musk’s bid for Twitter: He sees Truth Social, ostensibly focused on ameliorating the right’s concerns about moderation, as a competitor. However lopsided the competition.

In the hours after the acquisition announcement, it seemed as though the announcement itself was already helping Twitter in that regard. Analysis of popular partisan accounts found that right-leaning accounts were seeing surprising increases in followers while left-leaning accounts were losing them. Some users erroneously thought this was somehow Musk at the controls or, slightly more feasibly, Twitter tweaking its algorithms to be more conservative-friendly. Data from the company, though, suggests it was organic: people with conservative viewpoints suddenly seeing Twitter as welcoming and those on the left suddenly feeling a chill.

What we’ve also seen in the past two days is that Musk isn’t simply willing to listen to the concerns of conservatives about how Twitter has conducted its moderation: He shares those concerns. He’s expressed a “both sides should be mad” target for moderation balance, a target that might not actually reflect how problems arise on the platform. But he’s also engaged with or amplified right-wing arguments and users as he criticizes how Twitter had been run.

For example, Musk replied to the right-wing activist Mike Cernovich’s misleading allegation about purported wrongdoing by a Twitter attorney. Musk replied that the situation “sounds pretty bad,” which, as presented, it does — since it’s meant to sound bad and is not demonstrably true. Cernovich’s track record might have prompted more skepticism of his claims.

Then, on Wednesday, Musk tweeted a meme centered on an appearance by Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

Gadde is Twitter’s top attorney and was on the podcast in 2019 to discuss the site’s moderation policies, for which she is responsible. Right-wing personality Tim Pool joined Rogan that day, and the meme purports to show how Gadde’s defenses of the company’s actions begged the question. The reality, of course, was different, with Gadde both engaging in intricate debates over content moderation and providing specific examples of why some moderation had occurred. The meme, in short, is not an accurate summary of the conversation — but Musk’s sharing of it reflects his assumptions about how Twitter’s past practices had been unfair.

The meme also focused a great deal of hostility on Gadde, as The Post has reported. What’s more, the terms of the acquisition deal prohibit Musk from “disparag[ing] the Company or any of its Representatives,” a line he’s certainly nearing here, if not crossing.

Since even before Trump was banned from Twitter, it was obvious that a market existed for a social media platform that centered on conservative Americans. It was never clear how big that market was, since political diversity actually makes such platforms more interesting. But apps like Gab, Parler, Gettr and Truth Social tried to figure out how to make something work. In that light, it’s not surprising that Twitter might try to change its public perception to appeal to the same group of users.

It seems more likely, though, that something different is happening here. It’s Musk agreeing with the complaints about Twitter — so much so that he decided to buy the company and affect those changes. It’s not great news for Trump and Truth Social, now having to compete for the audience that it had been built to vacuum up. But it does seem to be seen as good news by the political right more broadly.


https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/27/strange-new-political-rivalry-between-truth-social-twitter/