Trump’s long-delayed social network off to rocky start

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Within days of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol building, most of the leading social networks—including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—had banned Donald Trump from their platforms, since they said he used his social accounts to amplify the anti-democratic conspiracy theories that led to the attack, and to cheer on the right-wing groups that planned it. In March, a spokesman said Trump would be launching his own social network very soon: “We’re going to see President Trump returning to social media in probably about two or three months, with his own platform,” Jason Miller, a Trump advisor, told Fox News. Miller said the service was going to be big, and that Trump was “gonna bring tens of millions of people to this new platform.”

Two or three months came and went, but no Trump-led social network launched. When Trump launched a blog in May of last year, there was some speculation that maybe it was the social app Miller and others were talking about, but they said it was not (the blog was unceremoniously shut down in June due to low traffic numbers). When Gettr, a Twitter-like network aimed at right-wing users, launched in August of last year, some thought it was the new Trump-led social network, since Miller was at the helm of it. But it was not. In October, Trump announced that he would be launching his new social app—to be called Truth Social—in November, and that it would be part of a media conglomerate called Trump Media & Technology Group, which he planned to create by merging with a special-purpose acquisition company or SPAC.

Trump Social didn’t launch in November, or December, or January. Finally, this week, the new network actually launched—but it wasn’t the kind of debut some were expecting, given that the Trump team had been working on it for a year. The service opened Monday, but was “almost entirely inaccessible in the first days of its grand debut because of technical glitches, a 13-hour outage and a 300,000-person waitlist,” the Washington Post reported. Even some Trump supporters made jokes about the teething pains of the new service: Jenna Ellis, a former member of Trump’s legal team, posted a photo to Instagram showing Trump sitting at a desk with his finger hovering over a laptop, which Ellis said was the former president “letting us on to Truth Social one at a time.”

Devin Nunes, the former head of Trump’s transition team and now president of Trump Media &Technology Group, told Fox News on Sunday that the new service isn’t expected to be fully operational until March, and even then it might only be functional in the US. Although the service’s status page said that the network was up and running, CJR tried to join the waiting list on Thursday from the Truth Social website, but submitting the form took us to a page that said “405 not allowed.” Reports from those who have managed to get on the network or have seen screenshots say the service looks almost exactly like Twitter, with a few cosmetic changes: for example, posts are called “truths” instead of “tweets” (retweets are called “retruths”) and verified accounts have a red checkmark on Truth Social instead of the blue checkmark Twitter uses.

Truth Social has also run afoul of some legal issues since it launched in beta or testing mode in October. The first was that the service appeared to be a rebranded version of Mastodon, an open-source alternative to Twitter. Open-source code can be used by anyone, but only if the code for whatever they create is also provided as open source, which meant that the initial version of the service was not in compliance. Trump’s team has since provided a downloadable version of its code. The new service’s logo has also raised some legal questions: it is a broken capital ‘T’ with a period, which many have noted is identical to the logo of Trailar, a British seller of truck solar panels. A company executive told The Washington Post that it is “seeking legal advice to understand next steps and options available to protect our brand.”

Even if it becomes stable, Truth Social is entering a crowded market, as the New York Times pointed out. Not only are there several giant, globe-spanning social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram to contend with, but even if you look at alternatives that cater to right-wing commentators, there are several of them as well, including Gettr, Gab, Parler, MeWe, and CloutHub. “Most alt-tech start-ups are chasing the same pool of users, many of whom might spend just a fraction of their social media time on politically partisan causes,” the Times reported. “Also, right-wing pundits who draw big audiences already have large, well-established online fan bases on mainstream social media, making them unlikely to completely switch to a new platform.”

Here’s more on Truth Social:

A mirage: When Truth Social merged with a SPAC, an investor presentation said that Trump Media & Technology Group would build “a fountainhead of support for American freedoms as the first major rival to ‘Big Tech,'” and that it would also level the playing field in media by giving conservatives a voice. Judd Legum, an investigative journalist, called the merger “a $10 billion mirage,” while Matt Levine of Bloomberg said that there was “almost no sign that TMTG is actually building a social network, or a streaming platform or anything else,” despite projecting almost four billion dollars in revenue by 2026. The company went public and its stock tripled, but some of the investors behind the SPAC that Trump’s service merged with are being investigated by the SEC.

Terms of Use: Trump and others involved with Truth Social have talked about how it is designed to provide the kind of freedom that Twitter and other networks don’t, but you wouldn’t know it from the service’s terms of service. For example, users have to promise they won’t post anything that is “false, inaccurate, or misleading.” Posts that include “offensive or sexual content or language” are also forbidden, and the service says that it also reserves the right to “refuse, restrict access to, limit the availability of, or disable” any content for any reason. Truth Social has already reportedly blocked someone from signing up with the username “DevinNunesCow,” the name of a popular Twitter account that was sued by the president of Trump Media & Technology Group.

RightForge: The hosting service behind Truth Social is a relatively new player in that industry, known as RightForge. Martin Avila, the company’s co-founder and a former political consultant, created it in the wake of the January 6 attacks, when hosting companies such as Amazon Web Services refused to host Twitter alternatives such as Parler because of their content. Avila told Bloomberg he wanted the company to become “a new haven for those who believed their opinions were being censored.” Christopher Bedford, a co-founder of RightForge and senior editor at The Federalist, told Bloomberg that the goal of the company was to be a non-political service provider, like “the good old days of 2020, before internet servers were making these decisions.”

Other notable stories:

Justin Hendrix, CEO and editor of Tech Policy Press, writes that the major digital platforms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter need to suspend the accounts of Russian state media outlets and other propaganda distributors. “It is time for Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, Parag Agrawal and other Silicon Valley leaders to choose sides, and to suspend these accounts until Russia ceases its attack and withdraws from Ukraine,” he writes. “The apps they operate are not fun and games. “Their platforms are not an abstract realm of ideas and debate. They are vehicles for the exercise of power.” 

Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor said on Thursday that media outlets must “check the veracity of their reports about the situation in eastern Ukraine and only publish information from official Russian sources,” according to Reuters. Roskomnadzor said the distribution of false information online would “lead to immediate restrictions,” Reuters said. Earlier this month, Roskomnadzor threatened to block eight Radio Free Europe sites that serve Russia and Ukraine unless they removed articles about Aleksei Navalny, the former opposition leader in Russia who is now in prison in that country.

Uzair Rizvi, a reporter with Agence France-Presse, posted a long Twitter thread on Thursday with examples of misinformation about the conflict in Ukraine that he and others have found on Twitter, including video clips from airshows that users claim show fighter jets over Ukraine. Other posts show people raising a Russian flag on a Ukrainian building—part of a demonstration by Russian protesters in Ukraine that was unrelated to the current conflict—and explosions in buildings that they claim are a result of rocket strikes by Russian forces, but in reality show unrelated blasts in Beirut and China.

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy for Facebook, said on Twitter that the company has established a Special Operations Center in response to the military conflict in Ukraine, in order to make it easier to respond to potential threats in real time. The center is staffed by experts, including native speakers, Gleicher said. The service has also taken steps to help users in Ukraine protect their accounts from hackers and other security risks, he said. “We’ve launched a new feature in Ukraine that allows people to lock their profile.”

Sinclair said the cyber attack the company faced last year led to sixty-three million dollars in lost advertising revenue in the fourth quarter, and also caused other costs of about eleven million dollars, according to Broadcasting & Cable magazine. “Some of the losses might be covered by insurance, but Sinclair said it estimates that the incident will have resulted in an unrecoverable net loss of about $24 million,” the site reported. “The ransomware cyber attack disrupted the computers at Sinclair and its stations,, making it hard for its stations to produce newscasts and feed its programming to distributors.”

Several online publishers say they are thinking about moving away from a Google program that was supposed to speed up the mobile reading experience for web users, according to the Wall Street Journal. The publishers say the program, known as Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, didn’t produce as much advertising revenue as they were promised, and so they are testing or considering using their own versions of mobile-optimized pages. The publishers include Vox Media, BuzzFeed-owned Complex Networks, and BDG Media, the parent of sites such as Bustle. The Washington Post abandoned AMP last year.

Spotify appears to have taken down several episodes of “The Alex Jones Show,” after Media Matters for America found that the episodes had been uploaded to the streaming service, in contravention of a ban Spotify imposed on the show in 2018. Jones, a well-known conspiracy theorist who runs a site called InfoWars, has been banned from Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Facebook, and YouTube. Variety noted that despite the ban, an episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience” is still available on Spotify, in which Jones appeared as a guest and claimed the COVID pandemic was being used by elites to “reorganize society.”

AP reported that Delaware’s Supreme Court upheld a judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by conservative political commentator Candace Owens against USA Today and another media organization over the fact-checking they did on coronavirus-related content she posted to Facebook. “After oral arguments two weeks ago, the court issued a two-paragraph order Tuesday affirming the July decision by Superior Court Judge Craig Karsnitz,” the AP reported. Karsnitz said Owens had failed to state an actionable claim against USA Today or Lead Stories, a member of Facebook’s fact-checking partnership.

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