With the launch of former President Donald Trump’s new social media platform, TRUTH Social, originally planned for Feb. 21 but now delayed until late March, Trump’s ability to galvanize conservative social media users in support of the venture could soon be tested. Its initial press has claimed it will “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech.” But experts say the inherent nature of the site—i.e., catering to a specific idealogical viewpoint—will likely prevent it from reaching the same heights as mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter, or Discord.
“The more people who join, the more value [these sites] provide. That’s a fundamental premise of social media,” he says. “So when you start out by lopping off [a large percentage] of the population, that gets more challenging because it’s harder to scale. And that’s especially the case when there are alternatives out there that have don’t have the same limitations as you.”
From Twitter knockoffs Parler, Gab and GETTR to YouTube competitor Rumble, TRUTH Social has been preceded by a number of other free-speech-centric platforms that have become right-wing havens. However, none have risen to large scale success.
While there is a market for alternative social platforms that target specific communities, Kristina Lerman, a research professor of computer science and principal scientist at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, says that such sites aren’t going to replace platforms that attract a more diverse set of the population.
“There’s a whole social network for beer enthusiasts where they can come together and post reviews of beers,” she says. “It’s great that such a community exists where like-minded people can meet each other. But that doesn’t mean that kind of niche community will be attractive to the mainstream.”
Although TRUTH Social’s expected release date is still listed as Feb. 21 on the Apple App Store, the stock price of Digital World Acquisition Corp.—the blank-check company that’s partnered with Trump Media & Technology Group (TMTG) to fund TRUTH Social—plunged earlier this month as news spread of a delay in the platform’s launch. Former congressman Devin Nunes, the recently appointed CEO of TMTG, has said the app will now be released by March 31.
Neither Nunes nor TRUTH Social immediately responded to TIME’s request for comment.
Still, Tucker says that TRUTH Social’s launch could be a “watershed moment” for the future of alternative social media sites popular with conservatives.
“A couple of things could happen [with the TRUTH Social launch],” he says. “By his sheer force of personality, Trump could suck the air out of Parler, Gab, GETTR, all these sites and pull everybody over. And [that would mean the site] could break through the critical threshold and actually get big enough to support real ad revenue…If Trump’s able to do that, it probably means the rest of those platforms fade away and we’re in a new world where we have the mainstream platforms and one really big right-wing platform.”
However, if he can’t do that, “then this conversation about whether someone can establish a big right-wing platform likely goes away.”
When it comes to their ability to compete with the big dogs, politically-oriented platforms like TRUTH Social tend to lack some of the more popular social aspects—from photos of friends and family to localized groups and events—of mainstream sites, says Tucker.
“When we think about what people are getting out of social media networks, there’s obviously a political component to it, but there can be a huge asymmetry between the impact of social media networks on politics and the importance people place on the political aspects of social media networks compared to everything else they’re getting out of them,” he says. “So if you have a politically organized platform, it’s not giving users exposure to people [in a lot of different social capacities] like social media normally does.”
This reasoning also helps explain why right-wing personalities with major followings on Twitter and other mainstream platforms often experience an initial surge in audience growth followed by a prolonged period of stagnation, or even decline, when making the switch to these alternative sites. “There’s excitement originally, but then people get on [the site] and it has less [social] value,” Tucker says. “So they go there to get their fix of right-wing politics and then they pull out of it.”
An analysis conducted by the Washington Post of audience data for 47 prominent right-wing influencers who made the jump to alternative social networks Gab and GETTR, the video platform Rumble, and the chat service Telegram following Trump’s ban from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube last year found that the number of people following these personalities has barely grown since briefly spiking in January 2021.
That means right-wing influencers who haven’t been kicked off mainstream platforms could face a difficult decision when deciding whether to make the leap to leave them behind.
“If you go to one of these right-wing platforms and leave Facebook and Twitter, you’re leaving a lot of potential people behind who you could be spreading your message to,” Tucker says. “If you don’t leave the mainstream platforms behind, the people who follow you to one of these new places might migrate back because they know they can still get their fix of you on Twitter and also find out what the weather is in their area or what gasoline prices are like or whatever they’re using Twitter for.”
While the success of TRUTH Social will depend on whether the site can find ways to keep users engaged after that original sign-up period, Lerman maintains that ideologically different platforms carving out a place in the Big Tech space could be beneficial for everyone.
“It could decrease the temperature on Twitter by siphoning off the more extreme people and giving them a platform to communicate outside of that space,” she says. “As a result, maybe Twitter would become less polarized and the discussions would be more even-tempered.”
But without any new technological innovation to offer, Tucker is skeptical that TRUTH Social can break out and become the “major rival to Big Tech” that it’s advertised itself as.
“The innovations we get in social media are not by carving up the population into smaller groups, but by introducing new features that people like,” he says. “I haven’t seen a ton of success for this one-trick pony of ‘we’re going to be a free speech site and we’re not going to censor you.'”
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