How billionaires are building a right-wing online ecosystem
The rapper Ye’s purchase of the right-wing social media app Parler may do little to reignite the floundering platform. But taken as a piece in a larger puzzle of billionaires buying, creating and investing in social media apps, the acquisition could further consolidate the power of ultra-wealthy men to shape the online ecosystem based on their own ideological views.
Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, is part of a new wave of high-profile billionaires — also including the likes of Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and former President Trump — who are putting millions into platforms with the stated intent of enabling users, including themselves, to say what they want without the constraint of rules aimed at limiting abusive content.
The market of social media apps that espouse that laxer content moderation philosophy, largely allowing the racism, antisemitism, misogyny and conspiracy theories prohibited on mainstream sites, is crowded. Although none of those platforms, which cater to a right-wing audience, boast user numbers on par with those of mainstream sites, experts warn the alternative sites’ power to shape online narratives about elections and other hot-button events shouldn’t be underestimated — especially as billionaires’ deep pockets power their ability to grow.
Jared Holt, senior research manager at ISD Global, said the consolidation of power in the social media market among the hyper wealthy was “already a sketchy enough problem as was, even if we think about the ‘trustworthy’ mainstream platforms, being subjected to the whims of their CEOs, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Jack Dorseys of the world.
“That issue has really come to the forefront a bit more now that we’ve seen individuals that have questionable or far-right sympathetic visions for tech trying to get in on the fold,” Holt said.
Ye announced his intent to buy Parler on the heels of his expulsions from Twitter and Instagram, after posting antisemitic content that violated the platforms’ policies. The move followed a similar pattern to that taken by Trump when he launched his app Truth Social after he was booted from the platforms over posts deemed to incite violence around the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot.
Meanwhile, Musk, the richest man in the world, is getting in on the game by looking to take over a mainstream site — Twitter. The Tesla CEO is seemingly on course, after a rocky six months, to take over the social media company and carry out his vision for a “free speech” platform, one he’s described as having minimal content moderation and likely letting banned figures like Trump back on.
“Is it a sign of a healthy democracy and a healthy social media landscape that wealthy male individuals are able to just write a check and buy and build their own social media platforms like this?” said Bridget Todd, communications director of the feminist group UltraViolet.
“I would argue no. I think the fact that Elon Musk can just write a check and buy Twitter really signals that something has really gone wrong in terms of the health and safety of our digital ecosystem,” she added.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, in particular, has raised alarms among experts who warn it could lead to the spread of more hate speech and misinformation. Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor at Syracuse University, argued that while Musk will ensure “his right to say whatever he wants,” the general public — whatever their political ideology — can’t expect the same.
“It’s about Musk’s speech still, and he’s just really rich,” Grygiel said.
Experts also warn about the potential of disinformation spreading on one of the more successful alternative sites in building a wide user base: the video platform Rumble. Peter Thiel, the conservative venture capitalist who was an initial investor in Facebook, invested in Rumble last year.
Rumble amassed power serving as a YouTube alternative for right-wing figures and inflammatory content, and has partnered with other sites, including Trump’s Truth Social, to deliver video content.
Rumble reached 107.5 million visits in August, up from about 87 million in July and about 68 million in June, according to data from Similarweb. By comparison, Truth Social received about 9 million visits in August, based on the data.
Last month, Rumble became a publicly traded company through a deal with a blank-check firm. Its market capitalization is estimated at around $2 billion.
“Rumble is here to stay. And I think that they’re going to be the next great disinformation factor. Come 2024, they will be the single biggest problem for misinformation, disinformation and extremism. Because they have the infrastructure and the capacity to scale,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters.
Rumble has already become a place for content creators to livestream Trump rallies, since they risk being removed for election misinformation on YouTube, and is amplified by right-wing figures directing their followers to Rumble for video content, Carusone said.
The video medium also poses particular threats, experts say. For one, it carries the potential for deepfakes to emerge and impact national and local elections. Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, warned that video is the “next truly worrying frontier” because of the additional challenges video presents for moderating content as opposed to text, which is easier to screen.
While Rumble’s stats are higher than those of its peers on the right, they still pale in comparison to YouTube’s estimated 33 billion visits in August, according to Similarweb data.
But experts warn that content online, whether on Parler, Truth Social, Rumble or beyond, is not siloed to the site it originates on. Trump’s posts on Truth Social are regularly shared in screenshots to Twitter and Facebook.
Mainstream companies’ efforts to remove violative content appearing on their own platforms from the web are imperfect, as well. Ye’s removed tweets that led to his suspension continued to circulate in screenshots on Twitter and other sites, for instance.
The tech giants’ broader move to deplatform Parler as a whole last year was more successful.
Parler’s usage spiked in January 2021 following mainstream platforms cracking down on incendiary posts related to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and banning Trump’s accounts. The site received around 44.85 million visits that month at its height, according to data from Similarweb.
But Parler faced a sharp decline after the app was pulled from Apple and Google’s app stores and the site from the web by Amazon Web Services. It never picked up the steam it once had, even after it returned online with a new web host and was restored in the app stores. Site traffic fell to around roughly 1.2 million visits each month for the past 18 months, according to Similarweb’s data.
A month before Ye announced he was buying Parler, however, the company’s CEO George Farmer said it was entering a “new era” that goes “beyond the boundaries of a free speech social media platform.” Under a new restructuring as Parlement Technologies, Inc., and $16 million in Series B funding, the company is expanding in the cloud service industry through an acquisition of private cloud company Dynascale.
It’s part of what Farmer, who is married to Ye’s friend and conservative pundit Candace Owens, said will help Parler power the “uncancelable” future.
Diving into the cloud service industry could give Parler, and other alternative sites that seek to allow the spread of hate speech and misinformation under the guise of “free speech,” more options to remain online without the use of services provided by the leading companies in the field.
Not all of the alternative platforms will thrive, or even survive, in a couple of years, Carusone said. But he said a key concern is the groundwork the emerging platforms are creating to build “significant pillars of the information landscape.”
“Because [the billionaires investing in such platforms] are flooding the zone a little bit in terms of investments, in terms of building up capacity, in terms of infrastructure — in two or three years when we look back on this moment, it’s going to help explain why it seems like, yet again, the right wing has this enormous edge,” he added.
And the influence of particular individuals with outsized power in the social media landscape could be massive, and devastating, Holt warns.
“When things go poorly, and things go wrong, I think it becomes very evident how social media in the wrong hands can be used to produce terrible outcomes,” Holt said, noting foreign powers running influence campaigns and groups organizing the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
“[Social media] has this huge grip on society, and the power in these companies is concentrated on a handful of hyper wealthy people that have their own varying agendas, and pursuits and visions of the world, and the choices that those people at the top make matter a whole lot,” he added. “Even just a small tweet can radically change the course of history at this point.”
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