Social media platforms on the right fail to maintain post-Jan. 6 growth
Alternative social media platforms that saw a surge in users immediately after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol are failing to maintain growth anywhere near those levels more than two months after the insurrection.
The Capitol riot, coupled with former President Trump’s removal from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, provided a rare opportunity for alternative social media platforms to challenge the established players. But after an initial spike in activity, many of the sites that tried to win over frustrated fans of the former president have lost steam.
U.S. mobile downloads of platforms like MeWe, the social network started as a privacy-focused alternative to Facebook, and Rumble, conservative commentator Dan Bongino’s response to YouTube, fell upward of 80 percent from January to February, according to data shared with The Hill by Sensor Tower. CloutHub, another platform favored by those on the right, declined by a similar amount during that period.
The significant slowdown in growth for all three platforms appears to be extending into March as well, according to data on worldwide downloads provided by Apptopia.
MeWe spokesperson David Westreich told The Hill that these kind of membership spikes and dips are frequent, pointing to the platform’s sustained year-over-year growth as evidence of its appeal.
“People all over the world are leaving Facebook and Twitter in droves because they are fed up with the relentless privacy violations, surveillance capitalism, political bias, targeting, and newsfeed manipulation by these companies,” he added. “MeWe solves these problems.”
The other two companies did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Recent download data for two of the most well-known platforms on the right — Parler and Gab — is not available because both are blocked from major app stores.
But figures from Sensor Tower show that downloads of Parler jumped 79 percent in January, to 928,000, compared with the previous month.
User growth on Gab has slowed since a January surge and a majority of accounts are inactive, according to data obtained by a hacktivist and shared with The Intercept.
Parler was removed from major app stores after the platform was tied to organizing efforts around the deadly Jan. 6 riot. Gab was removed in 2017 over hate speech rules.
Experts say there are several reasons for the slowdown in growth among platforms preferred by those on the right.
One is that Trump never moved onto any of the sites after he was kicked off the mainstream ones, likely discouraging supporters who had migrated with the intent of following the president.
Users who joined the fringe sites may also have been turned off by the extreme content, though experts like Dwight Knell, a research assistant at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center working on de-platforming, says the content is likely a draw for new users.
“If you’re a right-winger and you’re looking for specific content you can’t find on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, because these companies are trying to crack down on content, and you’re finding that content on these alternative sites, then I would imagine you’re going to stay,” he told The Hill.
The decline in adoption of alternative social media sites may also be explained by the rise in encrypted messaging platforms.
“The real shift that’s going on is from social media to messaging,” said Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT.
While app store downloads of Telegram and Signal, the two most well-known encrypted messaging services, declined between January and February, they did show significant growth during those periods compared with December.
The messaging services pose challenges for extremism researchers and law enforcement because users are harder to track, which also makes it difficult to know how many people migrated to them after major social media sites cracked down on Trump and many of his supporters.
“I think it’s absolutely possible that they have moved entirely on to closed messaging platforms, and that quite frankly it’s going to be very hard for us to know,” Zuckerman said.
While the growth of right-wing social media platforms seems to have slowed, other startups are trying to provide alternatives to the biggest sites.
Clubhouse, a currently invite-only audio chat platform, has gained significant popularity recently, while TikTok is no longer facing the challenge of an administration eager to ban it from the U.S.
Several other startups are also hoping to provide new spaces for users.
Appu Suresh, who formerly worked as a journalist in India, told The Hill that polarization on dominant platforms led him to create a new platform called Pixstory where users can share collections of photos with themes.
The platform lets users fact-check each other and give users integrity scores based on the quality of information they share.
While the site and others like it have yet to gain widespread popularity, they are seen as having the potential to attract more users down the line without the same political ties to those on the right.
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