When Elon Musk struck a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, another social media product jumped to No. 1 in the Apple App Store: Truth Social, the flagship app of former President Donald J. Trump’s fledgling social media company.
The heightened interest in Truth Social, which debuted in February, was prompted by a recent technology upgrade to the app that saw a flood of users join. At the same time, there is more uncertainty about Twitter. Some Twitter users deactivated their accounts this week after news broke that Mr Musk was buying the site and questions arose about how he might change the platform.
Truth Social has long positioned itself as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, both of which banned Mr. Trump from their sites after the Jan. 6 riot at the United States Capitol last year. The app advertised itself as an uncensored platform that will not discriminate against users based on their political beliefs. It and other similar apps, such as Rumble and Parler, take a hands-off approach to moderation, in theory so people can converse freely without being banned.
(While Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter sparked speculation that Mr. Trump’s account would be reinstated, the former president said he would not join Twitter and would continue to use Truth Social.)
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment about people deactivating their accounts after Mr. Musk agreed.
I decided to wade into this stew by testing Truth Social. Despite its hype, the app had a glitchy debut. When it was released in February, many who signed up were met with a static screen displaying a waitlist number which the site attributed to “massive demand”.
I was on the waiting list at number 412 553. Then on Saturday I was suddenly let in. I dialed my phone number to go through the registration process and jumped in with interest.
Evaluating a social media app — especially one this young — isn’t easy, especially when trying to see how much freedom of expression it actually allows. The application does some moderation of publications. But because it doesn’t have a set of community guidelines, it’s unclear what triggers the content decisions that are made. And while some posts banned on Twitter were available on Truth Social, other types of posts were hidden due to profanity.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. After a two-month wait to join the app, Truth Social seemed unfinished and the crowd felt thin. Here is what I found.
A difficult start
After choosing a username and an avatar (I uploaded a photo of my Labrador), I started my Truth Social experiment. The app looked like a Twitter clone. Truth Social has a main newsfeed, a search tool, a messaging system, and a button to compose a “Truth,” which is the equivalent of a tweet.
Truth Social immediately recommended a list of a few dozen accounts to follow, including Fox News, The Epoch Times and, of course, Mr. Trump himself. The former president posted only one Truth, and it was in February: “Get ready! Your favorite president will see you soon! To date, he has accumulated 1.88 million followers.
After following the 80 accounts recommended by the app, no new suggestions appeared, so I manually searched for accounts to follow. Many big brand accounts had already been taken over by imposters. @nytimes profile was titled “The Failing NY Times” and @CNN was named “CNN (Parody)”. Another dodgy-looking account claiming to be ABC News had only posted three times.
My post timeline consisted mostly of news articles and videos. I saw a Newsmax article about Washington State banning the use of the word “marijuana” and a clip mocking liberal Twitter employees who were upset about Mr. Musk’s takeover.
Much of the app was broken. Trying to do a keyword search for a Truth was not working. Searching for the words “vaccine” and “Covid” brought up the message “No matching truth” was found.
Trump Media and Technology Group, the company Mr. Trump founded to develop Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment.
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In general, there wasn’t enough activity on Truth Social to know if its content moderation policies were any more relaxed than those of mainstream social media. Like Twitter and Facebook, Truth Social has terms of service that state that illegal activities are not allowed on the app.
In some cases, the app appeared stricter than Twitter. While Twitter allows some pornographic content, Truth Social completely prohibits sexual content and language, per its terms of service. On some posts containing the F-word with hashtag, Truth Social masked the content and displayed a warning about sensitive content. (Pressing “Show Content” revealed the hashtag.)
To test the app’s claims about political ideology, I posted a truth with a New York Times opinion piece that criticized the Republican Party, and other posts with news articles about the riot of January 6 and how Truth Social’s outlook could be affected by Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter. None of the messages were flagged as problematic. This suggested that the app was not discriminating based on policy, just as she said.
I also found accounts that weren’t allowed to post on Twitter — like The Babylon Bee, the right-wing satire site that was suspended for abusing a transgender Biden administration official — regularly posting to Truth Social. . It was another sign that the app was less restrictive than Twitter.
But Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persily said the idea that Truth Social might be an uncensored social network was ultimately far-fetched. In reality, social networking sites aren’t really the public squares of the internet, he said; they are commercial products that must obey the law, with user communities that need to feel safe.
“A platform with no rules is rapidly sinking into child pornography and Nazism,” he said.
Brianna Wu, a video game developer, said policies were needed to keep social media a safe place for people to communicate.
Ms Wu worked with Twitter to develop safety guidelines after Gamergate, the 2014 internet campaign to troll critics of the male-dominated gaming industry. She said her discussions with Twitter focused on methods to mitigate the harms of harassment, culminating in a filter Twitter developed to silence bots that automatically post insults against individuals.
“It’s about being able to have a healthy conversation,” she said.
All of this is something Mr. Musk will face when he takes over Twitter. Although Mr Musk was vague about his plans to reshape the social network, he made it clear in his deal announcement that free speech was the “foundation of a working democracy”.