When Elon Musk struck a deal this week to buy Twitter for $44 billion, another social networking product rose to number 1 in Apple’s App Store: Truth Social, the flagship app from former President Donald J. Trump’s fledgling social media company.
The heightened interest in Truth Social, which debuted in February, was driven by a recent technical upgrade to the app that allowed a flood of users to join it. At the same time, there is more uncertainty about Twitter. Some Twitter users deactivated their accounts this week after news broke that Mr. Musk bought the site, raising questions about how he might change the platform.
Truth Social has long positioned itself as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, both of which have banned Mr Trump from their sites after the January 6 riots in the US Capitol last year. The app has marketed itself as an uncensored platform that will not discriminate against users because of their political beliefs. It and other similar apps, such as Rumble and Parler, take a hands-off approach to moderation, in theory, allowing people to converse freely without being banned.
(While Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter has sparked speculation that Mr. Trump’s account would be reinstated, the former president has said he would stop joining Twitter and instead continue using Truth Social.)
Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment about people deactivating their accounts after Mr. Musk’s deal.
I decided to wade into this stew by testing Truth Social. Despite the hype, the app had a glitchy debut. When it was released in February, many who signed up for it were faced with a static screen with a waiting list number that the site attributed to “huge demand.”
I was on the waiting list at number 412.553. On Saturday I was suddenly let in. I punched in my phone number to go through the application process and jumped in interested.
Reviewing a social media app — especially one of these young ones — isn’t easy, especially to see how much free speech it really allows. The app does some moderation of messages. But because it doesn’t have a set of community guidelines, it’s unclear what drives the content decisions it makes. And while some posts banned on Twitter were available on Truth Social, other types of posts were hidden because of curse words.
To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. After waiting two months to join the app, Truth Social was still unfinished and the crowd was feeling thin. This is what I found.
A rocky start
After choosing a username and avatar (I uploaded a photo of my Labrador), I started my Truth Social experience. The app looked like a clone of Twitter. Truth Social has a main news feed, a search function, a messaging system and a button to compose a “Truth”, which is the equivalent of a tweet.
Truth Social immediately recommended a list of several dozen accounts to follow, including Fox News, The Epoch Times and, of course, Mr. Trump himself. The former president has only posted one Truth and that was in February: “Get Ready! Your favorite president will see you soon!’ To date, he has amassed 1.88 million followers.
After I followed all 80 accounts that the app recommended, no new suggestions appeared, so I manually searched for accounts to follow. Many big brand accounts had already been taken over by impostors. The profile for @nytimes was labeled “The Failing NY Times” and @DailyExpertNews was named “DailyExpertNews (Parody)”. Another dubious looking account that claimed to be ABC News had only posted three times.
My timeline of posts mainly consisted of news articles and videos. I saw a Newsmax story about Washington state banning the use of the word “marijuana” and a clip mocking liberal Twitter workers who were angry about Mr. Musk’s takeover.
Much of the app was broken. Trying to search for a keyword for a Truth was non-functional. Searching for the words “vaccine” and “Covid” returned the message that “no matching truths” were found.
Trump Media and Technology Group, the company Mr. Trump founded to develop Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment.
How Elon Musk Bought Twitter
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A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, put an end to what seemed an unlikely attempt by the famed mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for about $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:
The first offer. Mr. Musk made an unsolicited offer of more than $40 billion for the influential social network, saying he wanted to turn Twitter into a private company and that he wanted people to speak more freely about the service.
Overall, there wasn’t enough activity on Truth Social to get a good sense of whether the content moderation policy was looser than mainstream social media. Like Twitter and Facebook, Truth Social has a terms of service stating that illegal activity on the app is not allowed.
In some cases, the app seemed stricter than Twitter. While Twitter allows some pornographic content, Truth Social bans sexual content and language altogether, according to its terms of service. On some posts containing the hashtagged F-word, Truth Social hid the content and displayed a warning about sensitive content. (Tap “Show content” revealed the hashtag.)
To test the app’s claims about political ideology, I published a Truth with a DailyExpertNews Opinion article criticizing the Republican Party, and other news articles about the January 6 riots and how the prospects of Truth Social could be harmed by Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter. None of the posts were flagged as problematic. That suggested the app didn’t discriminate on the basis of politics, just as it had said it didn’t.
I also found a number of accounts banned from posting to Twitter — such as The Babylon Bee, the right-wing satire site that was suspended for misleading a transgender Biden executive — that posted regularly to Truth Social. It was another sign that the app was less restrictive than Twitter.
But Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, said the idea that Truth Social could 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 must feel safe.
“A platform without rules quickly reverts to child pornography and Nazism,” he said.
Brianna Wu, a video game developer, said policies were needed to keep social networks a safe place for people to interact.
Ms. Wu partnered with Twitter to develop security 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 harm of harassment, which resulted in a filter Twitter developed to silence bots that automatically publish insults about individuals.
“It’s about being able to have a healthy conversation,” she said.
All of this is something Mr. Musk will have to deal with when he takes control of Twitter. While Mr. Musk has been vague about his plans to reshape the social network, he made it clear in his deal announcement that free speech was a “basis of a functioning democracy.”