It’s a big time to be in conservative social media. Donald Trump’s TRUTH Social — the MAGA answer to Twitter following his exile from the platform — is rumored to be going operational as soon as Presidents’ Day. There are also a host of other upstarts, from Rumble (a YouTube knockoff) to Parler (ditto for Twitter) and GETTR, a Steve Bannon–backed social-media site that has been struggling to hold onto staff and whose backer has recently filed for bankruptcy. The operating principle behind all these companies is that the Silicon Valley social-media Establishment has censored them (despite the vast amount of evidence to the contrary), thus they must go elsewhere to enjoy freedom of speech, away from the scolds and inquisitors who are out to silence them.
And so goes the pitch by George Farmer, the CEO of Parler. “Everyone here will say something at some point in their life where all of you will then have the archaeology mob coming after you and telling you that what you said in 2011, or 2016, or 2021 is the wrong thing and you no longer think the right way,” he said on Wednesday at Pivot MIA, the tech conference co-hosted by Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway in Miami. “And that’s why free speech is important, because, at the end of the day, we all make mistakes. You need mercy, you need grace, and you need forgiveness. And if you don’t have that, and you don’t have that social-media platform which allows for that, you’re all gonna get canceled. At the end of the day, you’re all going to get wiped out.”
On the one side, you have grace, mercy, and forgiveness. On the other, you have mobs, cancellation, and getting wiped out. It’s a compelling idea as the current social-media landscape starts to atrophy. Even Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg’s Goliath, is losing users. But it’s also a stark turnaround from the conservative media-business model that has worked so well for decades — and in 2022, it’s unclear how much this even resembles the online world as it is.
This apparently works for their audience. Jason Miller, the GETTR CEO, who was also onstage at Pivot, cited market research that said 20 to 25 percent of Trump voters pulled back on social media after he was kicked off Twitter and Facebook. “They may not have gone and deleted their accounts, but they got frustrated — Twitter and Facebook and YouTube, the de-platforming — and they just said, you know, We’re over it,” he said.
As a business model, it’s not really clear that an alternative internet for conservatives would work. As Casey Newton, the moderator of the panel and editor of Platformer, pointed out, part of the draw for conservatives has been the ability to dunk on liberals — something Farmer and Miller played down — and that young users overwhelmingly prefer TikTok, a highly censored and moderated platform. The appeal of a conservative haven probably had more of a market in 2016 than it does in 2022, now that a whole new generation has come of age.
In invoking freedom of speech, Farmer and Miller are making an appeal to the market of ideas, even as they apparently struggle in the market of actual money. According to Forbes, Parler has been bleeding users. Miller said his company is “approaching 5 million people who have signed up” (no word on daily users) and has been aided by a recent shout-out from Joe Rogan. This is all in comparison to the 217 million people who actively use Twitter every day — or the 1 billion monthly TikTok users around the world. “You can have quite a broad array of free-speech orientated social-media sites which are trying to cater to that growing market of people who don’t necessarily want strict moderation policies in their social media,” Farmer said. “The world is growing in our space. There’s definitely more competition, but I think that there’s a good reason for all of us to exist.”