For months, former President Donald J. Trump has promoted Truth Social, the soon-to-be-released flagship app of his fledging social media company, as a platform where free speech can thrive without the constraints imposed by Big Tech.
At least seven other social media companies have promised to do the same.
Gettr, a right-wing alternative to Twitter founded last year by a former adviser to Mr. Trump, bills itself as a haven from censorship. That’s similar to Parler — essentially another Twitter clone backed by Rebekah Mercer, a big donor to the Republican Party. MeWe and CloutHub are similar to Facebook, but with the pitch that they promote speech without restraint.
Truth Social was supposed to go live on Presidents’ Day, but the start date was recently pushed to March, though a limited test version was unveiled recently. A full rollout could be hampered by a regulatory investigation into a proposed merger of its parent company, the Trump Media & Technology Group, with a publicly traded blank-check company. (Reuters reported that the company still planned to have the app available for download from the Apple Store on Monday.)
If and when it does open its doors, Mr. Trump’s app will be the newest — and most conspicuous — entrant in the tightly packed universe of social media companies that have cropped up in recent years, promising to build a parallel internet after Twitter, Facebook, Google and other mainstream platforms began to crack down on hate speech.
Millions of users have signed up for these so-called alt-tech or alternative platforms, attracted by the promise of a space untethered by what they consider censorship of conservative voices. The business case for these companies, though, has already proved to be wobbly.
“There is an audience and a market, but it is not huge,” said Shannon McGregor, a professor of journalism and media at the University of North Carolina who has studied social media platforms. “Most people don’t want a version of the internet where anything goes.”
Most alt-tech start-ups are chasing the same pool of users, many of whom might spend just a fraction of their social media time on politically partisan causes. Also, right-wing pundits who draw big audiences already have large, well-established online fan bases on mainstream social media, making them unlikely to completely switch to a new platform unless they’ve been iced out.
And since most traditional Silicon Valley investors aren’t rushing to fund alt-tech, these companies’ growth depends on the small group of financial backers who invest in partisan causes.
Rumble, which was founded in 2013 to compete with YouTube and is the oldest of these alternative social media companies, recently reported that its revenue nearly tripled over the past year. Still, for the first nine months of 2021, its revenue was less than $7 million. By comparison, YouTube made close to $9 billion in advertising revenue in its most recent quarter.
Alternative platforms claim to have signed up tens of millions of users. User numbers for most of these companies — or how they define users — are hard to verify as they are not often independently tracked. But they are unlikely to pose a serious competitive challenge to mainstream social media platforms, which have billions of users, experts said. For instance, there are more than 1.9 billion daily active users of Facebook and 211 million daily active users on Twitter who see ads.
Many people who claim to crave a social network that caters to their political cause often aren’t ready to abandon Twitter or Facebook, said Weiai Xu, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. So the big platforms remain important vehicles for “partisan users” to get their messages out, Mr. Xu said.
Gettr, Parler and Rumble have relied on Twitter to announce the signing of a new right-wing personality or influencer. Parler, for instance, used Twitter to post a link to an announcement that Melania Trump, the former first lady, was making its platform her “social media home.”
Alternative social media companies mainly thrive off politics, said Mark Weinstein, the founder of MeWe, a platform with 20 million registered users that has positioned itself as an option to Facebook.
“The problem with Truth Social, Gettr and Parler is these are Twitter competitors and they are echo chambers for a narrow political spectrum,” said Mr. Weinstein. “Echo chambers don’t have broad appeal.”
Rather than pursue users for their political beliefs, MeWe is aiming at people who want to protect the privacy of their online postings, Mr. Weinstein said. MeWe’s basic offering is free, but it charges for certain subscription services. His start-up has raised $24 million from 100 investors.
But since political causes drive the most engagement for alternative social media, most other platforms are quick to embrace such opportunities. This month, CloutHub, which has just four million registered users, said its platform could be used to raise money for the protesting truckers of Ottawa.
Mr. Trump wasn’t far behind. “Facebook and Big Tech are seeking to destroy the Freedom Convoy of Truckers,” he said in a statement. (Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said it removed several groups associated with the convoy for violating their rules.)
Trump Media, Mr. Trump added, would let the truckers “communicate freely on Truth Social when we launch — coming very soon!”
Of all the alt-tech sites, Mr. Trump’s venture may have the best chance of success if it launches, not just because of the former president’s star power but also because of its financial heft. In September, Trump Media agreed to merge with Digital World Acquisition, a blank-check or special purpose acquisition company that raised $300 million. The two entities have raised $1 billion from 36 investors in a private placement.
But none of that money can be tapped until regulators wrap up their inquiry into whether Digital World flouted securities regulations in planning its merger with Trump Media. In the meantime, Trump Media, currently valued at more than $10 billion based on Digital World’s stock price, is trying to hire people to build its platform.
It has brought on recruiters to reach out to former employees of Parler, according to documents seen by The Times. In screening questions, the recruiters sought to learn more about “social media outlets pitched as alternatives to Facebook/Twitter, like Parler and Gab,” and asked candidates if they thought Truth Social would run into challenges making money or moderating content on its platform.
Devin Nunes, the former California Republican congressman whom Mr. Trump picked to serve as chief executive of his company, declined requests for an interview.
Rumble, the Toronto-based YouTube rival, has raised a relatively large amount of money from investors, including Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist and Trump supporter, and the venture fund of Mr. Thiel’s protégé J.D. Vance, who is running for a Senate seat from Ohio.
Rumble is also planning to go public through a merger with a special-purpose acquisition company. SPACs are shell companies created solely for the purpose of merging with an operating entity. The deal, arranged by the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald, will give Rumble $400 million in cash and a $2.1 billion valuation.
The site said in January that it had 39 million monthly active users, up from two million two years ago. It has struck various content deals, including one to provide video and streaming services to Truth Social. Representatives for Rumble did not respond to requests for comment.
At least one other social media start-up is hoping to ride the former president’s popularity among conservatives to build its business. Gettr, which began on July 4 and is led by Jason Miller, the former Trump adviser, had hoped to land Mr. Trump before he decided to open his own venture. In January, Gettr advertised that it was the “place to watch” recent rallies by Mr. Trump.
In a written statement, Mr. Miller said the former president was welcome “to join GETTR whenever he is ready.” The site claims to have five million users and a cash pile of tens of millions of dollars. In a recent interview, Mr. Miller denied a previous claim that Gettr had raised $75 million.
Parler, the platform popular with Trump supporters, is still reeling from its role after the violent protests at the U.S. Capitol in January 2021 by thousands of angry fans of Mr. Trump. Downloads of Parler’s app plummeted 88 percent last year after Apple and Google removed it from their app stores and Amazon cut off web services after the riot, according to SensorTower, a digital analytics company.
Parler, which said in January that it had raised $20 million from investors, has since returned to the Apple Store. However, internal turmoil has continued. Last year, Parler fired John Matze, one of its founders, from his position as chief executive. Mr. Matze has said he was dismissed after a dispute with Ms. Mercer — the daughter of a wealthy hedge fund executive who is Parler’s main backer — over how to deal with extreme content posted on the platform.
Christina Cravens, a spokeswoman for Parler, said the company had always “prohibited violent and inciting content” and had invested in “content moderation best practices.”
Moderating content will also be a challenge for Truth Social, whose main star, Mr. Trump, has not been able to post messages since early 2021, when Twitter and Facebook kicked him off their platforms for inciting violence tied to the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
With Mr. Trump as its main poster, it was unclear if Truth Social would grow past subscribers who sign up simply to read the former president’s missives, Mr. Matze said.
“Trump is building a community that will fight for something or whatever he stands for that day,” he said. “This is not social media for friends and family to share pictures.”