Why conservatives are raging against Facebook and Twitter, and what the heck are Parler and MeWe?
There is growing movement in conservative social media circles to abandon Facebook and Twitter and migrate to niche communities including Parler and MeWe.
Since the U.S. election last week, right-wing commentators have promised to quit mainstream social media sites for platforms with less moderation and where their ideas can permeate without shame or fear. Some of the personalities are familiar, including Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who directed Twitter followers to meet him on Parler this week. Others, including Mark Levin and Dan Bongino, are less mainstream but have oversized appeal to hardcore conservative political junkies.
Sites including Newsmax are seeing a jump in online users, too, as the conservative political base bucks at traditional media like Fox News—who many see as not faithful enough to the Donald Trump cause. Parler and MeWe apps have jumped in app download rankings, as well.
The upheaval stems from frustration with social media, especially Twitter, where conservatives feel they are being chased from the conversation. In many ways, the movement is the latest round in a tech backlash that has been brewing for years. While the furor could dissipate as in previous boycotts—in which enthusiasm for once-popular alternative sites like Voat, Rumble and Gab waned—there are signs this one has a little more room to run.
For instance, what happens if Twitter or Facebook ban President Donald Trump when he leaves office, and his account is no longer protected as a publicly elected figure? “Trump would move over to Parler,” says Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, a media watchdog organization. “And that would really cement it as a right-wing platform.”
Not that this would be bad for Twitter, Carusone says; it might even bring the company some relief. “It’s taking the most disruptive people off Twitter,” Carusone says.
Dis-'owning' the libs
Will conservatives stay away if they don’t find the same thrill when it’s just them in the echo chamber? And is this a serious challenge to the social media order?
“The thing that motivates right-wing Twitter is they troll, harass and ‘own the libs,’” Carusone says. “And it’s pretty hard to troll the libs if they’re not there.”
Parler—with which conservatives have been flirting since its 2018 launch—is establishing itself as the alternative to Twitter. Republican Senators even dragged Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg into Congress weeks before the election to discuss how their sites limited the virality of a story about corruption and conspiracy against then-candidate Joe Biden. The seeming censorship—Facebook and Twitter fact-checked a New York Post article about alleged Biden family crimes—shocked many media watchers concerned about the power the sites wielded and their ability to control stories that affect elections. It’s an unenviable position for the platforms, and one they are having a hard time navigating deftly.
Since the election, Facebook and Twitter accounts have told followers to expect an exodus this Friday, Nov. 13. While right-wing media is latching onto Parler, MeWe is emerging as an alternative to Facebook. MeWe started in 2016 and attracted Facebook users upset with the social network's control of the flow of information through its News Feed algorithm, and trading in data to target ads. MeWe also became a refuge though for many of the elements that Facebook wanted to chase, including anti-vaxxers and QAnon conspiracy watchers.
Mark Weinstein, founder and CEO of MeWe, says the site signed up a million new users since the election, giving it a base of about 10 million people. “The movement is afoot,” Weinstein said in a recent phone interview. “But we are for everybody. We don’t have a political bias. We do have a point of view. When we say, ‘social done right,’ it’s because we have no ads, no tracking, no targeting. Nobody can pay us to target a member.”
“It’s very straightforward,” Weinstein says. “You’ll love this. We have no algorithm manipulating News Feeds.”
Over the weekend, Parler and MeWe both saw a flood of new activity. Parler has been No. 1 in Apple App Store U.S. rankings all week. MeWe was No. 3, according to App Annie, the analytics firm. MeWe wasn’t even on App Annie’s rankings before this week, meaning it wasn’t even in the top 500 of apps.
Panic at the downloads
This doesn't necessarily mean the apps have staying power. Apps can see surges in downloads for many reasons, but they stick around only as long as those new signups do. “2020 is the year of users panic-downloading social networks to the top of the free app charts,” says Jack Appleby, a creative strategist who has worked with brands including Microsoft, Spotify, and Beats by Dre. “Remember when TikTok was allegedly getting banned? Triller and Byte suddenly had a big week, now they aren't even in the Top 200 most-downloaded free apps per day.
“Parler will have a noticeable post-election week, then fall off the face of the Earth when everyone remembers Facebook has 900 times more users,” Appleby says. “They'll stick to social networks where they can rant politically and get engagement on their family vacation photos.”
Facebook and Twitter declined to comment, but have been policing their services more aggressively, particularly in the run-up to the election. A noticeable number of Facebook users complained about bans and locked accounts, including conservatives who claimed Facebook penalized them arbitrarily. Meanwhile, Facebook also has been criticized by left-leaning figures concerned about how it has handled the election results—not calling it decisively for President-elect Joe Biden—and banning political ads while Democrats are fighting for key Senate seats in Georgia.
Facebook has seen a dip in usage in North America, where daily users dropped by 2 million people in the third quarter. That still leaves 196 million daily active users on Facebook in North America.
Carusone of Media Matters says that platforms have benefited from cleaning out right-wing groups. In June, Reddit banned “The_Donald,” one of Trump’s most active online fanbases. Reddit’s move was part of a broader policy shift that saw the site crack down on some fringe elements, and it was largely viewed as a positive for the site.
Members of “The_Donald” set up their own website to continue to organize, but they could no longer impose their content on the rest of Reddit, eroding the group’s influence. “Reddit got rid of a large problematic part of its community,” Carusone says. “The_Donald got more extreme, but it was isolated and its influence was limited. It couldn’t cross-pollinate.”
Nicole M. Johnson, a medical doctor with a private practice in Cleveland, has almost 6,000 followers on Twitter. Johnson, a self-described “Black conservative without a party affiliation,” has been on Parler and MeWe for a couple of years. If the mass exodus is going to work, it will be because of pioneers like her. “I do have several friends who have switched completely,” Johnson says. “Many friends and groups have accounts in all four to maintain their following in the eventual chance they will be banned from Facebook and or Twitter.
“The main reason for leaving is censorship on Twitter and Facebook,” Johnson says. “It's a combination of being frustrated with any censorship at all and the selective censorship of conservatives we are witnessing on Facebook and Twitter.”
Johnson says it is more fun on Twitter, for now, since that’s where her following is. And Parler is dominated by the news organizations and personalities that have made the jump there.
“Right now, Parler especially is a large right-wing echo chamber,” Johnson says. “I'm hoping more liberal people and organizations eventually join to engage in healthy debate.”
Gabrielle Evans, from Paris, Texas, says she has seen the messages on Facebook and Twitter from people planning to leave. “I find it quite comical that the same people who have no problem sharing random Facebook statuses or memes as fact are yelling ‘fake news’ on any story they don't agree with,” Evans says. “They then want to leave FB book for censoring, because they believe what they share to be real news without any proof.”
Evans doesn’t think the social media refugees will stay away for long, though: “I think most that leave will only do so temporarily if at all.”