The social media platform championed by former president Donald Trump, following his permanent suspension from Twitter in January 2021, has billed itself as “America’s leading free speech social platform,” “America’s ‘Big Tent’ social media platform” and “Social media without discrimination.”
Many found Trump’s declaration to revolutionize social media suspect. He was, after all, the golf green jacket of the Twitterverse — riding the platform’s algorithmic ability to increase divisiveness and spread misinformation all the way to the White House.
Alongside a new report, which investigates whether everyone’s “truths” make it to Trump’s platform, experts weighed in on whether Truth Social is just as shady as the next platform when it comes to censorship.
Have those promises of free speech held up?
When Truth Social debuted over this past Presidents Day weekend, the app revealed itself to be what most experts saw as a shiny, glitchy Twitter knockoff.
The platform’s interface, “functionality-wise, literally copied Twitter,” said Jesse Lehrich, the co-founder and senior adviser of Accountable Tech.
Design-wise, it was a cheap trick of the platform Trump was suspended from. “Tweet” and “retweet” were replaced with “Truth” and “reTruth.” Users’ feeds, profile pages, button shapes and menu items all resembled Twitter and the usual social media infrastructure. The classic light-blue color palette was hued just slightly darker: eggplant purple.
But there was still the promise of romping through amber waves of free speech, which Trump hoped would attract patriotic minds. In the news release announcing Truth Social last October, he promised to “create a rival to the liberal media consortium and fight back against the ‘Big Tech’ companies of Silicon Valley.”
Trump was unhappy when Twitter flagged covid-19 misinformation and false election claims, and deleted hate speech — arguably the few positive, noticeable strides platforms have taken to moderate how users behave and engage with information.
But Truth Social has been doing a similar thing, says a new report released by Cheyenne Hunt-Majer, a Big Tech accountability fellow at Public Citizen. Hunt-Majer found that Truth Social limited posts and images that discussed reproductive rights, gun control and the Jan. 6 hearings. But as far as Trump might be concerned, it isn’t even censoring all that well.
In a now-viral TikTok, Hunt-Majer explained that any post that included the phrase “abortion is healthcare” couldn’t be posted, regardless of context. And she noted that while left-leaning posts were being limited, images with pro-gun quotes and anti-Ukraine phrases were also being banned.
Not only censorship, but censorship on the sly by “shadow banning”
But if there is anything that Truth Social does authentically replicate from Twitter, it is inconsistent, shrouded lever-pulling by algorithmically deciding what appears on peoples’ feeds, says Hunt-Majer’s report. It’s called shadow banning — which, as defined by Truth Social, is “a deceptive and manipulative practice whereby a social media platform artificially limits the visibility of a user’s posts without the user’s awareness. Shadow banning is a practice often used by Big Tech social media platforms to effectively censor users who question prevailing narratives or hold disfavored political viewpoints.”
But no social media platform is off the hook for shadow banning.
“When it comes down to the under-the-hood architecture of what these platforms are actually doing, it’s just a black box,” Lehrich said. “In theory, downranking violative, borderline content is good practice, but there’s no way to know what they’re actually doing. It’s all self-reported.”
“The term ‘shadow banning’ is one of those interesting, nebulous tech catchphrases that means different things to different people,” Lehrich said.
When the term was first introduced, it was accepted to mean that a user can continue to post but not know that the platform is partially or completely limiting others from seeing that post. In other words, the user can see that they’ve posted, but nobody else can.
“But it has been co-opted to mean any time anyone’s distribution is being limited or not being retweeted as much as they normally would,” Lehrich said.
Twitter’s algorithm is not without intention. In 2018, in response to right-wing outrage over Twitter’s alleged shadow banning Republican politicians, Twitter put out a statement asserting that it didn’t outright engage in the practice. Instead, it used its algorithm to bury the posts of “bad-faith actors” deep in people’s feeds.
“The algorithm is designed to maximize engagement,” Lehrich said. “One might think they’re being shadow banned on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, but they really just aren’t posting often enough or following the right people.”
Shadow banning is different from outright censorship — seen in countries like China — where posts criticizing the government will be taken down and one’s account is likely to be deactivated. It’s also different from the warning labels added to posts with misinformation, many of which are allowed to stay up with those flags.
Will Truth Social be around in another six months?
The road ahead for Trump’s social media baby is looking rather bleak. Since debuting at No. 1 on the Apple Store’s social networking category, progress has been a slow, forward stumble. The app has fallen to 68th as of Friday and has not yet been adapted for Android phones (though a pre-order option is available).
As reported by Reuters, the app’s 2.8 million downloads as of July 1 have been considered laughable by some, given its high-profile backing. The most prominent users — of which there are very few verified accounts — include (surprisingly) Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom and (unsurprisingly) Trump himself.
And major questions about Truth Social’s funding remain. The planned merger of Truth Social’s parent company and Digital World Acquisition Corp. — a so-called SPAC set up for investors to merge with another company and go public without needing an initial public offering — is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. In June, Digital World said that executives from both companies had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in New York.
If truth be told, what happens next is to Truth Social is anyone’s guess.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.