If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.
That inverted cliche is Donald Trump’s answer to Twitter and Facebook, which suspended his accounts following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The former president is working to launch a competing platform, Truth Social.
Commentators clucked their disapproval, but Wall Street embraced the venture, gobbling up shares of shell company Digital World Acquisition Corp. following announcements that it would merge with the fledgling Trump Media & Technology Group. The stock’s trading price jumped tenfold, with Bloomberg Businessweek gauging its implied value at more than $8 billion.
Trump’s famously loyal base may flock to Truth once it goes live in the first quarter of 2022, but Bloomberg columnist Joshua Green points to a fatal flaw: The upstart has precious little chance of attracting left-of-center users. The Trump name may be a MAGA magnet, but it’s anathema to progressives.
In a Tuesday statement, Trump promised “an ironclad commitment to protecting vigorous debate from all sides.” Those outside the 45th president’s orbit are skeptical.
Terms of service currently published on Truth Social state that users won’t be allowed to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site.” Pundits are right to call out the inconsistency, but they might be overplaying their hand.
Nondisparagement clauses are standard in many business contracts, and Truth’s TOS reads more like legal boilerplate than a practical playbook for content moderation. It’s probably a first draft.
It’s also unclear how Truth’s user interface will ultimately look. Curious techies gained access to a beta version of the site that uses microblogging platform Mastodon’s open-source codebase, suggesting it will resemble a Twitter clone. But the site could change dramatically before its public launch.
Truth Social can become the dominant social network for conservatives and still fail to challenge Big Tech if liberals and centrists stay away. To establish his platform as a credible contender, Trump will need a stable of sparring partners whose presence on Truth gives it a fighting chance of winning over the wary.
Twitter and Facebook are worthwhile venues for political discourse because their user base spans the political spectrum. Ideas can be circulated for feedback, correction and refinement. Even if Trump keeps his promise to employ laissez-faire moderation, a homogenous audience won’t deliver the kind of freewheeling debate he envisions.
Trump’s fiercest opponents, loath to pad The Donald’s bottom line, will almost certainly boycott Truth Social. Likelier converts? Members of a loose confederation known as the intellectual dark web who lean left but critique the excesses of “woke” culture: think neuroscientist Sam Harris, psychologists Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, biologist Bret Weinstein, podcaster and comic Joe Rogan.
Without a critical mass of liberal users to counterbalance vocal Trump fans, Truth Social will be an echo chamber. Before launch, Trump could take a few steps to entice his skeptics.
First, change the name. Liberals scoff at the notion that Trump has any franchise on truth, citing the copious fact-checker finger wags his presidency produced. Even supporters admit that the veteran showman is prone to exaggeration.
In an inadvertent nod to postmodernism, posts to the site will be called “truths,” as in, “Have you read my truth?” That suggests truth can be personal and subjective rather than universal. Branding is Trump’s strong suit. He can do better.
Next, Trump should hire a CEO with a Silicon Valley pedigree whose expertise is unquestionable. If that person happens to be liberal or independent, all the better. Let the company’s public face be someone who can open the doors that slam shut at the mention of Trump’s name.
Finally, Trump needs prominent progressives to provide exclusive content, even if it takes the form of 280-character hot takes. Big-name writers such as Bari Weiss and Matt Taibbi left major media outlets and took their marquee bylines to Substack, and their success proved their audiences to be largely portable.
A promise to allow unfettered debate rings hollow when everyone is in agreement. Truth Social may be conservative catnip, but it will take liberals for the newest kid on the block to become a viable alternative to Twitter and Facebook. That’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.