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Alternative Social Media Platforms Become Popular Among Some Trump Supporters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Gab, Telegram, MeWe - those are all the names of social media and messaging apps that you might never have heard about. But they are gaining new users by the millions. The apps have gotten a boost since Facebook and Twitter, among others, kicked Donald Trump off and cracked down on groups involved in organizing the assault on the U.S. Capitol. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond looks at how one alternative platform is responding to the new attention.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: It's a social network called MeWe. That's me and we - get it? And in the past few weeks, millions of people have signed up.

MARK WEINSTEIN: In 2020, we went from 6 million to 12 million. And now we're already - it's the middle of January, and we're already over 15.5 million.

BOND: Mark Weinstein launched MeWe back in 2016 as an alternative to Facebook, focused on privacy. That means MeWe doesn't harness users' data to sell ads or decide what content to show them. But privacy is not the only reason people are flocking to MeWe right now. Along with other smaller social networks like Gab and messaging apps like Telegram, it's become popular with Trump supporters who are disillusioned with Facebook and Twitter.

Cindy Otis tracks online disinformation at the Alethea Group.

CINDY OTIS: People are splintering off into these more fringe platforms that essentially have no content moderation or threat monitoring capability whatsoever.

BOND: When Facebook banned groups for spreading false claims about election fraud and organizing Stop the Steal rallies, some sent their members to MeWe, Gab and Parler, another alternative social app. Parler recently went down after Amazon refused to host it because there was too much violent content. Weinstein says MeWe is not Parler or Gab. For one thing, he says he's serious about putting limits on what people can say.

WEINSTEIN: I'm a firm believer in moderation. I don't like sites that are anything-goes. I've been quoted saying I think they're disgusting. Good people - right and left and middle - can't handle anything goes. We don't want to be around hate speech. We don't want to be around violence-inciters.

BOND: MeWe does have rules, but they're more lax than Facebook and Twitter. The big platforms have banned the QAnon conspiracy, for example, a step MeWe has not taken. In fact, Weinstein accuses Facebook and Twitter of political censorship, which the companies deny. And I should note Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

MeWe says it removes content and accounts that violate its policies. But journalists and researchers have found things like right-wing militias and discussions of shooting people in a Stop the Steal group on MeWe.

WEINSTEIN: And yes, you know, right now, with the influx of people - look; social media is messy. Some bad actors get in all over the place. Look at Facebook. Look at Twitter. I think we're much more nimble than they are.

BOND: Weinstein is hiring more moderators for his trust and safety team, currently under a hundred people. But experts say all social networks have to get much more serious about addressing harm by setting clear rules and making sure they can enforce them.

Megan Squire of Elon University studies online extremists.

MEGAN SQUIRE: I think we all still treat social media companies like they're this inexpensive startup. But maybe they need to be treated more like starting an airplane company or a company that makes cars. I mean, you've got to think about a seatbelt.

BOND: She says the risk of not having strong online protections is clear. Just look at the insurrection at the Capitol.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIGHTBLACK MORNING LIGHT SONG, "EVERYBODY DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.