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Conservative social media has plenty of pitfalls

Right-wing-friendly social media apps such as Gettr and Gab present themselves as bastions of free speech where conservative politicos and influencers can find refuge from the stifling censorship of Twitter and Facebook. When Spotify podcaster Joe Rogan — whose views are all over the ideological map, but whose interest in Covid-19 misinformation has lately endeared him to the right — joined Gettr this month, the company hailed it as “a pivotal moment in the battle for free speech” and a symbol of a “great awakening.” In a news release, the company went on to list the recent arrival of other right-influencers — most notably Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who was kicked off Twitter after she violated its Covid misinformation policies — as a turning of the tide.

But a new analysis by The Washington Post suggests that these sites aren’t on the brink of blowing up the way their executives suggest they are. And their limitations as platforms underscore how getting kicked off the major mainstream apps for violating rules is a punishment with real consequences, potentially derailing the growth trajectory of major right-wing figures and their ability to win over a general audience.

Tracking nearly 50 right-wing influencers who fled to Gab, Gettr, the video-streaming site Rumble and the chat service Telegram, The Post found that after initial bursts following Donald Trump’s ban from Twitter and Facebook in January 2021, their audiences have largely stagnated or declined.

The newspaper found that most accounts for influential right-wingers — such as Trump lawyer Lin Wood, who was kicked off Twitter for inciting violence around Jan. 6, or conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, of Infowars infamy — attract an initial burst of excitement that’s followed by a sharp plunge in audience growth or even a downturn. Moreover, most of these apps have small fractions of the user bases of their mainstream competitors, which which means that these influencers sometimes see a drop in their overall follower numbers, and have less room to grow.

A number of possible factors are at play, but I found this reckoning with the data in The Post’s piece to be striking:

Darren Linvill, the lead researcher at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, said the sites have struggled to gain attention because their focus on right-wing rabble-rousers has pigeonholed them into one side of the American political debate. So much of social media, he added, isn’t political at all: The biggest platforms are loaded with jokes, pop culture, cute photos and other distractions that make up most people’s daily media appetites.

Building a robust social media platform requires “multiple perspectives so you can have lots of different conversations happening to bring in lots of different kinds of people,” Linvill said. “Right-wing platforms are one-trick ponies. They’re only going to, by their nature, appeal to the type of person they are branded to appeal to, and there’s only so many people in that world.”

Linvill offers us a reminder that hyperpolitical users are far from the norm on social media. A 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of Twitter found that 6 percent of U.S. adults on Twitter accounted for 73 percent of tweets about national politics. Pew also found that 69 percent of users during its study period either never tweeted about politics or tweeted about it only once. And a separate Pew analysis from last year found that Twitter users with more moderate political views — whether liberal or conservative — tended to be more reluctant to post about political or social issues than people with less moderate views.

Right-wing social media apps are going to be most appealing to what’s ultimately a niche crowd. When you’re a political junkie on social media, it can be easy to experience the illusion that everyone else is, too. But in reality, people whose social media experience is dominated by politics make up a small part of social media networks, and people who post about politics are more likely to be activist types with more pronounced views. In light of this reality, conservatives who are more casually interested in politics or hold more moderate views aren’t particularly likely to be inspired to drop the social media apps they normally use and join specialized ones which will give them less of what they generally want and more of what they don’t necessarily want more of.

The data suggests that right-wing influencers might not want to be cavalier about losing the social media perches they have at places like Twitter: the gift of freer speech at places like Gab is less meaningful if there aren’t as many people to more freely say things to. Being in an ideological echo chamber also robs influencers of the opportunity to engage with ideological opponents or comment on current events in a way that gets seen by more apolitical people. (This is to say nothing of the fact that many of the right-wing apps aren’t so well-designed so far — days after he joined Gettr, Rogan panned it as “not real,” suggesting he may not be planning on using it.)

It appears that the right-wing social media app revolution is far from imminent. That being said, it’s still very early days for some of these apps. Gettr launched only last year; Trump’s social media app hasn’t launched at all. Perhaps one of these sites one day can become a general-interest site for people who lean right — but right now, they’re for a smaller and more hardcore crowd.