After Donald Trump got canned from virtually every major social media site, conservative pundits and personalities urged the MAGA crowd towards a mass exodus to so-called “alt-tech” venues promising freedom from a supposed plague of left-wing censorship. This hasn’t worked out quite as well as planned, according to a new analysis by the Washington Post.
The Post tracked 47 “prominent right-wing influencers” on four sites: neo-Nazi hub Gab, MAGA-themed microblogging website Gettr, YouTube clone Rumble, and messaging app Telegram. In the year since Trump got himself kicked off sites ranging from Facebook and Twitter to YouTube and Pinterest, these sites have competed for a niche crowd of right-wingers who were urged by pro-Trump pundits and media personalities to register new accounts in solidarity with their big banned ex-president. Prominent right-wingers either saw an opportunity to cater to these new audiences or had little option but to do so following their own bans. Apparently, there isn’t enough chud to smear around, because the Post analysis found those 47 influencers’ followings on those sites have largely either stagnated or declined.
That’s bad news for all of the sites. Each of them will face even more competition from the forthcoming launch of Trump’s Truth Social network, with the exception of Rumble, which signed a partnership deal with him.
These kinds of platforms aren’t known for offering transparent metrics on their users and engagement. So the Post used the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine to track how those 47 accounts, who had previously “seen steady growth” on Twitter and other mainstream sites, fared in terms of follower counts on alt-tech sites over time. After an initial spurt of growth, the paper found, these accounts mostly petered out.
Among the 47 individuals the Post tracked are anti-vaxxers like Dr. Joseph Mercola, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Sherri Tenpenny; garden variety right-wing pundits and provocateurs like Dan Bongino, Charlie Kirk, and Steve Bannon’s podcast; conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and Lin Wood; and MAGA media like OAN and Epoch Times. Also making an appearance are Trump and his punching bag of a son, Donald Trump Jr.
Lin Wood, an attorney from Atlanta who promoted Trump’s failed lawsuits to overturn the results of the 2020 elections and has become a QAnon figurehead, got banned from Twitter after urging his followers to “pledge your lives” during the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. On Telegram, the Post analysis found, he quickly racked up 800,000 followers but is now down to 730,000, which the paper pegged at just 60% of his pre-ban following.
Alex Jones joined Gab in 2016 and was able to add roughly 25,000 followers a month in Q1 2021, but since then that average has dropped to 1,000. QAnon accounts have fared similarly poorly on Gab. After benefiting from a surge in followers in September 2020, when Facebook banned QAnon accounts, and the Trump bans a few months later, evangelists like the anonymous redpill78 and Jordan Sather have grown at a rate of just 1% a month.
OAN saw a similar spike on Rumble, according to the Post, growing its following to 750,000 a month after Trump’s ban. Since then, it’s plateaued at around 900,000 followers.
A few of the 47 accounts, like anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny, did see steady growth—the Post found their Telegram account added roughly 10,000 new followers a month.
These are still considerable followings, but there are some caveats. The Post didn’t track video views or other forms of engagement, meaning the analysis only accounts for users who at some point clicked “follow.” While it’s possible that some of these users have become highly active and engaged on these sites, the stagnation in follower counts seems to indicate it’s more likely many of them just lost interest. Other than Telegram, which deletes accounts that haven’t been logged into for over six months, the Post had no way of determining which followers were dormant. It also had no way of knowing which followers might have multiple accounts, or are otherwise fake, like bots and sock puppet accounts. So even the plateauing numbers may be optimistic.
Gab and Gettr also both have reputations for artificially inflating their own influence. In 2019, a software engineer for Gab’s web hosting firm Sibyl System, Lilac Kapul, Ltd. told Hatewatch that Gab founder Andrew Torba’s claims of 800,000 users on the site seemed wildly off the mark, as it exceeded the actual web infrastructure Gab was renting by a considerable margin. Joe Rogan joined Gettr earlier this month, but seems to have quickly stopped using it after concluding the site’s practice of including a user’s Twitter follower count in the number displayed on their Gettr profile was “fugazi” and “fuckery.” Follower counts broken down by site were displayed under another menu, and Gettr only recently updated profile pages to show both numbers side by side.
This kind of analysis also doesn’t count for cross-site linking, which is a major driver of traffic and thus an indicator of influence. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found that content on Gab was shared on Twitter over 112,000 times by over 32,700 Twitter accounts between June 7, 2021, and August 22, 2021, potentially accounting for hundreds of millions of views. Rumble is less a social media site than a video dump. As Comscore data indicates, its traffic is dependent on referrals (links and embeds) from other sites and social media networks, on top of people who actually directly navigate to a Rumble domain. That the site relies so heavily on cross-linking, though, suggests its users could flock on a whim to another MAGA-themed competitor with more buzz.
Regardless of the complexities involved in measuring reach, the Post’s tally does show one thing clearly: MAGA and far-right personalities who joined these sites appear to have largely hit a brick wall in attracting others to join them. There are numerous likely reasons that this is the case—chief among them being that censorship-obsessed conservatives are a niche audience that can’t sustain this many sites. Many of the operators of these accounts never actually left sites like Facebook and Twitter, such as Dan Bongino, who has a small empire of conservative pages on Facebook. That is likely true of many of their followers on places like Gab and Gettr, meaning they essentially registered alts and could have slowly lost interest in seeing the same content on both sites.
Then there’s one other potential factor: Gab, Gettr, and Rumble are online echo chambers devoted to conservatives, as are the Telegram channels in question. The Post specifically mentions that this means they lack the daily gristle of entertainment news and viral cat videos that fuel places like Facebook, but there’s another problem. The crowd most likely to be attracted to alt-tech platforms are also the same people who enjoy yelling at, trolling, and arguing with liberals and leftists, a feature that is distinctly lacking at the new destination. (This also happens to explain why much of the content on alt-tech sites is just rage-bait screenshots of tweets and Facebook posts.)
Darren Linvill, who is the lead researcher at Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub, told the Post a vibrant social media site requires: “multiple perspectives so you can have lots of different conversations happening to bring in lots of different kinds of people. 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.”
Gettr CEO and former Trump aide Jason Miller told the Post that he is “not at all worried about our business long-term” and “The legacy platforms have bigger user bases but they treat them with total disdain.” Torba, Gab’s founder, told the paper the data is “irrelevant to Gab’s growth overall as a free speech platform for all people” and blamed the drop in engagement for pro-Trump commentators on the ex-president’s “nonstop vaccine shilling.” (Sure, ok.)
The Post separately reported last week that Truth Social is behind schedule and unlikely to launch for at least several months, despite previous hints it would launch in mid-February. Three people familiar with the matter told the paper that Trump ultimately believes Truth Social will be more lucrative and offer more control than signing deals with other sites, though he has been frustrated with the slow pace of development.