When Elon Musk sealed a deal to buy Twitter for $44 billion this week, another social networking product surged to No. 1 in Apple’s App Store: Truth Social, the flagship app of former President Donald J. Trump’s fledgling social media company.
The heightened interest in Truth Social, which debuted in February, was driven by a recent tech upgrade of the app that allowed a flood of users to join it. At the same time, there is more uncertainty about Twitter. Some Twitter users deactivated their accounts this week after the news broke that Mr. Musk was buying the site and questions arose about how he might change the platform.
Truth Social has long positioned itself as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, both of which famously barred Mr. Trump from their sites after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol last year. The app has marketed itself as an uncensored platform that will not discriminate against users for their political beliefs. It and other apps like it, such as Rumble and Parler, take a hands-off approach to moderation, in theory so that people can converse freely without being barred.
Truth Social, Mr. Trump has said, would “stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech.”
The app’s surge in popularity this week caught the attention of Mr. Musk, a self-proclaimed free speech absolutist. In several tweets, the billionaire noted that Truth Social was “beating Twitter & TikTok on the Apple Store” and blamed Twitter’s rules on speech for birthing the alternative apps.
(While Mr. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter stirred speculation that Mr. Trump’s account would be reinstated, the former president has said he would not rejoin Twitter and would instead keep using Truth Social.)
Twitter confirmed that it had seen a jump in account deactivations amid this week’s announcement of Mr. Musk’s takeover.
I decided to wade into this stew by testing Truth Social. Despite its hype, the app had a glitchy debut. When it was released in February, many who signed up for it were confronted with a static screen showing a wait-list number that the site attributed to “massive demand.”
I was wait-listed at No. 412,553. Then on Saturday, I was suddenly let in. I punched in my phone number to go through the sign-up process and jumped in with interest.
Assessing a social media app — especially one this young — is not simple, especially in trying to see how much free speech it really permits. The app does do some moderation of posts. But because it does not have a set of community guidelines, it’s unclear what triggers the content decisions that get made. And while some posts that were prohibited on Twitter were available on Truth Social, other types of posts were hidden because of curse words.
To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. After a wait of two months to join the app, Truth Social seemed unfinished and the crowd felt thin. Here’s what I found.
A Rocky Start
After choosing a user name and an avatar (I uploaded a picture of my Labrador), I began my Truth Social experience. The app looked like a clone of Twitter. Truth Social has a main news feed, a search tool, a messaging system and a button to compose a “Truth,” which is the equivalent of a tweet.
Truth Social immediately recommended a list of a few dozen accounts to follow, including Fox News, The Epoch Times and, of course, Mr. Trump himself. The former president has posted only one Truth, and that was back in February: “Get Ready! Your favorite President will see you soon!” To date, he has accrued 1.88 million followers.
After I followed all 80 accounts that the app recommended, no new suggestions appeared, so I manually searched for accounts to follow. Many accounts for large brands had already been taken over by impostors. The profile for @nytimes was labeled “The Failing NY Times,” and @CNN was named “CNN (Parody).” Another dubious-looking account claiming to be ABC News had posted only three times.
My timeline of posts consisted mostly of news articles and videos. I saw a Newsmax story about Washington State banning the use of the word “marijuana” and a clip mocking liberal Twitter employees who were upset about the takeover by Mr. Musk.
A large part of the app was broken. Trying to do a keyword search for a Truth was nonfunctional. Searching the words “vaccine” and “Covid” brought up the message that “No matching Truths” were found.
Trump Media and Technology Group, the company founded by Mr. Trump to develop Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment.
How Elon Musk’s Twitter Deal Unfolded
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A blockbuster deal. Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest man, capped what seemed an improbable attempt by the famously mercurial billionaire to buy Twitter for roughly $44 billion. Here’s how the deal unfolded:
The initial offer. Mr. Musk made an unsolicited bid worth more than $40 billion for the influential social network, saying that he wanted to make Twitter a private company and that he wanted people to be able to speak more freely on the service.
The response. Twitter’s board countered Mr. Musk’s offer with a defense mechanism known as a “poison pill.” This well-worn corporate tactic makes a company less palatable to a potential acquirer by making it more expensive for them to buy shares above a certain threshold.
Securing financing. Though his original offer had scant details and was received skeptically by Wall Street, Mr. Musk has been moving swiftly to secure commitments worth $46.5 billion to finance his bid, putting pressure on Twitter’s board to take his advances seriously.
Striking a deal. With the financing in place, Twitter’s board met with Mr. Musk to discuss his offer. The two sides soon reached a deal, with the social media company agreeing to sell itself for $54.20 a share.
Will the deal go through? For the purchase to be completed, shareholders have to vote and regulators have to review the offer first. Scrutiny is likely to be intense and questions remain about Mr. Musk’s plans for the company, especially after he suggested he needs more information on spam and fake accounts on Twitter for the deal to proceed.
In general, there wasn’t enough activity on Truth Social to get a strong sense of whether its content moderation policies were looser than those of mainstream social media. Like Twitter and Facebook, Truth Social has terms of service that state that illegal activity is not allowed on the app.
In some cases, the app appeared stricter than Twitter. While Twitter allows some pornographic content, Truth Social forbids sexual content and language altogether, according to its terms of service. On some posts containing the hashtagged F-word, Truth Social hid the content and displayed a warning about sensitive content. (Tapping on “Show Content” revealed the hashtag.)
To test the app’s claims about political ideology, I published a Truth with a New York Times Opinion article that was critical of the Republican Party, and other posts with news articles about the Jan. 6 riot and how Truth Social’s prospects could be hurt by Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter. None of the posts were flagged as problematic. That suggested the app wasn’t discriminating based on politics, just as it had said it wouldn’t.
I also found some accounts that were not allowed to post on Twitter — like The Babylon Bee, the right-wing satire site that was suspended for misgendering a transgender Biden administration official — posting regularly on Truth Social. It was another sign that the app was less restrictive than Twitter.
But Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, said the notion that Truth Social could be an uncensored social network was ultimately far-fetched. In reality, social networking sites are not truly the internet’s public squares, he said; they are commercial products that are required to obey the law, with communities of users who need to feel safe.
“A platform with no rules quickly descends into child pornography and Nazism,” he said.
Brianna Wu, a video game developer, said policies were necessary to keep social networks a safe place for people to communicate.
Ms. Wu worked with Twitter to develop safety guidelines after Gamergate, the 2014 internet campaign to troll critics of the male-dominated gaming industry. She said her discussions with Twitter had focused on methods to mitigate the harm of harassment, which resulted in a filter that Twitter developed to silence bots that were automatically publishing insults about individuals.
“It’s about being able to have a healthy conversation,” she said.
All of this is something Mr. Musk will face when he assumes control of Twitter. Though Mr. Musk has been vague about his plans to reshape the social network, he made clear in his deal announcement that free speech was a “bedrock of a functioning democracy.”