Trump’s Social-Media Potemkin Village

Last Tuesday, the day of Truth Social’s I.P.O., under the ticker symbol DJT, the social-media company co-founded by Donald Trump reached a short-lived market capitalization of more than six billion dollars. To put things in perspective, that figure puts the platform on par with such unglamorous mid-range technology businesses as Chewy, an online pet-food purveyor, and Klaviyo, an e-mail-marketing company. But even those companies have been around for more than a decade and bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. Truth Social, in contrast, is notable for the gaping incongruity between its spiking valuation and the paltry reality of its product. The concept of a Trump-driven social-media platform emerged in 2021 after he was banned from Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6th. Truth Social launched a little more than two years ago, in February of 2022, and Trump immediately began using it as his personal megaphone. But, in the time since, according to some estimates, the app has accumulated only about a million active users. According to the company’s filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Truth Social lost fifty-eight million dollars last year, after generating only $4.1 million in revenue. What I found when I recently joined the site was a bit like a Republican-themed carnival, of the kind that alights in a town field and attempts to hide its shoddiness for long enough to make money without entirely falling apart.

Truth Social’s sign-up page advertises that it “encourages an open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating on the basis of political ideology.” Its mobile apps invite you to “find Truth from home or on-the-go.” A confirmation e-mail that I received after signing up welcomed me as a “truthsayer.” The limited popularity of the site means that many usernames are still up for grabs; the sample name suggested was @LibertyForAll, but I went instead with @freedomnmyveins. This was as far as I got on Truth Social without encountering a barrage of glitches. When I clicked the button to add an avatar image, nothing happened. I settled instead for the placeholder illustration of an eagle. To kick-start my feed, the app offered me a list of recommended accounts to follow, beginning with Trump’s. But the Follow button did not actually appear where it was supposed to next to his name, so I had to search for his account later by hand. Other suggested accounts included the misogynist influencer Andrew Tate and the conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec. Only after twenty-eight recommendations did the app offer a woman, Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaiian congresswoman and ex-Democrat. The button for posting messages on the platform is labelled “Truth”; the sharing function, equivalent to a retweet, is a “ReTruth.” Ads are tagged with the Orwellian label “Sponsored Truth,” which might be a contradiction in terms. The majority of the ads I saw were for Trump’s Presidential campaign. A few were for MyPillow, the erstwhile Fox advertiser whose founder, Mike Lindell, is a major Trump supporter.

Truth Social’s interface was designed more or less as a clone of Twitter’s, though it is more bare-bones. Like Twitter and most other major social networks these days, it relies heavily on recommendation algorithms to populate users’ timelines. Its main For You feed offered me conspiracy theories about immigrants at the U.S. border and complaints regarding President Joe Biden’s decision to observe a Transgender Day of Visibility, which fell on the same day as Easter this year. Andrew Tate was posting memes and declaring himself “hard to kill” after his recent arrest in Romania regarding extradition to the U.K. on rape charges. (He has denied the allegations.) Finding nonpolitical content on Truth Social required digging. I discovered an account called @archaeologyart, which highlights “Archaeology, Art, Museums, Vintage Maps, Old Photos, and more,” similar to the banal curated accounts that proliferate on Twitter. But even its posts inspired vitriol: a painting of Sappho had commenters angry that the account used B.C.E. (“before the Common Era”) instead of B.C. (“before Christ”). Others took umbrage at an ancient Egyptian art work depicting manual labor, which bore a caption describing how the pharaoh’s workers periodically staged strikes. “I’m sick of seeing protests. It’s gross,” one user wrote. All social-media feeds can feel like a monotonous stream of outrage, but, befitting its founder, Truth Social has elevated the art of petty grievance to extravagant heights.

As I was scrolling through Donald Trump’s own account, I noticed a lonely voice in the comments. “Trump is a criminal and sexual predator. Lock him up!” a user named @SaberK24 had posted. I thought at first that the message was meant as a joke, but scrolling through @SaberK24’s messages quickly revealed that he seemed to be waging a one-man crusade against Truth Social’s right-wing ideologues. He (pronouns were listed in his bio, a sign that he was not from around here) was Truthing dozens of times a day, enduring insults including “dumbfuck” and “left wing asshat” along the way. I messaged him to ask if he’d talk to me about what he was hoping to accomplish on Truth Social, but he responded only with an image of Bugs Bunny mouthing the word “NO.”

Plenty of people use X, the site formerly known as Twitter, the way @SaberK24 apparently uses Truth Social, not in spite of but because of the fact that they hate it. Elon Musk’s ownership has inspired many power users to become dissidents against the prevailing regime. But Truth Social will need many millions more @SaberK24s to generate enough activity, and thus revenue, to justify even a fraction of its new stock valuation. As of now, the platform predominantly attracts right-wing diehards, which severely limits its growth potential at a time when even the biggest social networks are struggling. After a boom in activity during the pandemic, platforms, including Instagram and Snapchat, are seeing declining user activity and decreased investor confidence. TikTok is embroiled in congressional debates about a possible ban because of its Chinese ownership. Reddit (owned by the same parent company as The New Yorker), which had its own recent I.P.O., has thrived by going against the grain of algorithmic automation, supporting small-scale, intimate online communities. (For comparison’s sake, Reddit saw more than eight hundred million dollars in revenue in 2023, and its market capitalization is a little more than seven billion dollars.) Truth Social has differentiated itself from Twitter in certain ways; my favorite feature is the Groups tab, which allows users to follow themed interest groups and look at posts from only those groups. I followed “Dogs” and was treated to a blessedly anodyne feed of canine photos and memes, although I did encounter one Doberman named Trump.

Even on the right, Truth Social has failed to become a mainstream community. Trump himself has fewer than seven million followers there. On his Twitter account, which Musk restored to him in late 2022, he has eighty-seven million, though he has posted there only once in recent years, to share his mug shot. The illogical behavior of Truth Social’s stock reminds me of cryptocurrency, which has also been undergoing a revival lately. The price of Bitcoin is hitting all-time highs of above seventy thousand dollars per coin, and not because of any major technological update. Non-fungible tokens, or N.F.T.s, have been replaced by so-called meme coins—cryptocurrencies that rise or fall by their viral enthusiasm—as the obsession of the day. A meme coin called “dogwifhat” (“dog with hat,” appended to an image of such), which was created late last year, has reached a market capitalization of more than four billion dollars. Belief is its own currency, one that can be made more literal in Internet-era financial markets. In the case of meme coins, belief means optimism that people will keep buying into a functionless currency, Ponzi-scheme style, and that you’ll be able to cash out before it crashes. For Trump’s Truth Social stock, it means betting on Trump’s continued relevance and power; how the business will make money can be figured out later.

In the short term, this was not a bad bet. Trump has a way of inflating the value of whatever dubious thing he attaches his name to, at least temporarily: hotels, golf courses, Republican nominees. It is a function of his twisted charisma and extant ability to instantaneously direct the media spotlight toward himself. (His recent hawking of Bibles was met with much approval on Truth Social. “I’d sooner buy a bible from Donald Trump than Joel Osteen,” one user posted.) Buying in to the DJT stock means investing in the Trump brand, and, in a way, giving the former President a backdoor campaign donation: the company’s inflated valuation makes him increasingly wealthy on paper at a time when, among many other legal troubles, he owes a penalty of four hundred and fifty-four million dollars for a civil fraud case decided against him in New York. But he is barred from selling his shares for at least six months, and maintaining the meme-ish financial enthusiasm for the platform may prove difficult given how little there is to back up the company’s valuation. After the stock’s initial spike, the valuation quickly started sloping downward. On Monday, after Axios surfaced the S.E.C. filings, the descent accelerated, and the stock plunged more than twenty per cent. An election result can be disputed, and Sponsored Truths can be peddled, but in the long run financial markets don’t lie. ♦

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