Editor’s note: This interview was recorded before many journalists began adopting Mastodon a preferred social media platform in response to Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
Remember a few years ago when it seemed like the only social media channels we’d have — or maybe ever need — consisted of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter? Oh, those were innocent times.
A handful of alternative social media sites have come onto the scene in recent years and a new paper from the journalism research team at the Pew Research Center takes a look at those sites and finds a common cry for freedom of speech and expression, but little in the way of mainstream attraction or use among news organizations.
Looking at seven platforms in particular, including BitChute, Gab, Gettr, Parler, Rumble, Telegram and Truth Social, each has a small user base that has indicated they are happy with the community they’ve found on the platform.
“We’ve been looking at this a long time,” says Galen Stocking, a senior computational social scientist on the journalism team at Pew. “We always want to stay on top of what is new and emerging and get a sense of who’s actually on there, what the sites are and what they’re doing and provide that data to the public so they know, when people hear about Donald Trump launching Truth Social, what that means and where that fits into the broader landscape.”
The seven alternative social media sites were chosen, with one exception, because they had an active user base of at least 500,000 people monthly as of December 2021. The exception was Truth Social, as it had not yet officially launched, but it fit another category for inclusion, which is that it would have significant media coverage when it did launch, based on the former president’s involvement and support.
Based on the data collected by Pew, of the people who use these sites, 6 percent of them use these social media platforms for news on a regular basis, but none attracted more than 2 percent of users on a regular basis explicitly for news content.
Demographically, there were no distinguishing characteristics of users on any of these sites, in terms of age, political affiliation or other qualification.
“There were a few small differences but not enough to get into,” Stocking says. “The one exception was Parler. We found that this group is two-thirds Republican, or leans to the Republican Party, and one-third leans to the Democratic Party. That’s quite a big difference from the group that uses more established sites for news. Of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for news, that group is 55 percent Democrat or Democrat leaning and 39 percent Republican or Republican leaning. (Parler) is much more Republican overall than more established sites.”
What the sites have in common is a staunch proclamation that they are supporters of free speech and the First Amendment. “They’re really emphasizing this area of what they provide,” Stocking says. Some two-thirds of users reported being satisfied with the sense of community they’ve found on these sites and are overall happy with the experience.
With that freedom of expression deeply ingrained in the marketing and “about us” information on these sites, the Pew team was curious about content moderation: whether there was any stated policy about handling misinformation, disinformation, hate speech or other language that might be flagged on Twitter or Facebook.
“Some actually have moderation policies. Truth Social has a transparency tool they publish quarterly that has indications of types of content that has been removed,” Stocking says. “I think Twitter and Facebook do as well. Other sites have items in their terms of service on content they allow or don’t allow. It’s common for sites to say they don’t allow obscene content. That’s a form of moderation.”
But trying to discern whether those moderation policies are practiced is another story.
“It’s really hard to know what moderation is actually happening,” Stocking says. “One of the criticisms is that it’s kind of a black box. Users don’t know what it takes to have something removed and are in the dark about takedown notices. On these sites, we don’t know the extent to which they are moderating misinformation or disinformation. There are examples from our data which show at least some of that is coming through. When we looked at the post from prominent accounts on each site, in June 2022, we looked across several topics that were prominent in the news. One thing that stood out to me, in terms of misinformation and disinformation, some individual names, sites and figures talked about are individuals we know to be vaccine skeptics. Initially when we looked at the websites linked to most often, about half were other social media sites. Beyond that, some of the most prominent sites we saw are digital-only outlets associated with misinformation in the past. The difficulty is we don’t have a comparison point. We don’t know the extent to which we’d see those links on more mainstream sites.”
Galen Stocking, a senior computational social scientist on the Journalism Research Team at the Pew Research Center, talks to It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell about Pew’s recent report: The Role of Alternative Social Media in the News and Information Environment.