By any measure, Truth Social, Donald Trump’s social media platform, has had a rough start.
Engagement is low, the initial flood of downloads of the app have withered to a trickle and the first resignations of its top staff have begun. It’s too soon to tell if it’s a stiff, but as with many Trump businesses that fail to take off, the former US president appears to be washing his hands of it: he has barely used it.
The Twitter clone, where posts are called “truths”, was launched with high expectations on February’s President’s Day. It was briefly the most downloaded free app on Apple. But three weeks after Truth Social was launched, its download chart position dropped to 116. Last week it failed to break the top 200. One study found that downloads have fallen by as much as 95%.
It now seems Truth Social may be heading the same way as Trump Steaks and Trump Vodka, just to name a few. Slapping the Trump name on a product that others produce better just does not work – especially now.
Yet – judging by his public pronouncements – it was meant to be a very different story this time. “I created Truth Social … to stand up to the tyranny of big tech,” Trump said in October, 10 months after he was permanently banned from Twitter.
But users, many anticipating a direct channel to Trump and Trumpist thought as the former president prepares for a 2024 presidential run, have been left sorely disappointed by the Truth Social experience.
An estimated 1.2 million users who have the Apple-only app have faced long wait times to access the platform. “Thank you for joining!” reads the Truth Social prompt. “Due to massive demand, we have placed you on our waitlist.” Even Trump appears to be steering clear, and has still only posted on the platform once.
Meanwhile, Digital Word Acquisition Corp, the special acquisitions vehicle or Spac, bringing Truth Social public is under investigation by the SEC. The deal had been anticipated to reward investors with millions – and Trump himself as much as a billion – but the company has now been rocked an exodus of executives.
Last week Josh Adams and Billy Boozer, Truth Social’s chiefs of technology and product development, resigned from the company. The Washington Post reported that the resignations came after the Trump Media & Technology Group CEO, Devin Nunes, the former US congressman, attempted to install his own allies to run the company.
Truth Social’s service issues comes as Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, became Twitter’s largest shareholder acquiring a 9.2% stake in the company as well as a seat on the board.
Musk, who has had a series of run-ins with US financial regulators over financial disclosures made on social media, has signaled that he plans to advocate for changes on the platform where he has 80.4 million followers. Shares in Twitter rose more than 27%.
Last month, he asked his followers if Twitter was failing to adhere to free speech principles. “Free speech is essential to a functioning democracy. Do you believe Twitter rigorously adheres to this principle?” he asked.
After more than 2 million users responded, Musk wrote: “Given that Twitter serves as the de facto public town square, failing to adhere to free speech principles fundamentally undermines democracy.”
With speculation mounting that Musk could use his shareholder and board-member power to restore Trump to Twitter, where he had 90 million followers before he was disbarred after the 6 January Capitol riot, the purpose and fate of Truth Social hangs in the balance.
Trump Media & Technology Group, the Trump venture that advisers said last year would become a “media powerhouse”, initially presented Truth Social as the centerpiece of its ambitions to counter what the former president routinely call “fake news media” and to establish a social media presence he currently lacks. But, according to the Post, Trump has “privately fumed” about Truth Social’s slow take-up and glitches and considered joining rival competitor Gettr.
For several reasons, Truth Social may have been a step too far, said David Carr at SimilarWeb. The analytics firm estimates Truth Social visitors at 200,000 daily, skewed 70% male, compared to 1 million for Gettr. Twitter averages 217 million.
“In the case of Truth Social, Gettr and Parler had already emerged to cater to the same audience Truth Social is going after,” said Carr. “So it needed to be 150% better, and so far it hasn’t created great engagement. If Trump had posted a ton of content, and there really was a pent up demand for it, maybe things would have been different.”
But the apparent failure of Truth Social presents certain truths about social media itself. Most users don’t come to it, besides perhaps Twitter with its relatively low number of users, for political communication; one-sided conversations rarely inspire engagement, and sites require large numbers of users and traffic to make social impact.
“Community management professionals I know often talk about the ‘empty party’ problem of how you get the conversation going from a dead stop, and it’s not an easy problem to solve,” Carr said.
At the heart of the issue is what Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, terms “network effects”. “Social media sites are more valuable to you the more people are using them. Like a phonebook, it’s of no value if it only has one name in it,” he said.
Part of Truth Social’s problem was that it set out to exclude a large part of the political spectrum. “They went after the Maga portion of the population, so they were starting with one hand tied behind their backs,” Tucker said. “It’s a tough sell, even before the problems of the launch and rollout.”
Yet Trump has been routinely under-estimated in the past, said Tucker, “yet he somehow seems to lend being a fairly unsuccessful business person to being an incredibly successful political candidate”.
Truth Social was created to counter what many conservatives deride as “cancel culture” censorship from the left. But because of its conservative dominance Trump’s social media platform has become medium for “trolls, self-declared and self-made experts, conspiracy theorists, attention-seekers of all stripes”, said Mark Federman, of the University of Guelph-Humber.
“Trump’s motivation for Truth Social was to … take control of his voice amplification. That’s failed, so he’s had to admit defeat,” he added.