After being unceremoniously kicked off every major social network, former president Donald Trump is starting his own.
Truth Social – no relation to the infamous Soviet propaganda outlet Pravda (meaning “Truth”) – plans to launch publicly in 2022 as a new alternative to the Silicon Valley titans of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, plus the Chinese-owned TikTok.
It is all part of Mr Trump’s grand gamble to create a new media empire that would compete with Netflix and Disney+ for streaming TV and even go after Amazon and Google with new cloud hosting services designed to be “non-cancellable”.
But within hours of its announcement on Wednesday, hackers had uncovered a publicly accessible beta version of Truth Social, allowing social media users to hijacked important usernames including “donaldtrump” and “donaldjtrump” and post images of a pig defecating.
So what is Mr Trump’s plan, and will it prosper or implode?
‘Stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech’
Silicon Valley crossed a point of no return when it booted Mr Trump in January for praising the crowd who violently stormed the seat of the US government in the hope of negating the result of the 2020 election.
While it was not the first time US tech companies had banned a world leader, it was the first time they had ejected the democratically elected head of state and government of their own country.
Since then, the combustible former tweeter-in-chief has repeatedly promised (or threatened) to start his own social network, but existing attempts have been shambolic or insubstantial.
One previous attempt, entitled “from the Desk of Donald Trump”, was marketed as “a beacon of freedom” but was in fact a blog, which shut down after just under a month of reportedly low traffic.
This time, Mr Trump wants the world to know he is serious. “I created Truth Social to stand up to the tyranny of Big Tech,” he said in a statement. “We live in a world where the Taliban has a huge presence on Twitter, yet your favourite American President has been silenced.”
Truth Social appears very similar to Twitter, with “TRUTHs” instead of tweets, “re-TRUTHs” instead of retweets and a “TRUTH feed” in place of a news feed. Its pre-order page in Apple’s iPhone app store promises exciting features such as avatars, profiles, a search function, and notifications.
In July, Mr Trump’s business team trademarked various terms including “Trump Social”, “Trump Plus” (perhaps indicating a paid subscription tier), “truthing”, “post a truth”, and “retruth”, covering not just social media but TV shows, podcasts, films and video games.
As for politics, Truth Social promises a “Big Tent” approach allowing “an open, free and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology”.
“Think of a giant outdoor event tent at your best friend’s wedding,” it suggests. “Who’s there? Uncle Jim from Atlanta is a proud libertarian. Aunt Kellie from Texas is a staunch conservative. Your cousin John from California is a die-hard liberal. And guess what? They’re all together to have an amazing time and share their viewpoints of the world.”
The master plan
Mr Trump’s ambitions go far beyond social media. Truth Social is owned by a new company called the Trump Media and Technology Group (TMTG), which has struck a deal with investors to list on the stock market.
A slide deck shared on TMTG’s website proposes to create “a media powerhouse to rival the liberal media consortium”, not only through social networking but through online streaming video, news broadcasts and, one day, cloud computing services and digital payments.
Naming Netflix, Twitter, Disney+ and the podcast industry as potential competitors, it claims “a massive market opportunity” to build a “non-cancellable global community” and “galvanise a conservative media universe”. As well as Truth Social, the deck describes TMTG+, a streaming service for “non-woke” entertainment.
In the long term, it suggests that TMTG could offer cloud hosting and payments systems to rival Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Stripe, all of which banned Mr Trump in some form in January. The idea seems to be that TMTG could become a major tech provider to services excluded from big platforms.
Shares in the shell company that has signed a deal to acquire TMTG quadrupled in price on Thursday as Trump supporters and members of Reddit’s WallStreetBets community appeared to engage in a mass buying spree.
Telegram channels associated with WallStreetBets were full of joyous messages encouraging members to pile into shares in the belief that they would continue to rise in price, giving praise to Mr Trump with varying levels of sincerity and irony.
Glitches, legal issues and a defecating pig
Yet before Wednesday night was over, Mr Trump’s plan went off the rails. According to the Daily Dot, an anonymous hacker used a specialist search engine to locate TMTG’s servers, some of which were exposed to the public internet.
Hackers and journalists were able to set up fake accounts for famous people including Donald Trump, Mike Pence, and QAnon influencer Ron Watkins. One unknown prankster grabbed “donaldjtrump” and posted an image of a pig doing a poo.
Truth Social quickly banned the users and shut down its public interface, but eagle-eyed social media users noticed another potential problem.
The service appears to be based on Mastodon, a free, open source piece of software that allows people to set up their own social networks.
Mastodon’s software licence, however, requires anyone who modifies it to make their own source code publicly available and to acknowledge where they got it from. Now Mastodon’s founder Eugen Rochko is considering legal action.
Mr Rochko told The Independent: ““We pride ourselves on providing software that allows anyone to run their own social media platform independent of Big Tech.
“But the condition upon which we release our work for free in the first place is that as we give to the platform operators, so do the platform operators give back to us by providing their improvements for us and everyone to see.”
Truth Social’s promotion materials even include fake messages from corporations and news outlets such as Chevy, the New York Times, TechCrunch and Variety. A Times spokesperson told The Verge: “This is unauthorised and we will be in touch with them.”
Users could be banned for too many capital letters
Even if Truth Social launches successfully, it will have an uphill struggle to enforce its rules, some of which appear fairly bizarre.
The network’s terms of service ban “excessive use of capital letters”, and also forbid users to “disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the site”.
It also says users must not “harass, annoy, intimidate, or threaten any of our employees or agents engaged in providing any portion of the site”. However, it does not have a similar provision for harassing users.
The rules exemplify the challenge of moderating social media, which few insurgent conservative platforms have been able to surmount.
Gab and Parler, two previous attempts, have both promised to respect various ideologies and allow free debate without censorship. In practice, both have been accused of censoring Left-wing voices.
Meanwhile, both have struggled to contain a flood of extremist movements attempting to exploit their free speech ethos to incite violence against minorities and spread hate material.
Critics of Mr Trump would say he is in different to that risk, given his history of racist claims.