MeWe Grows Amid Social Media Censorship and Privacy Concerns

published by Chand Bellur
January 24, 2021 at 3:25 p.m.

 

  • Culver City-based MeWe provides social media technology with better privacy protections than Facebook or Twitter.
  • MeWe’s lax moderation makes it popular with conservative and alt-right social media users.
  • Although MeWe doesn’t cater to specific political groups, its “alt-tech” status helped grow its user base, as alt-right users defect from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other similar platforms.

What is MeWe?

MeWe is a relatively new social media app. As part of the “alt-tech” movement, MeWe often draws comparisons to Parler; however, the former has no right-wing affiliations. With better privacy protections and laissez-faire moderation practices, MeWe attracts fringe elements in addition to regular social media users.

MeWe most resembles Facebook in terms of functionality. Users create profiles, posting messages with images and text. Others can interact with this content, and users can join groups.

Like all social media apps, MeWe is nothing special. Beyond scalability and simple AI algorithms, most social media software is low hanging fruit in terms of engineering. Although the workflows and user interfaces are more sophisticated, modern social media hasn’t evolved far beyond its bulletin board system (BBS) ancestors.

Anyone with an elementary understanding of databases and front-end development can create a social networking app. The challenge is getting people to use it. “Going viral” is usually the result of a modicum of innovation and massive amounts of luck, with social media leaders like Zuckerberg and Dorsey being below average developers.

Alt-Right and Conspiracy Theorists Find Home on MeWe

Over the past several years, a grass-roots anti-establishment movement emerged. Unlike the peace struggle of the late 1960s, this modern-day crusade seeks to roll back the clock on civil rights and science. Although not a unified movement, the alt-right, rife with misinformation and conspiracy theories, fits well with anti-vaxxers and other campaigns. Many of these dubious entities have found a home on MeWe.

MeWe does not actively cater to the alt-right and conspiracy-inclined. Lax moderation policies and enhanced privacy attract fringe elements to the platform. The app is also popular in Hong Kong, where protestors defying mainland China use the app to protect their privacy. MeWe is currently the fourth most popular app in Hong Kong, declining from first place, likely due to market saturation.

Social media “refugees” serve as another source of MeWe’s alt-right contingency. As Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others use sacrifice average user accounts to appease critics and protect lucrative alt-right creators; they create a growing legion of banned users. With no other place to go, some have found a new home on MeWe.

Although MeWe faces criticism from media sources such as Rolling StoneMashable, and BBC News, there’s a tendency to ignore the way established social media giants moderate lucrative firebrands. Donald Trump and Gavin McInnes are still fixtures on YouTube, despite being banned or temporarily restricted. It took a violent insurrection for Twitter to “permanently” ban Donald Trump. Mainstream social media is full of white supremacy and misinformation, with small labels posted near incendiary content to properly inform the public as the revenues flow.

By all appearances and policy statements, MeWe doesn’t moderate anyone beyond criminal activities and obscene content. From lucrative agitators to hateful end-users to people who merely want to connect with friends, everyone has a voice on MeWe. Established social media giants moderate haphazardly, allowing the lucrative free rein while average users face immediate and permanent bans for minor violations without a single warning. 

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and others assist MeWe’s growth with heavy-handed user moderation. As critics complain that these dominant social media providers led to the rise of the alt-right, banning non-lucrative users helps to deflect blame. There’s no research enumerating how many have been banned by social media; however, according to Wired, Twitter banned 925,000 accounts in the first half of 2020. If one does the assumptive math, it appears that social media “refugees” comprise much of MeWe’s base.

Time to Rethink Social Media?

Social media is a usurper of sorts. Connecting with people over technology is nothing new. BBS systems of the 1980s enabled users to dial in and share messages and files. The latter can’t proliferate in today’s social networks, as restricting users and locking them in serves to generate profits. Instagram won’t even let you post an outbound link, let alone a file. In many ways, social media, designed for profit, is inferior to 1980s bulletin board systems.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink social media, making it a more open protocol. In this model, companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, MeWe, and others would serve as clients, disconnected from content, much like Chrome, Safari, Firefox, and Edge offer differing web browsing experiences. This removes all legal liability, much like how Gmail or Outlook.com aren’t responsible for your emails’ content.

Why is social media implemented in such a closed way? The obvious answer is for profit. The less apparent reason is because it locks end-users into an addictive user experience. The goal is to keep you engaged. To this extent, even major, reputable social media providers succumb to radicalizing the alt-right or other unintended consequences in the race for expanding revenues.

Unlike email or the web, the social media experience takes place in a heavily-branded corporate landscape. Social media controls the user experience with an opaque set of algorithms attempting to shape beliefs, change minds, and alter behaviors. Email doesn’t do that. The web lets end-users control their indoctrination processes.

The notion of open social media protocols is not new. Just like we have HTTPS for the web, it’s entirely possible to design an open set of social media protocols. It’s a good idea; however, corporate greed will never allow it to happen. Instead, these Titanics of social media will continue to hit icebergs of controversy and disinterest, vanishing like MySpace, only to be replaced by something similar yet better.

Most likely, people will tire of social media. No one uses Twitter to communicate with their team at work. Twitter is non-essential entertainment. If employed for work, it’s only to market products and services or spread news that’s already available in richer video content. The sole attraction of Twitter is that it allows the Hoi Palloi to interact with the elite. Instagram and Facebook offer the same allure. The elite, such as movie stars and recording artists, use social media to stay relevant and famous. Some even built their fame on Instagram and Twitter, with no underlying talent other than taking selfies.

Social media’s growth is also its downfall. There’s more average users than stars. As this ratio grows out of balance, everyday users are less likely to interact with their idols favorably. When social media becomes less participatory and interactive, it transforms into a less satisfying experience.

Social media is also a trend and, as with all ephemeral movements, is subject to falling out of favor. MySpace is a perfect example of how social media can quickly become stale and obsolete. The rise of TikTok and even MeWe threatens to take eyeballs away from ads on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and established social media giants. When they can no longer grow their userbase and revenue stream, they collapse and disappear. On to the next one! Does anyone even think about MySpace anymore?

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