MeWe Sold Itself on Privacy. Then the Radical Right Arrived.

‘Have you tried to moderate 15 million people?’ MeWe founder Mark Weinstein told OneZero

A photo illustration of the home page of the social media application MeWe displayed on the screen of an iPhone.
Photo illustration: Chesnot/Getty Images

“I’m an American who is sick and tired of you traitors,” an account going by the name Chuck Testa posted on MeWe, an alternative social network popular with far-right extremists, two days after the Capitol riots. “Did you think we weren’t going to fight back… There is no place for you. You must be purged,” they continued, writing in the chatroom for a Stop the Steal group of more than 2,700 members. Testa’s proposed solution to the nonbelievers? A “firing squad.”

Across MeWe, movements such as Stop the Steal and QAnon, along with right-wing militia groups, have taken root as mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter make sweeping gestures, arguably too late, to rid their own platforms of rampant abuse. OneZero observed dozens of posts endorsing or encouraging a violent response to post-election events on the platform over the past two months. And in messages posted to Parler, Telegram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, which have deplatformed some far-right communities in recent months, MeWe has been actively endorsed by some Trump supporters claiming that they’re victims of “censorship.”

A screenshot from a “Stop the Steal” chat observed by OneZero on Telegram.

MeWe’s membership has grown in recent months to roughly 15 million users. And while its competitors Parler and Gab have been banned from app stores and booted by hosting companies for failing to moderate hate speech, MeWe’s website and mobile app remain untouched. It now stands to inherit disgruntled users, some of them identifying with armed militants and conspiracy movements.

The creator of MeWe says he never wanted to build a home for unfettered speech. Instead, MeWe was envisioned as a privacy-focused Facebook alternative. That explains why the company’s board is currently made up of a wide swath of mainstream figures, including World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee; Dany Garcia, president of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s production company; and Jack Canfield and Marci Shimoff, authors of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.

“Have you tried to moderate 15 million people?”

In an interview with MeWe founder and CEO Mark Weinstein, OneZero asked why radical far-right content persists on the platform in spite of its terms of service prohibiting “hateful, threatening, harmful,” and violent content, as well as members that “stalk, harass, bully, intimidate, or harm another user.” MeWe says it reserves the right to terminate the accounts of users violating these rules.

“Have you tried to moderate 15 million people?” Weinstein said. “They’re appearing on Twitter and Facebook — they’re everywhere. Why single out MeWe? We’re better at it than those guys are.”

Weinstein declined to specify how many employees or contractors it employs to moderate MeWe content, but said the number is under 100 individuals, adding that MeWe is working to hire additional moderators.

MeWe’s origins date back to five years before Mark Zuckerberg took TheFacebook online in his Harvard University dorm. In 1998, libertarian entrepreneur Mark Weinstein founded SuperGroups.com, a social networking site that billed itself as “a private place for you and your friends to gather on the Web.” Though it was sold in the early 2000s, SuperGroups laid the foundation for MeWe, which Weinstein publicly launched in 2016.

Weinstein has described MeWe as the anti-Facebook for its decision to not sell or share user data, and for offering users “privacy by design” choices. Berners-Lee, who serves on MeWe’s advisory board and did not respond to OneZero’s request for comment, has claimed the platform will return “the power of the internet back to the people.” Even mainstream privacy experts have championed the company’s mission and stated commitments to not exploit people’s personal information.

“Why single out MeWe? We’re better at it than those guys are.”

MeWe argues that it is home to conservative and progressive communities alike, and a simple search reveals communities celebrating Senator Bernie Sanders, veganism, and LGBTQ+ issues. In December, Vice News reported that MeWe was adopted by some Hong Kongers as “a form of resistance” against Facebook over surveillance and privacy concerns.

But the platform’s focus on privacy has attracted other communities as well, such as “Antifa Exterminators,” a group named for the militia organization “Oath Keepers USA,” and “Stop Mandatory Vaccination OFFICIAL.”

In a “Joe Biden Is Not My President” group observed by OneZero, members discussing the attack on the Capitol talked about shooting people.

“Can I be honest … the day I have to put a human life in my scope is gunna be a scary day ! I’m not looking forward to it,” a user named Justin Alexander wrote in the group’s chatroom.

“I’m not looking forward to it either,” replied another person with the username Derek Howell. “But I’m at peace with it. And it’s time.”

A third member calling themselves Carrie Brownell wrote: “I was able to put down our family dog … If I was able to pull the trigger on something I love, I imagine doing it to someone I hate, or is threatening my life would be a lot easier.”

Compared to Facebook and Twitter, which release occasional transparency reports following notable policy enforcement events, MeWe offers little visibility into its moderation efforts. It requests that users report posts, groups, pages, and members who appear to be violating its guidelines. Employees who work in trust and safety can choose to remove profiles or mark them with “strikes”; three strikes against a user will cause them to be removed.

When asked how moderators deliberate gray-area content, Weinstein said you “know hate when you see it,” citing things like “prejudice” and “swastikas” and comments such as, “this person should be killed.”

Militias are one area where MeWe’s policies are unclear in practice, even though its guidelines forbid content that is threatening or incites violence. Weinstein said U.S. Capitol Police had contacted the company in regards to last week’s events, and that MeWe is cooperating. Capitol Police did not immediately respond to OneZero’s request for comment.

USA Today recently traced a conspiracy theory that antifa incited violence at the Capitol from fringe sites like 4chan and Parler to members of Congress who parroted the idea based on zero evidence. OneZero found similar content on MeWe, with members of the “Joe Biden Is Not My President” group writing that “antifa [was] photographed inside [the] Capitol,” and that “antifa was goading Trump supporters when they stormed the Capitol” as the riots were happening. MeWe deleted all of the individuals and groups on the platform mentioned in this article after publication.

In October last year, following OneZero’s report on militia groups converging on MeWe, we reported three groups and six pages where militias appeared to be recruiting and organizing members. A spokesperson for MeWe said the company investigated all of them, but only removed one. In a search on the platform conducted on Tuesday, the term “militia” no longer served any results, though militia groups and pages OneZero has already joined are still active on the site. Weinstein declined to comment on whether MeWe had recently implemented a search ban or other restrictions around militia content on MeWe, only saying that if moderators find material breaking the site’s rules, it will be removed.

Federal officials monitoring extremist activity online have warned police chiefs in major cities across the nation to look out for signs of violence on Inauguration Day, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

“With smaller platforms, content moderation is a big challenge,” J.M. Berger, a researcher and analyst who studies U.S. extremist movements, told OneZero, commenting on social media networks in general. “What should be clear at this stage is any effort to build a social media app or platform needs to budget and plan for content moderation as a big part of their business model.”

“That said, the biggest risks are attached to the biggest platforms,” Berger added. “Deplatforming is a tool for managing how extremists recruit and incite, but it’s not a 100% solution. Denying extremists platforms where they can reach audiences of millions is progress, but they’ll always find other venues.”

MeWe’s relatively modest size speaks to the ease with which a platform purportedly built for privacy and consumer control can be co-opted by a user base it claims to have never wanted. Furthermore, moderating far-right diaspora online has become a whack-a-mole situation, as communities quickly migrate to whichever platforms will still host them.

“Although imperfect, the long-term solution to this is a trade association in which well-established social media platforms like Facebook would share content moderation resources with these [smaller companies],” Emerson T. Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council studying extremism and disinformation online, told OneZero. “The flight of far-right extremists from Facebook and Twitter is going to put an immense strain on these developing platforms.”

“You can think of the problem like pollution,” Brooking added. “Even though large platforms have adopted stricter content moderation standards (with the tools to enforce them), they have benefited for years from the presence of this toxic user base. This means that they carry some responsibility for the downstream effects.”

When asked if it engages in cross-platform moderation and information sharing initiatives, a spokesperson for Twitter directed OneZero “to all the areas in which the industry collaborates on content issues and shares resources in the exact manner you’re describing — these entities are also open to participation from other, smaller companies.” Twitter’s spokesperson cited: the Global Internet Forum to Counter Protestors; Christchurch Call; WePROTECT; The Santa Clara Principles; the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and its own publicly available archive of state-backed information operations.

Facebook did not immediately respond to OneZero’s request for comment.

Several members of MeWe’s advisory board told OneZero that its position on user privacy appealed to them and that people should have a choice outside of mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

“I think that MeWe like all platforms needs to reassess its stance if it becomes a place where illegal activity is planned,” Sherry Turkle, a MeWe advisor and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology specializing in social sciences and technology, told OneZero in an email. “It has stood for privacy and free speech, which I support. That is not the same as planning sedition on a site.” (Turkle informed OneZero that she had purchased stock in the company.)

“If we don’t help people like Mewe who want to make a *good* social network, navigate through hard problems that make them examine how their intentions and ideals are implemented in policies and software, then we will have a literal duopoly of Facebook and Twitter,” Jon Callas, also a MeWe advisor as well as director of technology projects at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told OneZero in an email.

Update: MeWe deleted all of the radical rightwing individuals and groups mentioned in this article after publication.

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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