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Inside MeWe, Where Anti-Vaxxers and Conspiracy Theorists Thrive

What would social media look like without all the oversight?

White supremacists and members of the alt-right march to the White House on the anniversary of last year's 'Unite the Right' rally in Washington, DC, USA, 12 August 2018. On 12 August 2017, a bloody clash between white supremacists and counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia left three people dead and dozens injured.White supremacists march on anniversary of Unite the Right rally in DC, Washington, USA - 12 Aug 2018

White supremacists and members of the alt-right, like those pictured here in a wire photo from a rally in D.C. on August 12th, 2018, have found a home on the social media site MeWe.

Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Last month, Sheila McNallen posted that her husband, Steve, had been kicked off of Facebook, “apparently forever.” Steve is the founder of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, a group headquartered in California that advocates for a return to Germanic Paganism, including an espousal of what they have deemed traditional, Nordic white values. The Asatru Folk Assembly has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and in one YouTube video with more than 30,000 views, McNallen enumerates his theories on race, point by point, including his belief that racial differences are inherent to biology and his desire to defend the white race against “numerous threats to our future.” “I will fight for my race, primarily with words and ideas, but I will fight more literally if I have to,” he vows.

In the 36 comments on Sheila McNallen’s post, Facebook users sympathized with the McNallens’ plight, grousing over Facebook’s recent crackdown on white supremacists and sharing various platforms that would be more receptive to people who share his views. “Please look at MeWe,” one user wrote. “Many are heading over there.”

In an email to Rolling Stone, McNallen, who said he no longer has an official position in the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, confirmed he did indeed have a profile on the social networking app. He also expressed befuddlement that he had been banned from Facebook in the first place, saying that he has “NEVER advocated violence and I have NEVER insulted, threatened, or ridiculed any ethnic, religious, or racial group.” 

“I don’t expect you to agree with my religious, social, or political beliefs  – I’m good with that,” he said. “But the honest truth is that people have been driven off of Facebook for bullshit reasons.

A lot of people agree with McNallen, even those who don’t necessarily share his extremist views — and many of them are heading over to MeWe. Following the morass of negative media coverage surrounding Facebook’s propagation of fake news, the social media giant has issued a highly public mea culpa, cracking down on hate groups like the Ásatrú Folk Assembly as well as anti-vaxxers and other types of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and company. As these users are being booted from or being subject to deplatforming (a term for deprioritizing content in news feeds and making it difficult to search for) on Facebook, they’re increasingly fueled by the belief that mainstream networks are censoring their views — and this is, arguably, making them even angrier and more vocal. They’re looking for platforms that will provide a home for their ideas, and newer, less stringent platforms like MeWe have been all too happy to serve this function.

MeWe was founded by entrepreneur and privacy advocate Mark Weinstein, a cheerful, loquacious man and a self-identified libertarian. He’s friendly and open, with a hoarse voice that occasionally crackles with emotion, and he’s also prone to the occasional fit of bombast: “I’m one of the guys who invented social media,” he cheerfully tells me at the start of our conversation. An MBA graduate from the UCLA School of Management, Weinstein launched his first venture, SuperGroups (which included SuperFamily and SuperFriends), in 1998, allowing users to create free, multi-member community website; that venture, a sort of precursor to Facebook groups shut down in 2001. He then developed a professional coaching and training service, publishing a series of self-help books under the “Habitually Great” brand.

As he recalls it, Weinstein watched Facebook’s ascent to global domination with horror, viewing what he perceived to be its relentless crusade against user privacy. “Social media wasn’t invented for us to be data to be bought and sold and for the governments around the world to be able to have access to know everything about us,” he tells Rolling Stone. He became committed to engineering and building a social network “that didn’t spy on people, that didn’t track them, that didn’t sell them down the river.”

Mark WeinsteinEvan Ross hosts MeWe Summer Kick Off Party, Los Angeles, USA - 29 Jun 2016MeWe, the next gen social network & Evan Ross Host a Summer Kick Off Party

Mark Weinstein attends a MeWe Summer Kick Off Party in Los Angeles in 2016. Photo credit: Chelsea Lauren/REX/Shutterstock

The end result was MeWe, a social networking app that claimed to fiercely protect user privacy. The genesis of the name, says Weinstein, is exactly what it sounds like: “My life is composed of me and then my ‘we,’ which is everybody that’s part of my life. That’s the we. It resonates really well with people. People love our name. We get a lot of thumbs up on our brand.” MeWe was released to minor acclaim in 2016, but it didn’t really start taking off until last year, when it started trending in the Google Play store and grew 405 percent, from 700,000 members to 3 million.

MeWe is not known as a hotbed of extremist discourse in the same way that 8Chan or Discord are, nor does it have nearly as big of a user base. (The gaming platform Discord, for instance, which has attracted criticism for its lax moderation policies, has 145 million users.) Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst at the SPLC’s intelligence project, is familiar with MeWe, and has seen far-right extremists like McNallen gravitating to the platform. But Hankes isn’t as concerned about MeWe’s ability to serve as an echo chamber for Facebook expats as nearly as he is about Facebook and Twitter serving as a radicalization portal for those susceptible to far-right extremist messaging.

“The way I look at this, Facebook and Twitter have always served as funnels to get people in more extreme communities,” he says. “You want to keep [extremists] out of the major platforms, and you want to limit exposure. Those sub-communities that are hard to see, hard to track and have very radical individuals — they have always existed.”

Hankes says it’s less important to monitor small social media platforms with extremist user bases, and more important to put pressure on large platforms like Facebook and Twitter to crack down on right-wing extremist and conspiracy theory groups. The goal, he says, is to “limit exposure” on larger platforms, and then “try to deal with those small communities,” so they can be monitored later.

But even though MeWe is small, it is rapidly growing: Weinstein says the app currently has five million members, and it is projected to grow twice as much by the end of 2019; far more users than a white supremacist-friendly platform like Gab, which last year said it had 800,000 registered users. The app also plans to introduce new features like in-app gaming at the end of the year, which will likely attract even more users; as will the fact that Facebook has also taken the formal position of banning alt-right darlings like Milo Yiannopolous, Paul Joseph Watson, Alex Jones and Laura Loomer, adding fuel to the fire of far-right extremists’ beliefs that their views are being sacrificed on the pyre of the left-wing agenda. “We are here [on MeWe] for better treatment, until Facebook and Twitter disappear,” one MeWe user who frequently comments on QAnon forums told me. “It’s only a matter of time until that happens.”

Weinstein attributes this incredible growth to “constituencies” migrating from Facebook, which he says are all over the political spectrum: “We’ve had people of all colors, of all stripes” come over from Facebook after being subject to censorship, he says. “MeWe’s meteoric growth is due to backlash against Facebook and the other current mainstream social giants for their countless privacy violations, their selling [and] sharing of user data, and their biased and bizarre censorship of all kinds of groups including progressives, conservatives, LGBTQ users, African Americans, vegans and countless others.” But one look at the groups on MeWe makes it evident that a large number of users skew toward the right-wing or even right-wing extremist end of the spectrum. In the “politics” category, for instance, the groups with the most members skew right-leaning or Trump-leaning; additionally, even in the seemingly innocuous “alternative lifestyle” category, the most popular groups are conspiracy theory groups like “We the Sheeple,” which has 4150 members and where QAnon, Flat Earther, and “white genocide” memes run rampant.

Weinstein has a simple explanation for this. “At this juncture, conservatives have been so vehemently censored on Facebook, the influx of them is simply higher right now than the influx of liberals,” he says. Despite the repeated insistence of right-wing politicians like Ted Cruz and far-right Fox News commenters and livestreamers like Diamond and Silk that Facebook has a left-wing bias, studies by various media watchdogs have proven this not to be the case.

Yet at least one MeWe user I spoke with, a 34-year-old man who we’ll call CH, firmly believes that Facebook is committed to suppressing and censoring right-wing views. “Mark Zuckerberg and his crew are too biased towards left-leaning liberal Democrats, and hostile towards normal-minded people and conservatives,” he says. “MeWe has no political affiliation. I’m trying my best not to support far-left liberal tech monopolies.”

Weinstein takes pride in the fact that MeWe does not censor anyone, on any side of the political spectrum. “If you’re just a regular person from around the world who has a political point of view and you’re abiding by our terms of service, that’s none of our business…[but] if you’re a conservative or a liberal and you’re spewing hate, you’re gonna be out. You’re not welcome on MeWe,” he says. Users are instructed to flag and report content they find objectionable, which is then reviewed by MeWe’s 30-person moderation team. Weinstein also says that MeWe looks at every new group created by a member “to make sure before they go into our directory that they’re abiding by our terms,” which prohibit “unlawful, harmful, obscene, or pornographic content,” as well as content that is “hateful, threatening, harmful [or] incites violence.”

But it’s not just MAGA supporters and centrists who are finding their way to the platform. Conspiracy theorists, such as anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers, who were officially deplatformed (though not outright banned) by Facebook back in March, have also found a comfortable home at MeWe, with multiple anti-vaxxers telling Rolling Stone earlier this spring that many in the community frustrated by Facebook censorship were heading over there. While public health experts have expressed concern that such policies can contribute to an “echo chamber” effect, creating a space where their ideas can run rampant without the risk of being moderated or fact-checked, Weinstein freely admits that the platform does not feel a specific obligation toward preventing the dissemination of bogus theories. “There’s nowhere in our terms that says you may not post fake news,” he says. To prevent such content, he says, is tantamount to censorship: “it’s not my job to censor good, law-abiding citizens abiding by our terms of service discussing…their opinions.”

The fact that MeWe does not allow advertisers to boost or promote content, as Facebook does, “mitigate[s] the whole issue” of boosting or promoting inaccurate or specious content. “I have to go find those groups and I have to join them. They can’t find me,” he says. He claims this essentially creates a flattening effect that renders all content equally legitimate-sounding in the eyes of the user, and that MeWe and similar platforms should not be responsible for determining whether “what you’re saying is a lie or the truth. That’s such a slippery slope,” he says. “Then what are we gonna do? Watch every member for everything they say to see if what they say is the truth or not and then we’d have to have some kind of measurement? Oh my god. Talk about Orwellian.”

Yet Weinstein’s aversion to policing so-called “fake news” has also created a platform for far-right extremist conspiracy theories, such as QAnon or Holocaust denialism, to thrive. MeWe is replete with posts from users attempting to debunk or deconstruct cataclysmic world events such as the Holocaust, as well as recent mass shootings orchestrated by white supremacists, such as the Christchurch shooting in New Zealand. A thread for the pro-Trump group The Lion Is Awake, for instance, contains memes with footage from the shooting, which was uploaded on Facebook, with an arrow pointing to a man using a cell phone as evidence that it was a so-called “false flag” event — meaning it was staged to steer public discourse in a different direction  —  a commonly used term on right-wing extremist 8chan forums, where both the Christchurch shooter and the Poway synagogue shooter were first radicalized.

Although MeWe’s user guidelines prohibit “unlawful, harmful, obscene, or pornographic content,” Rolling Stone found clear-cut examples of content violating one or many of these categories, such as posts from gun owners openly admitting to illegal firearms ownership, or memes of Mark Zuckerberg in a taqiyah, or traditional Muslim garb; and Zuckerberg giving oral sex to a comically oversized phallus.

When asked about the moderation protocols his team has in place to prevent such breaches of user guidelines, Weinstein said MeWe’s moderation team does its best to screen for such content, though he admits that “we’ve grown faster than our moderation team.” But the central issue with MeWe’s moderation policy appears to lie in its founder’s understanding of what, exactly, qualifies as hateful speech, and what does not. And hate speech runs rampant on MeWe, to the degree that racist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic memes can be found on virtually any right-wing politics group chat or page, such as memes debunking the Holocaust or underscoring “globalist” conspiracy theories.

During our conversation, Weinstein said he saw a clear distinction between content featuring a swastika and a meme promoting, say, anti-Jewish “globalist” conspiracy theories, both of which Rolling Stone saw in multiple MeWe posts. “If somebody says that a certain constituency is behind whatever it is, why is that hate speech by itself?,” Weinstein said of the latter example. “If I say, ‘White people are the ones behind the movement for sunscreen,’ then why is that [viewed as] hate speech?”

MeWe’s moderation policy appears to stem from Weinstein’s belief that the line between what does and doesn’t constitute hate speech has gotten increasingly blurred and inflected with political bias. “People are misinterpreting and [inferring a] political bias based on things that aren’t hateful and I think that’s where you cross the line,” he says. “It’s like, Are you kidding me? Isn’t this America where we’re allowed to talk about our differences?”

But allowing users to discuss and debate their beliefs, and allowing verifiably inaccurate and dangerous beliefs to thrive and propagate, are two different things. The lax policies on platforms like MeWe ensure that it not only falls squarely into the latter category, but that it attracts a significant number of users who share those inaccurate and dangerous beliefs as well. Weinstein, however, doesn’t see it that way. “It’s just like-minded people talking to each other,” he says. “What’s the matter with like-minded people talking to each other?”

Weinstein is insistent in his belief that MeWe is for “the good guys,” a phrase he repeats multiple times throughout our conversation. “MeWe’s not about supporting hateful people,” he says. “[MeWe] is for the good guys.”  But on the internet, as is the case in real life, being for the good guys usually means taking a stand against the bad ones.

 

This article has been updated to clarify that many different types of users, not just those on the far right, use the MeWe platform. An additional quote from Weinstein has been added to emphasize that point.

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