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Trump's Truth Social's disastrous launch raises doubts about its long-term viability

Former president Donald Trump, a longtime critic of how Democrats debuted healthcare.gov, is facing a bungled website launch of his own. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Former president Donald Trump, a longtime critic of how Democrats debuted healthcare.gov, is facing a bungled website launch of his own. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Published Feb 23, 2022

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Former president Donald Trump, a longtime critic of how Democrats debuted healthcare.gov, is facing a bungled website launch of his own.

His long-promised social network, Truth Social, has been almost entirely inaccessible in the first days of its grand debut due to technical glitches, a 13-hour outage and a 300 000-person waitlist.

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Even Trump supporters made jokes about the early slog. Jenna Ellis, a former member of his legal team, posted to Instagram a photo showing Trump with his finger hovering over a laptop, "letting us on to Truth Social one at a time."

The site had been heralded for months as the crown jewel of Trump's post-presidential business ambitions, with allies pledging it would revolutionize social media and take down the mainstream social networks where Trump is banned.

But early glimpses at Truth Social suggest its offerings are almost identical to what Twitter and other sites have offered for years - except tweets are called "Truths," and retweets "ReTruths. The site's early struggles also have fueled doubts that Trump's company will be able to handle tougher long-term challenges, such as policing for dangerous content and guarding against cyberattacks.

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"The basic thing they needed to actually get right to get someone in the door, they couldn't get right," said Bill Fitzgerald, a privacy researcher. The "ineptitude of the rollout," he added, could be a warning of future issues ahead: "There is no better sign of a rushed implementation than the fact that you can't onboard anybody. So I'm hard-pressed to understand why anyone would trust that these people would keep their information safe."

The site's problems extend beyond its waitlist: Its logo - a broken capital 'T' with a period - is identical to the logo of Trailar, a British seller of truck solar panels. A company executive told The Washington Post that it is "seeking legal advice to understand next steps and options available to protect our brand."

Though Trump has criticized social networks' "wildly aggressive censorship," his site's "terms of service" mark some extensive restrictions for acceptable speech. People are banned from trying to "trick" or "mislead" other users, violating anyone's "privacy or publicity rights," or posting messages that "depict violence" or include messages related to "sexual fetishes," "sugar babies" or "sexually suggestive" phrases. People are also forbidden from posting anything "false," "indecent," "misleading," "profane," "obscene," "filthy" or "otherwise objectionable."

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Trump's company, the Trump Media & Technology Group, also prohibits anyone from attempting to "disparage, tarnish, or otherwise harm, in our opinion, us and/or the Site." Truth Social has already banned an account named for a Twitter parody that targeted former Rep. Devin Nunes, who resigned from Congress to become the Trump company's CEO.

The site's terms of service also show it is designed to benefit from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which Trump has said should be "completely terminated" because it protects tech companies from being sued for what their users post.

Truth Social's problems were evident from the start, even though the site's developers have had months to retool already-used software for the site's launch.

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On Sunday, people who'd "preordered" the app from Apple's App Store were sent an alert that it was available, sending it sailing to the top of the free-app download charts.

But many who tried to actually sign up to use the app faced obstacles immediately. People reported they'd been given error messages or "failure to register" warnings when they entered their birthday. Or they submitted their email address as requested, then never received a sign-up response.

The site was unavailable for most of its first day, Presidents' Day, and its operators reported that "overwhelming demand" had triggered an outage lasting more than 13 hours. During that time, even the company's terms of service were offline.

The developers wrote on an internal updates page Monday afternoon that they had "stabilized the account creation process." But on Tuesday, many were still reporting that they were around 300,000th in line. (Some even went backward: One person reported they'd gone from no. 215,406 on the waiting list Monday night to no. 295,046 by Tuesday afternoon.)

There were other signs that Truth Social's growing pains were just getting started. The app for now is available only for iPhones in the U.S. On a 'help' page, the site's own name is misspelled.

The truthsocial.com website, which allowed for early sign-ups, got about 350,000 visits last week, down from 2 million visits the week of its announcement in October, according to estimates from Similarweb, an analytics firm that tracks and estimates Web traffic. Facebook and Twitter each get hundreds of millions of visits a week.

Company representatives have not responded to requests for comment. On Sunday, CEO Nunes predicted the site would be "fully operational" by the end of March. Last week, he told Sebastian Gorka, Trump's former deputy national security adviser, "We're having to build this from scratch to make sure we can't be canceled and can't be shut down."

But far from being built from scratch, the site's code shows it is based heavily on the open-source software Mastodon, which provides free, prebuilt social-networking sites that users can then edit and customize. Truth Social also depends on code from eight other outside development teams to handle text, images, security and other data, its own documentation shows.

The glitchy debut also suggests Trump will face big challenges as he scrambles to secure his place in the online spotlight and build an alternative social media platform that can compete with similar sites, including Gab, Gettr, MeWe and Parler - the latter of which Trump's wife, Melania, said earlier this month she would make "Her Social Media Home."

During the months of waiting, several copycat sites also beat Trump's social network to the punch, including a totally unaffiliated "social app for truth" that charges users $4.99 a week. Another "Truth Social" look-alike showed a Trump rally photo next to boxes asking for people's email addresses and passwords.

But those sites offered something the real Truth Social could not: They worked. Even a copycat site, TMTGSocial.com, which someone unaffiliated with Trump registered after Trump's allies first announced Truth Social in October, now has hundreds of users - posting pro-Trump content, seemingly under the impression they've joined the real thing.

For months, many of them have been posting comments and photos, friending each other and following fake Trump accounts. Others have voiced their excitement that Trump is, as one said, about to "let the TRUTH PREVAIL."

The site gives no indication that it's phony and has a fake Trump profile that includes the former president's birthday, photos and location ("Mar-a-Lago Club"). When Trump's son posted last week that his father had shared his first message on the Truth Social beta site, someone at the fake site quickly copied it: "Get Ready! Your favorite President will see you soon!"

The fake site's code shows that it uses WoWonder, a $125 set of basic tools anyone can use to make their own social network. But the fraudulent site doesn't say who actually runs it, and questions sent to the site's leadership in recent days have yielded no response.

One user, Stuart Fletcher, a 46-year-old unemployed house painter in England, said he'd joined believing the site would be "a place for honest conversations and debate without the censorship." He said Facebook had put him in "Facebook jail" for more than 250 days last year for breaking its "misinformation" rules. On the fake site, he created a profile listing his name, birthday, current city, high school and a short biography ("Seeker of Truth.") He said he's still waiting to join the real site.

THE WASHINGTON POST

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Donald Trump

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