Jul 16, 2021 - Podcasts

The growing class of alternative social media networks

Remember Parler? Well that alternative social media platform is not the only one. MeWe is another social media network hoping to gain traction with users who feel they’ve been censored by Facebook.

  • Plus, new challenges to democracy at home and overseas.
  • And, why a fight over a telescope in Hawaii is more than science vs. culture.
  • Guests: Axios' Mike Allen, Sara Fischer, and Miriam Kramer.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, Amy Pedulla, Naomi Shavin, and Alex Sugiura. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected] You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, July 16th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what we're covering today: the growing class of alternative social media networks. Plus, why a fight over a telescope in Hawaii is more than science vs. culture. But first, today’s One Big Thing: challenges to democracy at home and overseas.

NIALA: This week, President Biden faced a slew of issues from the crises in Haiti and Cuba, to the fight over voting rights here at home. It's Friday, so we're going to round it all up for you with Axios co-founder, Mike Allen. Mike, good morning. Thanks for being here.

MIKE ALLEN: Happy Friday, Niala!

NIALA: Mike, let's start with earlier this week. President Biden had some strong words for America about voting rights, coming down hard on the GOP. I wanted to play a little of what he said.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're facing the most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War. It's not hyperbole. Since The Civil War. Confederates back then never breached the Capitol, as insurrectionists did on January the sixth.

NIALA: Mike, I want to start by asking you about this, because I wonder if people missed this speech because it happened in the middle of the week and in the middle of the day.

MIKE: Niala, that's a great point. In Philadelphia, I got texts and calls saying exactly what you did, why isn't this a prime time address? So I asked The White House, and they just said that they'd been looking for a long time at the historic setting of The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It had been set in stone, but then they gave me a tease. They said: This isn't President Biden's last speech on this topic. But we could just see this same point in an even higher profile forum.

NIALA: What do you think is next on this voting rights front?

MIKE: Well, it's state by state. President Biden was talking about action that he wants to Congress to take. It's not imminent, which was part of the explanation The White House gave me of why it wasn't done as an address to the nation. President Biden almost never refers to Donald Trump. But even though he didn't say his name in this speech, it was obvious that he was calling him out. He said to Republicans, have you no shame. And he was obviously making a rare reference to a predecessor when he said bullies and merchants of fear and peddlers of lies are threatening the very foundation of our country. So Niala, as you saw in that piece of tape, casting it in the biggest, widest, broadest possible historic terms.

NIALA: Meanwhile, President Biden is facing several international crises, just offshore of the U.S. We could see more migrants headed to U.S. shores from Cuba and Haiti. How are we seeing his administration respond to the multiple crises happening there?

MIKE: Something that you and I have talked about over the years is that when you're hired for president... what you face in office, what you're remembered for, is almost never what you run on. You mentioned Haiti, you mentioned Cuba, Venezuela, of course. There was no sign that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was going to flare up the way it did, uh, right before President Biden, uh, was inaugurated. And, new threat with Taiwan, China being more muscular around the world. Uh, that's a big worry. I can tell you, Niala, for people inside The White House.

NIALA: Mike, let's end back at home with this idea of threats to our democracy. And we talk a lot about trust gaps in America. Really interesting information that quantifies this, that came out later this week.

MIKE: Yeah, so we know that people's trust in big institutions has been falling across the board, down about 10 points over the last decade. But Niala, look at this polling from Gallop, which looks at who we do trust and this incredible red and blue gap. This one won't surprise you or our listeners: double digit gap in Democrats, more likely to trust the press. And there is one institution Niala, that’s less trusted than us…. [drumroll] Congress! 12%, the cellar dwellers. At the very bottom.

NIALA: Mike, what does this say to you about the next year or two, as we think about heading into the midterms, everything we've just talked about.

MIKE: Everything’s going to be awesome. It's exactly like the Lego movie. No, Niala, like, this is my worry. After the election of 2020, we thought that it would settle some things. As we see on Axios Today every single day, it's settled nothing. If nothing else, drove the country further apart.

NIALA: Axios co-founder, Mike Allen. Mike, thanks for being with me.

MIKE: Niala, have the best weekend!

NIALA: We were just talking about the Capitol insurrection - in 15 seconds, we’re back with the growth of alternative social networks since then.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Remember Parler? Well that alternative social media platform isn't the only one. Like Parler, MeWe is a social media network that's hoping to gain traction with users who feel like they've been censored by platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Axios’ Sara Fisher has been talking to their CEO. Hi Sara!


NIALA: Sites like MeWe say they're politically neutral, which by the way, I imagine Facebook does as well, are they?

SARA: Well, they build themselves as a platform for free speech. So yes, in that sense, they are politically neutral. But when current events happen, and some people feel as though they're being unjustifiably censored, or blocked, or kicked off of mainstream platforms like Twitter or Facebook, they will flock in droves to these types of alternative social media networks. So even if they claim to be neutral, oftentimes they will be weaponized by those that have sort of a hyper-partisan agenda.

NIALA: How many platforms like this are out there attracting capital from investors?

SARA: There’s a good amount. I think right now the two biggest that I think about are MeWe, of course. They raised 23 million from an array of investors, as well as Rumble, which was just valued at around $500 million after a raise from Peter Thiel, and also from JD Vance, who's running for Senate. But there are also just hundreds of alternative social networks out there. Some that aren't raising capital that are still gaining a lot of traction.

NIALA: What does all of this say to you about where far right groups who have been banned from mainstream platforms will gather?

SARA: A lot of them did go to MeWe after the Capitol siege, some tried to go to Parler, but it was banned from the Google and Apple Stores. I think what it means is that the mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook, anytime there's a crackdown, they are going to see users flood to other places. The problem is that without getting a substantial amount of new users, and we're talking millions and millions, it's going to be hard for them to develop sustainable business models to compete with the big giants long term.

NIALA: Sara Fischer is Axios’ media reporter. Thanks, Sara!

SARA: Thank you, Niala!

NIALA: Before we go today, a preview of a story we’re going to be bringing you in more depth tomorrow, on our monthly installment of our Hard Truths series that examines issues around systemic racism. Tomorrow, a battle raging in Hawaii over a dormant volcano called Mauna Kea, and the push to build a 30 meter, 2.4 billion dollar telescope atop it. Many astronomers argue the telescope will help answer important questions about our universe. But for many indigenous Hawaiians the telescope would mean the desecration of sacred land -- and a dismissal of their role in the scientific world. That’s resulted in protests lasting years to keep the telescope off the mountain. Here’s why that matters, says Axios’ space editor Miriam Kramer:

MIRIAM KRAMER: Science as a whole, I think, sees itself as sort of an objective good. As this, like, noble search for knowledge and truth. And I think that this controversy, in particular, has shown how that sort of attitude can lead to the exclusion of communities that could benefit from the science and that could participate in it in a meaningful way, if only their knowledge was respected.

NIALA: We’ll have that whole story tomorrow on Hard Truths. Watch your feed for that to drop midday.

That’s all for Axios Today this week. We're brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Justin Kaufmann. Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Dan Bobkoff is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Executive Editor. And as always, special thanks to Axios co-founder Mike Allen. At Pushkin, our executive producers are Leital Molad and Jacob Weisberg.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Have a great weekend.

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