Inside MeWe, the Playground for Anti-Vaxxers and Conspiracy Theorists

EJ Dickson

Last month, Sheila McNallen posted that her husband, Steve, had been kicked off of Facebook, “apparently forever.” Steve is the leader of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, a neo-Volkisch group headquartered in California, which advocates for a return to Germanic Paganism, including an espousal of Nordic white values. The Ásatrú Folk Assembly has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, primarily for its white supremacist views. 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 comments of Sheila McNallen’s post, numerous 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.”

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Indeed, a lot of people who share McNallen’s views are heading over to MeWe. In the wake of the 2016 election, however, after Facebook was found to have actively promoted groups that spread misinformation, the platform has issued a highly public mea culpa, cracking down on hate groups like the Ásatrú Folk Assembly as well as anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists like adherents to QAnon, and those who spread what Facebook deems to be “fake news.” As these users are being booted from or being subject to censorship or deplatforming on Facebook, they’re increasingly looking for platforms that will welcome, if not turn a blind eye to, their ideas — and newer, less stringent platforms have been all too happy to accept them.

MeWe was founded by entrepreneur and privacy advocate Mark Weinstein, a cheerful, loquacious man prone to displays of emotion and 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. His first social media venture Supergroups.com, allowed users to create free multi-member community websites; that venture shut down in 2001. For a few years, Weinstein was adrift, until he watched with horror Facebook’s ascent to global domination and what he perceived as 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 told 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.”

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%, from 700,000 members to 3 million.

Despite its explosive growth over the past year and a half, MeWe is not yet 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 SPC’s intelligence project, is familiar with MeWe, and has seen far-right extremists like McNallen gravitating to the platform. But he 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. That’s always been a reality,” 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.” For Hankes, the far bigger priority is to put pressure on large platforms like Facebook and Twitter to crack down on right-wing extremist and conspiracy theorist messaging and curb the likelihood that users stumble on such content, not encourage smaller social media platforms to establish more stringent moderation policies. The goal, he says is to “limit exposure” on larger platforms, and then “try to deal with those small communities and then try to track and monitor them.” 

But even though MeWe is small, it is rapidly growing: Weinstein says the app currently has 5 million members, and it is set to grow twice as much by the end of 2019; far more users than a supremacist-friendly platform like Gab, which last year said it had 800,000 registered users. The app also plans to introduce new features like 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, 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 tech giants furthering a 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, citing the existence of vegan groups and pro-Bernie Sanders groups on the platform. But one look at the groups on MeWe makes it evident that the vast majority of users are members of right-wing or conspiracy theory groups. In the “politics” category, for instance, there are political groups from all sides of the spectrum, but the ones 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, where QAnon and pro-Trump memes run rampant.

Weinstein has a simple explanation for this: “at this juncture, conservatives have been so vehemently censored on Facebook, [so] 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 YouTubers like Diamond and Silk that Facebook has a bias against right-wing figures and media outlets, studies by various media watchdogs have proven this not to be the case; yet the feeling among conservatives is that Facebook is cracking the whip on right-wing speech, as expressed by one MeWe user I spoke with, a 34-year-old man who goes by the alias Ch Pe. “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, who self-identifies as a libertarian, 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. But the convergence of far-right sentiment and conspiracy theorists  MeWe is not just a haven for right-wingers who feel alienated from social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Hate speech runs rampant on MeWe, to the degree that violently 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.

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 anti-vaxxer James Lyons Weiler telling Rolling Stone earlier this spring that many in the community frustrated by Facebook censorship were heading over there. While some vaccine advocates 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 tempered or moderated, Weinstein freely admits that the platform does not feel a specific obligation toward preventing the dissemination of such theories: “there’s nowhere in our terms that says you may not post fake news,” he says.

Weinstein also pointed out that because the platform does not allow advertisers or boost content, as Facebook does, MeWe does not inherently endorse certain news sources over others, essentially creating a flattening effect that renders all content equally legitimate-sounding in the eyes of the user. “It’s not our job to decide if 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 space 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 at two mosques in New Zealand in March. A thread for the pro-Trump group The Lion Is Awake, for instance, contains memes containing stills of footage from the shooting, which was uploaded on Facebook, with an arrow pointing to a man using a cell phone as evidence of the fact that it was staged, or a “false flag” event, 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’s investigation 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 hijab 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 30-person content moderation team does its best to screen for such content, though he admits that  “we’ve grown faster than our moderation team.” The platform is also talking to groups like the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative and Internet Watch Foundation to create more stringent policies.

But a 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. 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 hate speech?”

Indeed, 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 making 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 there is a difference between a platform that allows users to discuss and debate their beliefs and a platform that allows verifiably inaccurate and dangerous beliefs to thrive and propagate, and the lax policies on platforms like MeWe ensure that it not only falls squarely into the latter category, but that it almost exclusively attracts 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. That’s Gab,” he says. “I’ve written about Gab. I don’t like their business model. I think websites like that are wrong and bad and bad for the world and bad for society. MeWe is for the good guys.”  But on the internet and in real life, being for the good guys inevitably means taking a stand against the bad ones. As Facebook increasingly takes baby steps toward doing precisely that, it remains to be seen whether smaller platforms like MeWe will take a similar stance — or continue to welcome the bad guys with open arms.

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