What If Rumble Is the Future of the Social Web?

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What If Rumble Is the Future of the Social Web?

When Donald Trump was banned from Twitter in January 2021, it was obvious that he would have to find somewhere else to post. His own platform, Truth Social, was still a distant dream, so he had to choose one of the “alt-tech” platforms hosting professed free-speech absolutists, vaccine skeptics, Hunter Biden obsessives, and MAGA shitposters. He could have gone to Parler, where much of the pregaming for the January 6 riot took place, or Gab, where an account had long been held for him. But that June, he chose Rumble, a Toronto-based YouTube alternative that his son Don Jr. had been dabbling in for months. Founded in 2013, Rumble originally differentiated itself by providing more options for users looking to earn money from their videos—but now it’s “the right-wing’s go-to video site,” per The New York Times.

Other alt-tech CEOs were envious and didn’t hide it. John Matze, the former CEO of the Twitter alternative Parler, posted sarcastically about Rumble’s reliance on Google Ads, questioning the site’s anti–Big Tech bona fides. Andrew Torba, the founder of the ludicrously unmoderated Gab, ribbed Rumble for prohibiting anti-Semitism. (His site does not.) But Trump’s choice made sense: There are far more people on Rumble than on any other platform in the alt-tech ecosystem. In a recent press release, the company claimed that it had reached 78 million monthly average users in August, with 63 million of these being in the U.S. and Canada. And according to data from Similarweb, Rumble now sees more than 10 times the traffic of Trump’s Truth Social and close to 100 times the traffic of Parler.

Weirdly, though, Rumble is often overlooked by the mainstream. It was largely absent from the recent discourse about Kanye West’s supposed plans to buy Parler, and it was barely mentioned in a recent Times story about disinformation percolating on alt-tech sites. A Pew Research Center study from earlier this month found that more Americans have heard of Truth Social and Parler than of Rumble. This may be for any number of reasons—video sites are more challenging for journalists to pore over than text-based ones, YouTube is not the subject of quite as many accusations of anti-conservative bias as Facebook or Twitter are (making a YouTube alternative inherently less buzzy), Rumble has not positioned itself as a player in the culture wars until quite recently. (In 2020, its CEO, Chris Pavlovski, described his site to BuzzFeed News as “the clean YouTube competitor” and a place for people to “feel safe.”)

“I do think it flies under the radar,” Evelyn Douek, an assistant professor at Stanford Law School focused on the regulation of online speech, told me. “But it has some serious money behind it.”

Rumble has been on an upward trajectory since the second half of 2020. The right-wing personality Dan Bongino took an equity stake in the company and brought his popular show over from YouTube. The site saw huge growth, which escalated after the January 6 riot—it went from 1 million monthly average users at the beginning of 2020 to 36 million in the third quarter of 2021, according to Pavlovski. In December 2021, the company, which had received funding from the Trump ally and billionaire Peter Thiel and the Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance, announced plans to go public. (This too inspired rival jealousy: The official Twitter account for Lbry, an alt-tech platform with a blockchain backbone, posted a sarcastic congratulatory message: “Everyone knows publicly traded companies are consistently great on free speech, just look at Google, Facebook, and Twitter.”) In September, Rumble opened a “creator studio” in Miami and went public via a SPAC. Today, the company is worth about $2.8 billion—much less than the likes of Meta, Snap, Twitter, and even Pinterest, but about on par with Yelp, for reference.

Rumble makes money through an advertising network and by licensing content to media partners—an arrangement that allows creators to get a cut of revenue. The ads attached to its videos range from normal (HP, Saks) to just west of normal (the former Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl talking about why dogs get “mushy poop”) to out at sea (an “IRS Loophole Kit” that can help the viewer protect their retirement accounts from Joe Biden). Many of its notable influencers have been deplatformed or prohibited from making money on other sites. For instance, there’s Steven Crowder, who is known for his use of racist and homophobic slurs, and who was suspended from making money on YouTube due to his violation of the site’s Partner Program policies. Arielle Scarcella, another demonetized YouTuber, recently posted on Rumble a video about abortion captioned “people are so woke, they have become totally evil.” Rumble’s homepage also promotes Lofi Girl, a wildly popular background-music account that was temporarily removed from YouTube this summer in response to a copyright complaint.

When I checked in recently, the homepage featured licensed news content from Reuters, as well as fairly obvious cooking and gaming content, a short clip titled “Toddler whacks ball directly into camera,” and a new video from the widely deplatformed former kickboxer Andrew Tate titled “THE DAM OF CENSORSHIP IS BREAKING.” The political and scientific fringe is certainly more concentrated and visible than it is on a site like YouTube: Rumble’s list of high-profile partners includes one of Donald Trump’s favorite news networks, OAN; its list of featured channels promotes Steve Bannon’s Bannon’s War Room. This is mixed in with anodyne content, such as videos of cute animals, pranks, and “Just Planes”maybe not the content you would choose, but content you can see someone choosing. Viral videos involving pool-float mishaps and icy steps exist alongside anti-vaccine content, as well as videos dedicated to analyzing Meghan Markle’s body language for evidence of her “TRUE” (presumably bad) personality, and a series of stop-motion doodled educational videos with titles such as “Population Collapse Is Coming.”

None of this content is evidently bad enough for Rumble to have been banned from major online platforms or storefronts, unlike some of its peers at various times. But as a safeguard, the company has established its own cloud business and ad network to avoid relying on companies such as Amazon and Google. It could evade the type of situation Parler faced when it was kicked off of Amazon Web Services in January 2021, because—as Rumble has boasted—the site does not rely on AWS to serve its user base. (Gab, partly for this reason, is self-hosted.) “I think that’s definitely a big thing to watch,” Douek said, citing a recent controversy that led the content-delivery and security company Cloudflare to suspend its services to Kiwi Farms, a forum long known for coordinated harassment and incitement of violence.

In the past few years, Douek noted, there has been more pressure on app stores owned by Apple and Google, and on cloud providers and other intermediaries, to take on the role of content moderator by pulling the plug on platforms that won’t moderate themselves. “That’s often been quite successful,” she said. “These companies can be pressured and will sometimes take action on the basis of public pressure. If the alt-tech ecosystem was successful in building its own infrastructure services, that would make it significantly more invulnerable.” Rumble has already partnered with Truth Social for cloud services and ad tech—perhaps the first step toward building a broader foundation for an alt-tech ecosystem.

There are caveats. Corey Quinn, the chief cloud economist at the Duckbill Group and the author of a blog about AWS, points out that building cloud infrastructure is extremely difficult and expensive. And if Rumble makes a point of taking on customers that other services don’t want to host (“the most difficult customers on the planet”), a moment could come when so-called Tier 1 networks—internet service providers such as Lumen Technologies, Verizon, and Zayo are some of the big ones in the U.S.—“will say ‘enough’s enough’ and cut all of Rumble off,” he told me. (However, he couldn’t cite a significant instance of this happening in the past.)

But, setting aside whatever other sites it might partner with, Rumble’s own content-moderation policies aren’t as absolutist as its marketing may suggest. It is currently in the process of refining its policies with input from users, but it already has rules against doxxing and stalking, defined as “misusing the platform to make others uncomfortable in their use of the platform through a pattern of continuous conduct.” When I asked about the evolution of Rumble’s rules and their enforcement, the spokesperson Brian Doherty wrote that the platform has “strict moderation policies banning the incitement of violence, illegal content, racism, antisemitism, promoting terrorist groups (designated by US and Canadian governments), and violating copyright, as well as many other restrictions.” On an informational page about its rule-making process, Rumble also notes “the freedom to hold and express unpopular beliefs”—while caveating that this is not the same as the freedom to “misuse the platform to target people based on legally protected status.” Notably, this page acknowledges the way in which a culture of trolling and harassment can make a platform less usable for everyone—resembling a point added to Reddit’s policies in the summer of 2020. However, the presence of influencers like Bannon and Tate, who are known for violent rhetoric, makes the company’s dedication to these stated values suspect at best.

Like a future Musk-owned Twitter, Rumble’s success might be less about the hard facts of the infrastructure it has built or the list of rules it publishes, and more about appealing to those disenchanted with Big Tech. It’s not that Rumble has radically different moderation policies from its rivals. Instead, it’s just playing into popular sentiment about major social-media platforms: They’re censorial. They don’t sufficiently prioritize the ability for creators to profit from their work. They’re too powerful, too centralized, too smug. Pavlovski made this case in a December 2021 interview on Fox Business, saying that Rumble would be offering cloud services and a video platform that were “completely immune to the cancel culture and the activists out there.” He also promised something more: “We’re really taking the internet to its roots by restoring it to its roots and really defending that free and open internet.”

For years, alternative social-media platforms have been in an uncertain phase. Will they work, or won’t they? With mainstream networks on shaky ground—Facebook is collapsing; Musk is taking over Twitter—Rumble seems to be rising to meet the moment, whether you’re watching or not.

Go to Publisher: Technology | The Atlantic
Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany