As Elon Musk sealed a deal this week to buy Twitter, another social networking product, for $44 billion climbed to 1st place in the Apple App Store: truth socialthe flagship app of former President Donald J. Trump’s fledgling social media company.

The increased interest in Truth Social, which debuted in February, was fueled by a recent technical upgrade to the app that allowed a flood of users to join it. At the same time, there is more uncertainty about Twitter. Some Twitter users deactivated their accounts this week after it was revealed Mr Musk was buying the site and questions were raised about how he might change the platform.

Truth Social has long positioned itself as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, both of which are known to have banned Mr. Trump from their sites after the Riot on January 6th at the US Capitol last year. The app has marketed itself as an uncensored platform that does not discriminate against users based on their political beliefs. It and other similar apps, like Rumble and Parler, theoretically take a hands-on approach to moderation so people can chat freely without getting banned.

(While Mr. Musk’s takeover of Twitter sparked speculation that Mr. Trump’s account would be restored, the former president has said He would not rejoin Twitter and would continue to use Truth Social instead.)

Twitter did not immediately respond to a request for comment about people who deactivated their accounts following Mr Musk’s deal.

I decided to jump into this stew by testing Truth Social. Despite its hype, the app had a flawed debut. When it released in February, many who signed up were presented with a static screen displaying a waitlist number, which the site attributed to “massive demand.”

I was on waitlist #412,553. Then, on Saturday, I was suddenly let in. I entered my phone number to go through the signup process and jumped in with interest.

Evaluating a social media app – especially one this young – isn’t easy, especially when you’re trying to see how much free speech it really allows. The app moderates some posts. However, since there are no community guidelines, it’s unclear what triggers the content decisions being made. And while some posts banned on Twitter were available on Truth Social, other types of posts were blocked due to profanity.

To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement. After waiting two months to join the app, Truth Social seemed unfinished and the crowd felt thin. Here’s what I found.

After choosing a username and avatar (I uploaded a picture of my Lab), I began my experience with Truth Social. The app looked like a clone of Twitter. Truth Social has a main news feed, a search tool, a messaging system, and a button to compose a “truth” equivalent to a tweet.

Truth Social immediately recommended a list of a few dozen accounts to follow, including Fox News, The Epoch Times, and of course Mr. Trump himself. The former president only posted one truth, and that was in February: “Get on with it ready! Your favorite President will see you soon!” To date, he has gained 1.88 million followers.

After following all 80 accounts recommended by the app, no new suggestions came up, so I manually searched for accounts to follow. Many big brand accounts had already been taken over by scammers. The profile for @nytimes was called “The Failing NY Times” and @CNN was called “CNN (parody)”. Another dodgy-looking account claiming to be ABC News had only posted three times.

My posting history consisted mostly of news articles and videos. I saw a Newsmax article about Washington state banning the use of the word “marijuana” and a clip mocking liberal Twitter workers who were upset about Mr. Musk’s takeover.

A large part of the app was broken. Attempting to do a keyword search for a truth didn’t work. Searching for the words “vaccine” and “Covid” brought up the message that “no matching truths were found”.

Trump Media and Technology Group, the company Mr. Trump founded to develop Truth Social, did not respond to requests for comment.

In general, there wasn’t enough activity on Truth Social to get a strong sense of whether its content moderation policies were more relaxed than those of mainstream social media. Like Twitter and Facebook, Truth Social has terms of service stating that illegal activity is not allowed on the app.

In some cases, the app came across as stricter than Twitter. While Twitter allows some pornographic content, Truth Social prohibits sexual content and language altogether under its Terms of Service. For some posts with the F-word hashtag, Truth Social has hidden the content and displayed a warning about sensitive content. (Tap on “View content” brought up the hashtag.)

To test the app’s claims of political ideology, I published an article from Truth with a New York Times Opinion criticizing the Republican Party and other posts with news articles about the January 6 riots and how Truth Social’s prospects are through Mr • Musk’s takeover of Twitter. None of the posts were flagged as problematic. That suggested the app wasn’t discriminatory because of the policy, just as it had said it wouldn’t.

I also found some accounts that weren’t allowed to post on Twitter – like The Babylon Bee, the right-wing satirical site that has been banned for mistaking a transgender official in the Biden administration – regularly posting on Truth Social. It was another sign that the app was less restrictive than Twitter.

But Nathaniel Persily, a professor at Stanford Law School, said the idea that Truth Social could be an uncensored social network was ultimately far-fetched. In reality, social networking sites aren’t really the public spaces of the Internet, he said; they are commercial products that must obey the law, with communities of users who must feel safe.

“A platform without rules quickly sinks into child pornography and National Socialism,” he said.

Brianna Wu, a video game developer, said policies are needed to keep social networks a safe place for people to communicate.

Ms. Wu worked with Twitter to develop security policies afterwards gamergate, the 2014 internet campaign to troll critics of the male-dominated gambling industry. She said her discussions with Twitter focused on methods to mitigate the harm of harassment, which led to a filter Twitter developed to silence bots that automatically posted insults about individuals.

“It’s about being able to have a healthy conversation,” she said.

All of that is something Mr. Musk will face when he takes control of Twitter. Though Mr. Musk was vague about his plans to transform the social network, in his deal announcement he made it clear that freedom of expression is a “foundation of a functioning democracy.”

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