RUMBLE

A fast-growing YouTube rival popular with conservative influencers has a new strategy to expand its online audience: Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to well-known media personalities it says work to “challenge the status quo.”

The Toronto-based upstart Rumble said Thursday that it has struck deals with former U.S. congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the journalist firebrand Glenn Greenwald and others who had committed to posting their videos first to the site.

Rumble has emerged over the last year as one of the most prominent video sites for right-wing viewers and provocateurs, and it is seeking to bolster its image as a new online home for those who claim they’ve been censored by Big Tech.

The site bans racism and hate speech but has contrasted itself with the Google-owned YouTube by refusing to remove “medical misinformation,” including those casting doubt on vaccines during a pandemic that is surging in many states and has killed more than 4 million people around the world.

Rumble has grown from 1 million active users last summer to roughly 30 million, said the site’s chief executive Chris Pavlovski, a Canadian tech entrepreneur who worked a brief internship at Microsoft and founded a viral-joke website before launching Rumble in 2013. And its traffic has exploded: According to data shared with The Washington Post by the analytics firm Similarweb, visits in the United States to the site grew from about 200,000 in the last week of July 2020 to nearly 19 million last week – a 9,000% increase.

Rumble’s move highlights how a growing group of online influencers have amassed lucrative followings while discussing their alleged suppression in books, videos, social media posts, podcasts, newsletters, promotional sponsorships, speaking events and other marketing opportunities.

Gabbard and Greenwald have expanded their fan bases in recent months by criticizing what they call overly aggressive media censorship in appearances on Fox News and Twitter, where each has more than 1 million followers.
Greenwald said in an interview he sees Rumble as a way “of liberating ourselves from the control and oppression of Big Tech monopolies’ censorship and tyranny.”

“I’m not uncomfortable if people are on there saying things I disagree with. . . . This is a very recent phenomenon online: We expect our platforms to be cleansed of people we dislike,” he said.

“Unlike YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, which began wildly expanding how the rules are applied for broader society to remove so-called ‘disinformation,’ Rumble just stayed true to the original mission,” he added. “You can’t go on there and say racist stuff, but they don’t monitor for what’s true or false. They really believe in true debate.”

Rumble, Greenwald said, reached out to him two months ago, offering a deal to produce high-quality videos that would help show Rumble can be “a hospitable place for non-MAGA people,” a term for supporters of former president Donald Trump and his

“Make America Great Again” catchphrase.

The company declined to provide financial details but Greenwald said the top creators’ year-long contracts will pay in the “midrange six figures.”

Greenwald said he is building out a professional video studio in his home in Rio de Janeiro, and that he intends to regularly record and air hour-long videos and live question-and-answer sessions.

On his Substack newsletter last week, he alluded to the new Rumble deal in a YouTube video, describing an “ample funding package” to pay for a “highly professionalized form of video” in a space “where people can be truly free and independent.” His videos, he said, would spotlight the “repression and censorship on the part of Big Tech monopolies in conjunction with the liberal sector of the corporate media and the establishment wing of the Democratic Party.”

The Rumble-funded creators will be free to post their videos elsewhere, including YouTube, after a two-hour Rumble-exclusive window. They will also be able to make money through video advertisements and other monetization features Rumble is now building, similar to those found on YouTube and Twitch, including allowing viewers to pay extra to make their live-chat comments bigger.

Rumble’s traffic has dramatically outpaced other social networks popular among conservative users. Between the last weeks of July in 2020 and 2021, website visits jumped nearly 300% for MeWe, to nearly 1.5 million visits, and 400% for Gab, with nearly 3 million visits, the Similarweb analysis shows. Parler, a site where many users posted videos of the Jan. 6 riots that have since been cited in criminal investigations, has seen its traffic cut in half, falling to roughly 200,000 visits.

Rumble still draws only a tiny fraction of YouTube’s audience, with desktop and mobile visits that reached only about 1% of YouTube’s 1.5 billion visits last week, the Similarweb analysis shows. And unlike the mainstream sites, Rumble’s traffic fluctuates wildly from day-to-day, a hint that its popularity is heavily dependent on trending events.

Rumble was launched in 2013 and for years served as a mostly unremarkable collection of cute videos about babies and household pets.

But as YouTube and other sites began more aggressively adding disclaimers and deleting videos promoting false claims about the pandemic, many creators began urging their followers to save and re-upload the videos to backup sites such as BitChute and Rumble, where they could be viewed and shared.

Such copycat sites have gotten a boost from conservative influencers’ arguments that their followers must stick by them in the face of Big Tech “deplatforming” and “shadowbans,” said Renée DiResta, a research manager at the Stanford Internet

Observatory. But many of the sites, she added, have faced a plateauing of viewer interest as the niche sites’ novelty fades.

“With every new conservative platform, there’s this spike and then there’s marked decline, because they can’t keep up that engagement, that activity, that draw,” DiResta said.

“Part of that may be that these people are not actually censored on the mainstream platforms, so they keep posting there,” she added. “They still want to engage and argue and share things on those platforms with all of the existing network effects, those relationships, that center of gravity where they already are.”

YouTube’s “medical misinformation” policy since last May has banned videos about the coronavirus that could pose a “serious risk of egregious harm.” The site remains a popular refuge for coronavirus falsehoods, though the company said its moderators work to remove videos claiming, for instance, that the coronavirus does not exist (it does) or that vaccines contain tracking devices (they don’t).

Rumble has avoided those debates by allowing such videos to remain on the site unmoderated. Pavlovski said the company employs 40 content moderators to police the site – slightly more than one moderator for every million users.

“We’re like your dinner table. You can have a conversation. You can have disagreements. And you can try to prove someone wrong,” Pavlovski said. “If it violates our terms and conditions, which ban antisemitism, hate speech, defamation, etc., it will be removed. But we don’t move the goal posts and expand our terms and conditions to be more than that. If you want to believe in UFOs, you’re free to believe in UFOs.”

Searching for “vaccine” on YouTube returns mostly videos from news organizations, doctors and fact-checking organizations. The same search on Rumble returns videos falsely suggesting it “causes the virus to be more dangerous” and has “poor durability.”

Rumble lacks the more modern trappings of newer video sites such as TikTok and Twitch, including algorithmic recommendations for what a user should watch next, which Pavloski said prevents the site from amplifying videos in an improper way.

The site’s top videos on its “Battle Leaderboard” come almost entirely from big conservative influencers such as Dinesh D’Souza, Donald Trump Jr., Sean Hannity and Dan Bongino, who this week slammed Fox News for editing out Trump’s falsehoods about a “fake election” in an interview the network posted to its YouTube account.

Most prominent Republican lawmakers have Rumble accounts, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said this week that YouTube’s removal of a video in which he said most masks wouldn’t prevent coronavirus spread was a “badge of honor.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican now under investigation for possible sex trafficking of a minor, said in a tweet this week that Rumble is his “new fav social media app” and “the best way” to watch his new video podcast.

Rumble also has a verified account for the former president, who was removed from most major social networks after the Jan. 6 riot. The account, with 500,000 subscribers, has been used solely to repost Trump’s speeches at rallies and appearances on Fox News.

Rumble said Thursday that comedian Bridget Phetasy, journalist Zaid Jilani and other “nationally recognized thought leaders” who believe “tech monopolies should not dictate discourse” would also join the site.

The company said in May it had received a significant investment from Narya Capital, a fund co-founded by “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, and the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, an early investor in Facebook and a co-founder of the government-contracting giant Palantir Technologies.

The company runs or leases all of its servers, which Pavlovski said will help shield it from the rules of the cloud-computing giants that run much of the web. Amazon Web Services stopped providing web-hosting services to Parler after the Capitol riot, citing concerns that the site had not done enough to remove violent threats.

Rumble has also worked to align itself with broader concerns about Big Tech’s power, including from antitrust regulators in Washington now scrutinizing whether Silicon Valley’s biggest names should be broken up. The company sued Google earlier this year, alleging the search engine unfairly promoted YouTube in its results. Google has said the ongoing lawsuit is baseless.

Rumble is joined by a growing cadre of similar sites, such as Gettr, a “cancel free” Twitter clone led by Trump’s former spokesman Jason Miller. The company boasts “cutting-edge A.I. technology” it says helps moderate content, but viewers have noted that Gettr has also been used to share uncensored pornography and Islamic State propaganda.

Some researchers expect that Rumble’s lax rules for moderating content will force it down the same path of previous “free speech” start-ups, fueling an echo chamber that further entrenches the most extreme corners of its user base while also limiting its ability to win mainstream viewers.

Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a counter-extremism think tank in London that has worked with Google on a European fund targeting online hate speech, said that during the pandemic, Rumble has “become one of the main platforms for conspiracy communities and far-right communities in the U.S. and around the world.”

He said he has seen videos removed from mainstream sites reappear and multiply across Rumble, and he worries that the site’s growing prominence will give people a bigger megaphone to spread misinformation about the effectiveness or risks of vaccines.

“When a prominent public figure or incumbent politician gives air to conspiracies, or to spaces where conspiracies thrive, it adds an air of legitimacy and validates these spaces,” he said.

“It’s one thing to let people post UFO content about crop circles in Arkansas,” O’Connor added. “It’s another to allow your platform to be used by someone claiming vaccines are actively harmful and that people should not take them based on conspiracies and misinformation. There’s a duty of care and responsibility as your platform grows and scales up.”

Editor@tech-talk.co.za

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