Last month, Sheila McNallen posted that her husband, Steve, had been kicked off of Facebook, “apparently forever.” Steve is the founder of the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, a group headquartered in California that advocates for a return to Germanic Paganism, including an espousal of what they have deemed traditional, Nordic white values. The Asatru Folk Assembly has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and 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 36 comments on Sheila McNallen’s post, 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.”
In an email to Rolling Stone, McNallen, who said he no longer has an official position in the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, confirmed he did indeed have a profile on the social networking app. He also expressed befuddlement that he had been banned from Facebook in the first place, saying that he has “NEVER advocated violence and I have NEVER insulted, threatened, or ridiculed any ethnic, religious, or racial group.”
“I don’t expect you to agree with my religious, social, or political beliefs – I’m good with that,” he said. “But the honest truth is that people have been driven off of Facebook for bullshit reasons.”
A lot of people agree with McNallen, even those who don’t necessarily share his extremist views — and many of them are heading over to MeWe. Following the morass of negative media coverage surrounding Facebook’s propagation of fake news, the social media giant has issued a highly public mea culpa, cracking down on hate groups like the Ásatrú Folk Assembly as well as anti-vaxxers and other types of conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and company. As these users are being booted from or being subject to deplatforming (a term for deprioritizing content in news feeds and making it difficult to search for) on Facebook, they’re increasingly fueled by the belief that mainstream networks are censoring their views — and this is, arguably, making them even angrier and more vocal. They’re looking for platforms that will provide a home for their ideas, and newer, less stringent platforms like MeWe have been all too happy to serve this function.
MeWe was founded by entrepreneur and privacy advocate Mark Weinstein, a cheerful, loquacious man and a self-identified libertarian. He’s friendly and open, with a hoarse voice that occasionally crackles with emotion, and he’s also prone to 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. An MBA graduate from the UCLA School of Management, Weinstein launched his first venture, SuperGroups (which included SuperFamily and SuperFriends), in 1998, allowing users to create free, multi-member community website; that venture, a sort of precursor to Facebook groups shut down in 2001. He then developed a professional coaching and training service, publishing a series of self-help books under the “Habitually Great” brand.
As he recalls it, Weinstein watched Facebook’s ascent to global domination with horror, viewing what he perceived to be 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 tells 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 percent, from 700,000 members to 3 million.
MeWe is not 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 SPLC’s intelligence project, is familiar with MeWe, and has seen far-right extremists like McNallen gravitating to the platform. But Hankes 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,” 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.”
Continue with article:
This article has been updated to clarify that many different types of users, not just those on the far right, use the MeWe platform. An additional quote from Weinstein has been added to emphasize that point.