The Perfect Enemy | Far-Right Superstars Are Failing on Rumble. Who’s Winning? - Rolling Stone
January 29, 2023

Far-Right Superstars Are Failing on Rumble. Who’s Winning? – Rolling Stone

Far-Right Superstars Are Failing on Rumble. Who’s Winning?  Rolling Stone

Read Time:21 Minute

To ring in 2023, the social video site Rumble announced an exclusive partnership with Donald Trump Jr. Beginning in late January, the former president’s eldest son will bring to the platform a biweekly livestream show, Triggered with Don Jr., riffing on current events and, presumably, seeking to own the libs. The press release and media coverage touted the multiyear, seven-figure signing as a coup for the company, which went public last September, valued at more than $2 billion. In marketing terms, the deal conveyed momentum for an underdog business looking to disrupt Big Tech by promising freedom from censorship.

Or it could just be a huge waste of money. Trump Jr. already has 1.07 million subscribers on Rumble, which puts him among the top tier of users — in theory. The reality is that despite this formidable audience, his videos often struggle to crack 10,000 views. One of his most-watched clips in the past couple months is a ripped and re-uploaded segment from comedian Dave Chappelle’s most recent Saturday Night Live monologue, with a golden “DON JR.” watermark and about 90 seconds of Trump’s own commentary added to the footage. Other videos, like one captioned “Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Now ‘Shark Week’ Is RACIST? – OMG,” are pulling meager engagement compared to Trump Jr.’s posts on Instagram and Twitter. Rumble will no doubt throw resources into production and promotion of Triggered, so perhaps the show itself will depart from this style of low-effort clickbait. 

Trump Jr., whose office did not return a request for comment, isn’t the only right-wing celebrity struggling to connect on Rumble despite boasting an army of supporters there. Follower count doesn’t automatically correlate to views, and a channel that seems moribund can score a breakout hit here and there, yet it’s hard not to notice a pattern. Dinesh D’Souza, the conspiracy theorist pardoned by President Trump for his felony conviction in an illegal campaign contribution scheme, has even more followers — 1.71 million — yet the average view count for his videos is in the low hundreds. Many of Sean Hannity’s don’t reach a thousand. Same for Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. (Both have over a million subscribers.) Steve Bannon’s channel does about as well as Trump Jr.’s, as does Rep. Matt Gaetz’s. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert have even less traction, and paltry subscriber counts: 22,000 for Greene, under 3,000 for Boebert.   

This is all rather surprising if you’ve been led to understand that Rumble is an echo chamber of far-right content, bankrolled in part by Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and tech billionaire Peter Thiel. The conservative venture capitalists came aboard as investors in May 2021, a year and a half before Vance won a Senate seat in Ohio (with Thiel backing his run to the tune of $10 million). Why wouldn’t the famous agitators on that side of our partisan divide hold sway on a “free speech” site that does little to crack down on incendiary misinformation? Perhaps because Rumble’s most active users are interested in something else. They can get the tired MAGA lines, reflexive liberal-bashing and Fox News orthodoxy on TV and mainstream social media. What Rumble promises is forbidden truths that some ambiguous “they” don’t want you to discover, from creators shunted aside and banned by other platforms. Above any ideological category, it is anti-establishment. It’s also growing — the site reported a new record of 78 million active users last August — though, again, not in the way you’d expect.

To quickly recap the site’s journey from unknown startup to breakout among “alt-tech” apps: Rumble debuted in 2013, with founder and CEO Chris Pavlovski, a Canadian tech entrepreneur, envisioning it as a refuge for small-time creators left in the dust as YouTube prioritized its most successful influencers. For about seven years the site hosted innocuous viral fodder and aggregated news. Today, the landing page maintains sections for both cute animal videos and conventional broadcast reports, though barely anyone watches the clips shared from One America News Network, Newsmax, and Breitbart, let alone Reuters. Viewers are more drawn to stuff like conservative comedian Jeff Ahern making fat jokes about lingerie models in a segment titled “How Victoria’s Secret’s Push To Become Woke Made It A Joke.”

It was in 2020 that provocateurs of this stripe began migrating to Rumble in droves, encouraged by the endorsements of Rep. Devin Nunes and Fox News host Dan Bongino, not to mention the radicalizing pressures of a global pandemic and ugly national election. Nunes resigned from Congress to become CEO of Trump Media & Technology Group in December 2021, the same month that Rumble struck an agreement to provide cloud and streaming services for that company’s MAGA Twitter clone, Truth Social. Bongino took an equity stake in Rumble when he joined the site and remains the undisputed king of the platform, with 2.53 million subscribers, nearly a million more than Donald Trump himself. The move was prescient, as YouTube would permanently ban Bongino in early 2022 for attempting to evade a one-week suspension for sharing health misinformation.

While the site skews right, there is measurable political diversity. A Pew Research Center study released in December found that 22 percent of “those who regularly get news from Rumble” identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning. You can watch a comedian and podcaster named Lee Camp rail against the ruling class for blocking a $15 minimum wage, and the DNC for rigging primary elections against progressive candidates, orations that have enjoyed decent reach given his relatively modest follower count: around 15,000 and 30,000 views off just 33,000 subscribers. Scrolling through the Trending tab, or the “Battle Leaderboard” of the day’s top 50 videos, you’re bound to run into anti-vax content, baseless election fraud claims, or QAnon-ish visions of an elite pedophile cabal — all hobby horses of the extreme right — viewed anywhere from 100,000 to 350,000 times.

Yet political valence isn’t readily obvious in conspiracy theory videos like “Bizarre CIA Files Released on Lost Ancient Human Civilizations” or “Something is Definitely Happening on the Moon,” two videos from an account called Bright Insight, at 81,000 and 50,000 views. Russell Brand, the British comic who launched an exclusive show with Rumble after YouTube removed one of his posts for Covid-19 misinformation, also courts viewers with guests who “expose” the supposed lies of “mainstream archaeologists” and topics such as “Prince Harry Saga – The TRUTH About The Deep State?” He’s creeping up on a million subscribers and regularly breaks the 100,000 views threshold, which is great by Rumble standards but a fraction of his YouTube traffic. Up-and-coming streamers gain clout by spinning ever more complicated plots. Drew Hernandez, a relative newcomer to the site with 16,000 followers, has already drawn attention by wondering if the New World Order will enslave us in the Metaverse and weighing in on the fashion brand Balenciaga’s imagined ties to Satanism. At 50,000 and 80,000 views, these segments are outpacing videos shared by users with platforms 100 times larger. Even Bongino will occasionally drop an episode framed around a question like: “Are We Living In A Simulation?”

The popularity of these esoteric subjects hint that Rumble’s audience is there to strip back appearances or assumptions to reveal forbidden knowledge — the kind presented by figures who position themselves as fiercely independent thinkers dismissed by powerful institutions.

Accordingly, one reliable path to stardom on Rumble, a place that Pavolvski aims to make “immune to cancel culture,” is to be kicked off or unwelcome on the rest of the internet. Andrew Tate, the former kickboxer and self-professed alpha male guru now facing charges of sex trafficking in Romania, is the most notorious example, with nearly a million followers. Until his detainment, he enjoyed high engagement as an exile from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok, bringing in hundreds of thousands of views, for example, on an interview he gave to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The announcement of his debut on Rumble briefly sent it to number one on the Apple and Google app stores. Tate has privately bragged that the deal he signed with Rumble in 2022 was worth $9 million, according to CNN, which the company did not deny. Instead, they issued a statement condemning human trafficking and sexual abuse. “At the same time, every accused deserves due process,” the company said. “The allegations against Andrew Tate, which do not appear to involve any content on Rumble, should be investigated promptly and thoroughly, and we will not prejudge that investigation.” 

Trump Jr. already has 1.07 million subscribers on Rumble, which puts him among the top tier of users — in theory. The reality is that despite this formidable audience, his videos often struggle to crack 10,000 views.

X22 Report, purged from YouTube in 2020 for QAnon content, appears in Rumble’s recommendations and top-performance charts, with half a million views for an episode on how “Control Has Now Been Transferred To The Patriots.” A huge channel called And We Know got nearly as many eyeballs on a similar alternate-reality clip promising “Trump In CONTROL.” Phil Godlewski, a diehard Q adherent known for baiting followers into multilevel marketing enterprises and accidentally prompting the release of court documents detailing his criminal “corruption of a minor,” sticks to Telegram and Rumble, where his up-to-three-hour apocalyptic videos notch 10 to 100 times the engagement that Trump Jr. typically gets. Clearly, these creators benefit from being inaccessible elsewhere, whereas about half of prominent Rumble users continue to promote their accounts on other apps. Likewise, the site is a safe haven for bogus documentaries likely to get flagged on other sites, including The Deep Rig and Died Suddenly, which both premiered in 2022, respectively forwarding the false claims that fraud cost Trump the 2020 election and that Covid-19 vaccines have killed recipients en masse. The latter, produced by far-right conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, has been watched 15 million times on Rumble, far surpassing the engagement for just about any content available there.   

From 2020 onward, “multiple catalysts” drove users to Rumble, says E. Rosalie Li, a public health scholar and disinformation researcher at Johns Hopkins University whose Hoaxlines project studies media manipulation and unethical efforts to influence public opinion. “While many U.S. shelter-in-place orders were short-lived and partial, this scared people who believed that the government was dangerous,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Platforms removed a minority of the potentially life-threatening information posted. This was unprecedented, especially at the scale we saw during Covid and following January 6, 2021.” Between the overlapping crises of a pandemic and a disputed election, people were more susceptible to “conspiracy-thinking,” Li says, and attracted to largely unmoderated online forums where such theories could be shared without fear of punishment.

“It used to be the case that regular social media platforms such as YouTube were pushing conspiracy theories and extremist content, but they are no longer doing that outright,” explains Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge and author of the forthcoming book Foolproof: Why Misinformation Infects Our Minds and How to Build Immunity. “You now have to actively search out questionable content to get similar recommendations in order to lose yourself in a rabbit hole (which is still bad). But the difference with places like Gab, Parler, and Rumble is that they are actively recommending extremist channels and content right on the main page, and then when people subsequently click on it, they get bombarded with similar recommendations.” 

Van Der Linden clarifies, however, that “it’s no longer about a specific falsehood or conspiracy theory. People start identifying with groups of like-minded others on these platforms so that the identities that people hold are partly derived from the online groups that they belong to. We know from lots of research that this process of social identification is a powerful driver of ideological extremism and sharing misinformation.”

This cuts to the heart of what Rumble is and how it functions today, and you only need look at the startup’s maneuvers in 2022 to conclude that blanket paranoia is their actual bread and butter. Last year, the company unsuccessfully attempted to lure podcasting giant Joe Rogan, a dabbler in everything from UFO lore to government intelligence secrets to the epiphanies that come with hallucinogenic visions, from Spotify with a $100 million deal. Russell Brand, a left-libertarian type, never stops telling his fans that shadowy forces are attempting to deceive and cheat them. Bright Insight, the channel speculating about the secret advanced technology of ancient Egypt and offering “Disturbing Proof They’re Quietly Deleting The Internet,” was the only one of 15 non-political YouTube brands imported in March 2022 to find an appreciable fanbase: over 50,000 followers, with clips amassing equal views, sometimes even twice or four times as many.

To Van Der Linden’s point, any conspiracy theory at hand is subordinate to the feeling that everything is a conspiracy of some sort, whether the story justifies your political convictions or not (though usually it can be made to). The rest of the creators who signed up along with Bright Insight — hosts of channels devoted to fitness, cooking, and home improvement — failed to thrive despite previous success. One of them, Barbarian Body, is a gym lifestyle influencer with nearly a million YouTube subscribers. On Rumble? Just 284

Then there’s Glenn Greenwald, who fits into precisely none of the aforementioned categories. The Brazil-based investigative journalist resigned from The Intercept, the left-wing news site he co-founded, in 2020, accusing editors of trying to censor a column he wrote just before the election pertaining to materials retrieved from a laptop that had belonged to Joe Biden’s son Hunter. But other than this, he tells Rolling Stone, his work has never really been suppressed — and certainly not on mainstream social media, where he has long sustained a readership. “I think that’s in part because I have a certain kind of journalistic credentials that makes it more difficult to kick me off a platform,” he says. Still, he regards Rumble as a crucial haven for free expression, in light of “expanding” censorship across the internet. In 2021, he and former U.S. congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard both took year-long contracts with the site in the “midrange six figures,” per The Washington Post.  “It’s more that there are a lot of people being censored, and so I want to support those platforms that are willing to give space to those people,” he says.

To that end, Greenwald in December relaunched his System Update web series as a live, hour-long weeknight program airing exclusively on Rumble, which represents a sizable investment. Apart from paying his new and “considerably higher” salary, Greenwald says — in the seven-figure range, or approximately “what prime-time cable hosts get” — the company has 15 employees working in his Rio de Janeiro studio, and seven more on the editorial side. Most of the staff are in Brazil and have full-time jobs, he says, though a few are in the U.S. and some are part-time contractors. Episodes often focus on First Amendment issues and critique both Big Tech and establishment media as hypocritical in how they choose to amplify or downplay various sociopolitical narratives. He’s also done well with a segment about newly declassified files on the JFK assassination and another contrasting Republican infighting over the House speakership vote as preferable to the “obedience” Democrats show to their congressional leaders. And well before the System Update reboot, Greenwald’s videos were doing 10 times the traffic that the same content received on YouTube.

Through the end of 2022, Greenwald was publishing articles on Substack, a platform he says he was “more than satisfied” with. But going forward, he will use Rumble’s acquired subscription service, Locals, to share his written journalism (and for post-show Q&As). His sudden departure from Substack is a major shakeup for the service, where his “Outside Voices” dispatches had the fifth-highest organic traffic of any newsletter. By a 2021 Financial Times estimate, Greenwald was netting $80,000 to $160,000 per month from subscriptions after the site took a 10 percent cut of revenue. “It’s just that in the course of the negotiation, Rumble was insistent that I not only do the show on Rumble but dump Substack for Locals. That was something they wanted,” he explains. 

This hybrid model — paid subscriptions combined with ads around the videos — provides a picture of how Rumble may eventually earn a profit. The business model is somewhat murky, however. (Neither Rumble’s press team nor several high-level employees on their content team returned a request for comment, while multiple requests to CEO Chris Pavlovski went unreturned.) Greenwald, contrary to Twitter gossip, says he has “no equity stake of any kind in Rumble, nor stock options,” but shares investors’ faith that this team can survive an industry crowded with monopolistic giants, citing Rumble’s ongoing lawsuit against Google, which contends that the company favors its own YouTube videos over Rumble in search results. And months ago, Rumble announced that Truth Social would be the first publisher to join its new ad program, positioned as an alternative to Google’s AdSense and Ad Exchange, further entwining its business with Trump’s media organization.

While the site skews right, there is measurable political diversity. A Pew Research Center study released in December found that 22 percent of “those who regularly get news from Rumble” identify as Democrats or Democrat-leaning.

Market observers aren’t so sure these plays will deliver. Edwin Dorsey, the analyst who covers the world of short-sellers for 32,000 readers in his Substack “The Bear Cave,” tells Rolling Stone that “Rumble currently trades at over 100x revenue, a stretched valuation for almost any business. If I had to speculate,” he says, “I’d guess it largely comes from retail investor enthusiasm enamored by the company’s principles.” Sen. Vance, when steering an undisclosed amount of money to Rumble through his Cincinnati-based VC fund Narya Capital, demonstrated that enthusiasm by tweeting that the company is the antidote to a tech industry full of “boring conformists.” Thiel, emerging in 2022 as a crucial GOP megadonor, has made it his mission to reshape Silicon Valley for the American right by spurning the behemoths he once championed. Facebook’s first outside investor, he left Meta’s board of directors last year, reportedly displeased with their fact-checking of political ads, and is now betting on “anti-woke” ventures like Rumble. He’s also funded the Catholic prayer app Hallow and a conservative dating app, The Right Stuff, that is reportedly floundering.

Rumble posted a net loss of $1.8 million in its first quarterly earnings statement since its IPO, attributing some $6.5 million in expenses to “costs related to incentivizing top content creators to promote and join our platform.” That would include deals they extended to Greenwald and Brand, with conservative YouTuber Dave Rubin and journalist Kim Iversen — a critic of the U.S. pandemic response who quit The Hill’s news and opinion webseries Rising after producers allegedly barred her from an interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci — rounding out the initial foursome of “Rumble Exclusives” livestream hosts. “By far, the biggest question for me is whether Rumble can generate strong viewership without special payments to creators,” says Dorsey. “Ad revenue splits like YouTube are fine, but if Rumble stopped paying large sums for exclusive deals, would content dry up?” He also questions “whether Rumble ads are effective and whether advertisers have an appetite for Rumble’s content.”  

Nonetheless, there is an opening. “Video-sharing platforms are a little like a self-fulfilling prophecy: if enough viewers and creators believe it will be successful, then it will become successful,” Dorsey says. Rumble just needs to prove that there’s long-term financial viability in setting up shop there. “Also, if YouTube missteps and agitates its community, that probably will help accelerate the alt-platforms,” he adds.

If Rumble does survive, what will it look like? Greenwald admits that he’d “like to see a little bit more done” to attract the “roster of diverse voices” that the company claims to be seeking. “I know that they’re negotiating with some pretty big, very well-recognized left-wing voices,” he says. They’re trying to build a “network of scheduled, one-hour live shows, similar to the way a cable channel would function,” he explains, and will of course, he adds, go after talent that curbs the “pigeon-holing” of the site as a hotbed of right-wing rhetoric. 

There are signs, however, that conspiracist extremism will keep flourishing on the platform. In addition to its Google lawsuit, Rumble has brought a federal suit against New York Attorney General Letitia James over an admittedly dubious state law that requires websites to “provide and maintain a clear and easily accessible mechanism for individual users to report incidents of hateful conduct.” Rumble maintains that this would unconstitutionally limit “disfavored online speech.” It’s the kind of ideological stand that, in Greenwald’s words, makes Rumble not a mere company but a valiant “cause.”

Apart from paying his new and “considerably higher” salary, which is in the seven figures, Greenwald says the company employs a mostly full-time staff of 22 for his show: 15 working in his Rio de Janeiro studio, and seven contributing on the editorial side.

It’s also in keeping with a tactic Van Der Linden has identified in his research. Right-wing extremists, he says, “attack and politicize all efforts to counter misinformation based on false concerns about censorship and free speech.” This kind of lawsuit, whatever its merits, could further endear the brand to people suspended by other social apps for violating community guidelines. “Although Rumble actually has more stringent moderation policies than some of the … alt-right platforms, they don’t seem to be enforcing them very well in practice, which I think signals that these platforms are either implicitly or explicitly endorsing the spread of harmful speech and misinformation,” Van Der Linden argues. As if to demonstrate this very effect, Pavlovski this month boosted a stream from a channel called Behizy Hub, in which the user praises the site’s updated user interface as “sensational.” Click on that channel, and you’re treated to a slew of monologues falsely alleging voter fraud in the 2022 midterms — particularly in Republican Kari Lake’s gubernatorial loss in Arizona. It’s one thing for Rumble to lack a policy against election disinformation, quite another for the head of the company to promote a user who has made it their entire brand. 

Greenwald says he’s not bothered by sitting in Rumble’s top videos alongside election deniers, anti-vaxxers or QAnon types, nor does he feel it reflects badly on his own channel. “To me, that’s guilt by association,” he says. “You’re on Twitter, you’re on a platform with Donald Trump Jr. and people who are pushing all sorts of things.” He flips the question around to remark that misinformation and disinformation, though present on Rumble, are perpetuated in mainstream media, too. “It wasn’t Andrew Tate that helped the country get lied into the Iraq War. It was the The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic,” he says.

Yet it’s these creators shaping the demographic that sustains the site. At the moment, that group includes many fans of Greenwald’s idiosyncratic journalism — plus a lot of people ready to contradict whatever he says. After he released an episode of System Update in which he said there was no evidence of fraud in the election that ousted Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, the comment section filled up with users retorting — without evidence — that the contest had indeed been stolen for leftist challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Free speech, to be sure, though it hardly seems like constructive debate. That doesn’t worry Greenwald either. He says his readers and listeners know that he won’t always tell them what they want to hear.

“I think a lot of times, YouTube comments and Rumble commenters, are basically people who are just kind of driving by,” he says. “They see the title, they don’t watch the video. You can tell — they’re idiots. They’re just, like, drive-by idiots. I don’t consider that my audience.”