On a recent Saturday morning, Amy opened Facebook to find that the neighbourhood group “Tai Po” – the virtual town square for more than 120,000 current and former residents of the northern Hong Kong district – had disappeared.
“Everyone was confused at first, and then annoyed,” Amy said, asking to be identified by her first name out of privacy concerns. “When a Facebook group gets shut down, we never know what got us into trouble.” The group was later restored, but for Amy and many like her in Hong Kong, the social media behemoth had exhausted their goodwill.
Their attention turned to the new kid on the block: MeWe.
MeWe, which launched in 2016, markets itself as the anti-Facebook: it offers similar functionality, but without targeted ads, content recommendation algorithms and what the company calls “political bias/censorship.” The brand cannily taps into the anxiety surrounding social media, riding a wave of scepticism about the mass collection of information about everything we do online.
This mistrust has been fueled by the hit Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and Apple’s continuing public feud with Facebook over user privacy. Earlier this year, MeWe CEO Mark Weinstein gave a speech denouncing surveillance capitalism, a term coined by academic Shoshana Zuboff to describe the commodification of behavioural data.
Central to the debate is the question: Is there a viable way for people to build healthy communities online without giving up personal data or subjecting their conversations to moderation by a tech company?
In Hong Kong, MeWe’s sales pitch has worked like a charm. The company said it does not track or report membership by country, but boasted that the MeWe app has been the most downloaded social media app in Hong Kong for three straight weeks. In the two weeks since the Facebook controversy, the Tai Po neighbourhood group on MeWe – which was set up in November – saw a sudden spike in interest, tripling its members to over 15,000.
Many upstarts have tried and failed to dethrone Facebook – including the likes of Ello, Vero and Path. Even after adding 3 million new users in November, MeWe’s 12 million members worldwide are nowhere close to Facebook’s 2.7 billion monthly active users. But that has not dampened the enthusiasm of MeWe newcomers from Hong Kong.
Stanley Wong, a financial columnist who goes by “Muddy Dirty Water,” is perhaps MeWe’s most successful early adopter in the city. Known for his self-made fortune and roguish persona, Wong accumulated 140,000 followers on his Facebook page over five years. After just a month on MeWe, however, he became Hong Kong’s top influencer on the site with 23,000 followers.
“My interactions with followers are better on MeWe, because it doesn’t use algorithms to limit reach… it also doesn’t extort my money by asking me to boost posts,” Wong told VICE World News. He said he was frustrated with the unstable reach of his Facebook page, which could vary wildly from post to post.
While content creators like Wong see a strategic advantage in MeWe, the motivations of casual users are more layered. In Hong Kong, spats such as the Tai Po group suspension, which have become increasingly common, have not endeared Facebook to the public. (Facebook told VICE World News that the Tai Po group was suspended due to “repeatedly violating hate speech policy,” a finding that the group’s administrators oppose.) People like Amy tried out MeWe in the hopes that they could be left alone.
More broadly, many Hongkongers have grown wary about Facebook’s authority to moderate content, with some accusing it of outright censorship. Terry Yeung, a media consultant who has his own substantial online following, said the “warning labels” that Facebook and Twitter attached to Donald Trump’s posts during the U.S. presidential election came across as overzealous to some.
“[The labels] triggered some Hongkongers to think about how Facebook had been controlling speech over the past few years, so they wanted a substitute,” Yeung said. “The dissatisfaction was years in the making.”
Hong Kong’s political environment also meant that any restraint on free speech would be viewed with suspicion. In the aftermath of the 2019 pro-democracy movement, Beijing has taken draconian measures to stifle dissent, including the imposition of a national security law that would criminalise a wide range of speech. In this fraught context, it was easy to paint Facebook as the villain once it used a firm hand on content moderation.
“For Hongkongers, [choosing MeWe] is a form of resistance... They think, ‘I want to go somewhere new to diminish Facebook’s influence,’” Yeung said. Given that street protests and other forms of political action have been suppressed by authorities, people are using everyday opportunities to assert their politics, he added.
MeWe spokesperson David Westreich said: “With Facebook sharing data with governments and censoring good people just for their political point of view at the behest of governments, people from Hong Kong and from countries all around the world are joining MeWe.”
In a statement to VICE World News, a Facebook spokesperson rejected the suggestion that the company engaged in censorship, insisting that it had enforced its global policies consistently and fairly.
“Facebook is committed to protecting the right of Hongkongers to express themselves and build community around important issues on our apps. Our Community Standards are designed to ensure our community can have these discussions in a safe environment, while still having the space to express different perspectives,” the spokesperson said.
Politics may have driven Hongkongers away from Facebook, but MeWe has its own political baggage at home. VICE News previously reported that the site – along with alternative social networks like Parler, Gab and Rumble – created a “massive right-wing echo chamber” in America. Back in 2019, Rolling Stone called MeWe a home for anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, though the company disputes that claim.
Asked about MeWe’s chequered reputation, both Wong and Yeung said the dynamics in Hong Kong are different: they said they haven’t seen extremist content in the communities they manage, and that users display a wide spectrum of interests – many of them quite mundane. (Some of the largest MeWe groups in Hong Kong are about coffee, home cooking, second-hand books and supporting pro-democracy small businesses.)
“It is an encouraging place so far. People show support to newcomers, no matter who they are,” Yeung said. “Right now it feels healthy. It’s hard to tell the future; it might be different when more people join.”
Facebook has around 6.5 million users in the city of 7.4 million people, while Wong and Yeung estimate that MeWe members are in the five figures, or possibly low six figures.
Unlike the ad-driven Facebook, MeWe uses a freemium model that offers a monthly subscription of $5 (or 39 Hong Kong dollars) for extra features, like cloud storage and custom emojis.
Despite the uneven playing field, MeWe clearly has ambitions for Hong Kong, at a time when its growth in the U.S. is slowing and 29 percent of its traffic comes from Asia. MeWe’s CEO earlier posted a message welcoming Hong Kong users, and the platform has promised to introduce support for Traditional Chinese, the prevalent written language in Hong Kong and Taiwan, before the end of December.
MeWe also expects to add two-factor authentication as a free feature in the first or second quarter of 2021. Some businesses and media outlets have refrained from joining MeWe out of digital security concerns, and the move might convince them to bring their resources into the ecosystem, Yeung said.
Meanwhile, Wong has become something of a MeWe evangelist, often telling his followers to “resist hegemony.” But he has no plans to abandon his foothold on Facebook, hedging his bets as the social media landscape continues to splinter.
“MeWe won’t replace Facebook,” he said. “But it will take away a slice of its pie, and speed up the process of decentralisation and fragmentation.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said MeWe was founded in 2012. It was a beta version of the project that started that year. MeWe launched in 2016. We regret the error.