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Parler, the “free speech” social network, explained

The largely unmoderated, conservative-friendly website is back in the news following the insurrection at the US Capitol.

A person holds a smartphone and points to the logo for Parler on the screen.
Parler is attracting posts that Twitter and Facebook don’t allow, like hate speech and conspiracy theories about the US election.
Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.
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Parler has been booted from the internet, after its users cheered on and celebrated the storming of the Capitol on January 6.

Tech giants effectively took the largely conservative and largely unmoderated social network offline as evidence mounts that Parler was involved in the planning of the insurrection, and was still being used to encourage violence in the days following the pro-Trump “Save America” rally. On Sunday, Amazon booted Parler from its Amazon Web Services, citing the risk to public safety. This followed Parler’s app being removed from the Google Play Store and Apple App Stores for its role in inciting violence. The security verification service Okta also terminated Parler’s access to a free trial of its software.

“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms,” Amazon told Parler, according to emails obtained by BuzzFeed News. “It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service.”

Before the platform went offline, the company’s CEO, John Matze, posted that he expected Parler could be offline for up to a week, noting that his company may need to “rebuild from scratch.” But Parler being gone — at least for the time being — doesn’t mean that the posts and data of its millions of users are. At least one researcher claims to have been archiving all the posts on Parler since January 6. Now that data, which reportedly includes location data, is being used to understand what happened on Wednesday and who was involved.

Parler’s shutdown comes as attention turns toward fringe platforms, and at a time when social networks are under increasing scrutiny for the role they play in encouraging off-platform violence. In the aftermath of Twitter permanently banning Trump, and Facebook suspending his account until at least the end of his presidency, some thought Trump and his followers might turn to Parler.

While mainstream platforms have become more stringent about their moderation in recent days, some claim that stricter rules ultimately push users to darker corners of the internet. This process could inevitably bolster the spread of misinformation, hate speech, and violence.

“These are unmoderated kind of closed spaces where only people with fringe and extremist ideologies spend their time,” Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of Yonder, an AI firm that tracks misinformation, said of platforms like Parler and 4chan, a message board known for hate speech. “That means the information diet that they’re consuming is completely homogenous.” Morgan added that this can make the users of these platforms more prone to radicalization.

It’s not yet clear how long it will take Parler to come back online, or if it even can. Still, the site’s few years of activity have made clear how mainstream social networks’ use of moderation has led to backlash. Even in a world where Parler doesn’t exist, new platforms could still be built as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook.

What is Parler?

You may have heard more about Parler in the runup to the 2020 election when conservatives touted it as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook. Parler, an app and website that promises free speech online, has been around since 2018. Right-wing influencers — from Ivanka Trump to the governor of Nebraska — have encouraged those frustrated with alleged Big Tech censorship to join them on Parler.

At first glance, Parler does look a lot like Twitter and Facebook. Open the app, and there are profiles pushing doubt about the 2020 election’s results and declarations that the mainstream tech platforms are targeting free speech. With just a few clicks, it’s easy to find even more extreme right-wing voices and hate speech. Overall, the site appears like an amalgamation of some of the most odious factions of social media, centralized on one platform that’s attracted millions of users.

In the final days of the 2020 election, Parler’s popularity exploded. Searches for “Parler” have surged since late October, and the app saw a spike in downloads after Joe Biden won the White House. At one point last November, the app actually reached the top slot in the App Store, though it’s since fallen significantly in the rankings. The Washington Post reported that the site had more than 10 million users following the election, and the company’s COO has said that the user base is continuing to grow by the millions.

These numbers are still small compared to platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which collectively boast billions of users. But Parler is becoming a topic of conversation on those platforms, too. Parler received 1.5 million mentions on Twitter the week after the election, and posts about Parler have racked up hundreds of thousands of “likes” on Facebook, according to data collected by Zignal Labs.

As it has grown, Parler has become a way station for hate speech and misinformation that Twitter and Facebook wouldn’t allow. The site is also where many Trump supporters are spreading the false narrative that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. The burgeoning influence of Parler is part of a broader trend of fringe outlets like One America News and Newsmax hoping to reel in an audience of Trump loyalists, especially after he leaves office.

This flurry of post-election attention is not the first time Parler has made the news. Over the summer, Parler started to see new users after Twitter put warning labels on several tweets from President Trump, prompting prominent conservatives to coax their followers into joining the app. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz even posted a video announcing his decision to move to Parler.

But despite the recent attention, some say the rise of Parler fits into the larger history of American conservatives and their relationship with the media.

“This follows a pattern of what the right wing has done [since] the rise of talk radio in the ’80s, and then through live cable TV, and then the rise of social media,” Lawrence Rosenthal, the chair of the University of California Berkeley’s Center for Right-Wing Studies, told Recode. “In each case, what you found is that the right wing gives up on participating in mainstream media and creates an alternative universe.”

Parler is just the latest iteration of this phenomenon, Rosenthal explained.

Parler did not respond to Recode’s request for comment.

If Parler is looking to become a real competitor to the social media giants it criticizes, the company still has a very long way to go. While Parler is intent on not moderating much of its content, pressures to do so could grow as its users try to bend the few rules the site does have.

Parler looks and works like Twitter, but there are important differences

When you sign up for Parler, the site asks for standard information like a phone number and an email address. Parler also provides a list of suggested follows — mostly conservative influencers — and recommended hashtags during the sign-up process. Once you reach the homepage, the site prompts you to post something (“What’s new?”) and provides an updated inventory of posts and threads from accounts you follow. Some of these accounts are verified, and some use hashtags (which you can search separately).

There’s also a private messaging feature that’s similar to direct messages on Twitter and a “Discover” tab, where Parler features “all of the latest news” from accounts that users don’t already follow. In the “Verification” tab, users are prompted to provide images of a government-issued identification card as well as a selfie in order to earn “Citizen” status on the app.

Parler eschews content curation, and posts from people you follow appear chronologically — not algorithmically sorted as posts appear on Facebook and Twitter. “We do not curate your feed; we do not pretend to be qualified to do so,” state the company’s guidelines. While there are some limitations, like certain illegal activities, Parler’s community guidelines promise users that the platform will be “viewpoint-neutral” and that “removing community members or member-provided content [will] be kept to the absolute minimum.”

Parler emphasizes that it doesn’t have a particular ideological affiliation, but much of the content on the platform is conservative, and the site also has conservative backers. The site also immediately steers new users to conservative voices and content. When Recode started a new account on the site, we were prompted to follow a slew of prominent right-wing personalities and brands, including PragerU, Cruz, and Dinesh D’Souza.

A Parler feed could include a slew of prominent conservatives.

Meanwhile, the company’s leadership is adamant that Parler is a “town square,” not a “publisher,” language that harks to the ongoing debate over the Communication Decency Act’s Section 230, which regulates how social media sites moderate content.

Scroll through the platform and content ranges from standard Republican talking points to conspiracy theories and hate speech. Recode has identified users of the site promoting Holocaust denialism, Nazism, QAnon, and all sorts of other offensive content. Parler has also become a home for an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, which the platform said it would not take down because it hadn’t heard from US law enforcement.

“When you have this sort of mingling, and common cause, between extremists and non-extremists, I think that’s what makes it a bit different and unique,” Oren Segal, the vice president of the ADL Center on Extremism, said in November. Segal says that he doesn’t think the platform itself is extremist, but that it does allow such content to proliferate.

“You have certain elements on the platform that talk about stolen elections and illegitimate elections and disinformation or misinformation more broadly,” Segal explained. “That is not only animating some of those who are on the platform who are not extremists, but it’s actually the lifeblood of extremists.”

In response to criticism that the app hosts conspiracy theorists and white supremacists, Matze, the Parler CEO, told CNBC, “Our general premise is that we believe in the good of the American people as a whole, and that people should be able to have these discussions and let the crazies come out and let the world see who they are and talk with them, and not let them hide and fester and do some nasty things.”

He added, “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.”

But Matze has also expressed frustration with some users. While the platform has promoted itself under the banner of free speech, some lines have already been drawn. The site has banned pornography and spam, and community guidelines published earlier this year emphasize that content that seems to be related to crime will also be removed. Meanwhile, a good number of people have been banned from the platform for posting vulgar content, as well as some parody accounts and those that posted pictures of feces. Instead of paid content moderators, the site employs volunteers, who constitute a “community jury” that votes on what violates Parler’s limited rules.

We’re still learning more about who is behind Parler

Based in Nevada, the company behind Parler is run primarily by two people: Matze and Jared Thomson, who serves as CTO. Neither of them had a particular public profile before creating the app. Jeffrey Wernick, a bitcoin enthusiast and early Airbnb investor, serves as the company’s chief operating officer. But there are other people funding the app.

Parler confirmed to the Wall Street Journal in November that conservative megadonor Rebekah Mercer was the company’s lead investor and agreed to fund Parler only if it gave users control over what they saw on the platform. She recently declared in a Parler post that the site was a “beacon to all who value their liberty, free speech, and personal privacy.” Her father, Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund investor, previously invested $15 million in Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign in 2016 and excoriated for harvesting the personal data of nearly 100 million Facebook users. Rebekah Mercer served on the board of Cambridge Analytica.

Another notable funder of Parler is Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and conservative podcast host with a very popular conservative Facebook page. Despite his apparent success on mainstream platforms — Bongino has nearly 3 million followers on Twitter and nearly 4 million on Facebook — he regularly urges his fans to join him on Parler.

This isn’t necessarily surprising. The conservatives operating on Parler as well as the mainstream social media platforms seem to be trying to get the best of both worlds. This serves as a reminder that, despite Parler’s advertisements, it is not building an alternative to Facebook and Twitter as much as it’s becoming another node in a messy social media ecosystem.

“You can build a very strong following on these platforms and then use it to promote your activity on other platforms,” Diara Townes, an investigative researcher and the community engagement lead at First Draft, a project that fights misinformation and disinformation, told Recode. “Not only can they continue sharing the content that they’re sharing on Facebook, they can now go to the next level and share content that isn’t going to be flagged or moderated, so they can have both pieces of the pie.”

How the platform is changing in Trump’s final days as president

There’s much speculation that, after he leaves office, Trump will create a conservative media venture of his own and bring his supporters along. But it’s possible Parler will become part of the president’s future, too.

For now, it doesn’t seem as though Trump has a formal presence on the platform, and he didn’t appear to have joined the platform after being suspended from Twitter and Facebook in January. Trump has never tweeted about Parler, and accounts that purport to be him on the platform aren’t verified. But if Trump did go all-in on Parler, he could certainly bring many of his supporters with him.

But whether Parler can scale beyond its roots is unclear. Media Matter’s Angelo Carusone has argued that, at a certain point, the platform will have to draw more aggressive lines about what is and isn’t allowed if it wants to attract a larger, less extreme user base. Some social media researchers have made the point that if Parler actually wants to reach a wider audience, it will have to adapt. As the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Renée DiResta wrote in the Atlantic, “For some Trump supporters, the whole point of politics is to ‘own the libs,’ but on Parler, there are no libs around to own.”

Parler is not the only social network to woo fringe groups. The perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was a user of the site Gab, which has also been used by neo-Nazis for recruitment. While Gab has lost hosting providers in the past, it’s still functional, and its leaders claim that, like Parler, it’s seen a surge of usage following the election.

Despite its claims and ambitions, it seems unlikely that Parler will supplant any of the major social media platforms. Many of its most popular users are still active on Twitter and Facebook, and to some extent, Parler still needs those platforms to spread the word about itself. The internet companies that do moderate content — those on the right like to call this censorship — also give potential Parler users something to get outraged about.

Whether Parler can thrive on this outrage alone remains to be seen. After all, a platform can’t build itself just because people hate the alternatives. It still needs something to keep its users interested on its own. If, of course, Parler ever comes back online.

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