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Friday, April 19, 2024

Inside Parler, the Right's Favorite 'Free Speech' App

There are only two rules on Parler, the “free-speech” social network: First, nothing criminal. Second, no spam. Other than that, you can post what you want, the site advertises, “without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”

For that reason, Parler has gone kablooey in the past week, growing from 4.5 million users to more than 8 million. Its laissez-faire moderation stands in contrast to other platforms, where you can decidedly not post whatever you want. In the days since the election, Facebook has cracked down on political misinformation, Twitter has added warning labels to dozens of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets, and slighted conservatives have flocked to Parler. Activity on the platform increased twentyfold. For most of the week, it has been the top free app in both Apple and Google’s app stores.

The freewheeling disposition of the app has made it a strange mirrorworld to the rest of the social internet. When a post gets flagged by Twitter, it is sometimes reborn on Parler, like a phoenix in 280 characters. Accounts are reborn too, after they’ve been banned elsewhere. Right-wing luminaries who still have profiles on “lamestream” social media have made posts encouraging their followers to get off Facebook and Twitter and join them on Parler instead. This week, I decided to follow them.

I created an account for Parler on Monday. After I chose a username, the app prompted me to follow a few of its star users. The suggestions included the conservative political commentator Sean Hannity, who has called for an exodus from Twitter; internet personalities Diamond and Silk, who were throttled by Facebook in 2018 for sharing “dangerous” content; and conservative talk show host Mark Levin, whose Facebook account was recently restricted for “repeated sharing of false news.” Influencers like Dinesh D'Souza, who Vox Media has called “America's greatest conservative troll,” and politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes also feature prominently. I subscribed to all 16 accounts recommended by the app.

It didn’t take long to get up to speed. Many of Parler’s users take issue with Twitter, which they see as biased and restrictive. But they have remade their new home in its image, like refugees who wish they’d never had to leave. The familiar features have been replicated, but renamed: Retweet is called “Echo.” Likes are called “Votes.” Instead of a blue checkmark, Parler’s elite get a yellow badge that says “verified influencer.”

Parler’s influencers are prolific—Sean Hannity posts roughly 20 times per day—and my feed quickly filled with posts from those I had opted to follow. “Men can identify as women. Women can identify as men. Joe Biden can identify as President-elect. But I can’t identify as a journalist,” wrote Avi Yemini, a far-right activist, who was banned from Facebook in September. “You’re not a journalist, you’re a truther,” someone replied in a comment. “Journalist [sic] is now intertwined with lies.”

I also identify as a journalist, but I decided not to out myself. Instead, my first Parler post was the one that Parler automatically generates for each new user: “I just joined Parler! Looking forward to meeting everyone here.”

Exactly five minutes later, I saw that I had a comment on my introduction post. It came from Team Trump, “the official Parler account for the Trump Campaign,” which bears Parler’s “verified influencer” badge and has 2 million followers on the platform. “Welcome to Parler! Help us MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by clicking the link below. Be sure to text TRUMP to 88022!” I navigated to the Team Trump page. It had left this exact comment on many, many other Parler users’ accounts—up to 1.6 million times, based on a review of the account’s comments.

John Matze, Parler's 27-year-old CEO and founder, created the platform in 2018 as a free speech oasis. Still, Matze is the first to admit that there are rules—this is supposed to be liberty, not anarchy. Earlier in the year, a number of Parler’s users were booted from the platform and returned to Twitter to complain. Matze addressed their grievances on the app. “We will not allow you to spam other people trying to speak with unrelated comments like 'Fuck you' in every comment,” Matze wrote. Also: “When you disagree with someone, posting pictures of your fecal matter in the comment section WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.”

I made several requests to speak with Matze, to clarify whether Team Trump’s account had violated the spam rule. The classic definition of spam, according to the Internet Society, is “unsolicited bulk messages, that is, messages sent to multiple recipients who did not ask for them.” Parler’s community rules say that “posting spam and using bots” can get you kicked off the platform. The Trump campaign’s account appeared to be using a bot to post its mass comments on posts like mine. The Team Trump account also appears to have posted the same thing to its own page approximately every 30 minutes: “Help stop voter suppression, irregularities, and fraud! Tell us what you are seeing.” Matze did not respond to questions sent through a Parler spokesperson.

One theory as to why Team Trump spam gets a pass while other repeat offenders have not is that Parler prioritizes conservative speech rather than free speech. But the more likely explanation is that Parler is set up to amplify its influencers, rather than create a space for anyone to be heard. Even its spam rule is designed to prevent behavior that “negatively affects the ability of those participating in our Influencer Network to monetize themselves”—not to prevent influencers from spamming regular people on the platform. There’s no way to find new users to follow besides searching popular hashtags, or combing through the comments on another influencer’s posts. And while Parler, like Twitter, has a healthy ecosystem of reply guys, most of those comments get buried by the app’s design. It’s hard to imagine someone without a big following going viral on Parler.

In that sense, Parler functions less like the “public square” it wants to be, and more like an ecosystem of right-wing bloggers, radio hosts, and public figures to further amplify their thoughts. Maybe that’s what people have come to the platform for, but it could make it harder for Parler to grow into the social media alternative it seems to want to be. And while Parler is the hottest app of the week, it’s still a small fish in a very big pond: Twitter has 330 million users; Facebook has over 2 billion. Parler only has 8 million.

Parler may market itself as the antidote to those bigger platforms, but Matze appears to face the same content moderation questions as Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Not long ago, Twitter identified itself as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” Then it learned, as Matze seems to have, that running a business built on content from millions of users comes with all kinds of complications. Over the summer, in an interview with Forbes, Matze said that he was so busy moderating the platform that he hadn’t eaten all day. “I’m sitting here, like, banning trolls.”

Matze also seems to be dealing with the consequences of letting misinformation spread freely. Recently, someone Photoshopped an image of Fox News to show a news ticker that read, “Fox News confirms: George Soros is majority owner of new social platform Parler.” The image quickly spread on Parler, causing quite an uproar among Parler’s users. “Is THIS TRUE?????” one user wrote above the image, which had been posted repeatedly on the network. “Yes, it’s absolutely true that #Soros owns #Parler,” a user named @PizzaGate20 replied.

Matze did not delete any of the posts. Instead, he created his own post, clarifying that “Parler has NOT been sold. These are malicious lies intended to damage and malign the brand of Parler. Anyone claiming otherwise is a hoaxer and most likely acting from malice.”

Other types of misinformation have also spread throughout the platform, though with less pushback from Matze or other users. I searched the hashtag #barackobama and found multiple links to articles accusing the former president of turning the United States into “the world’s #1 for sex trafficking and pedophilia.” “It ceases [sic] to amaze me people still ignore facts such as this,” one user wrote in a post. Curiously, because of the platform’s architecture, these posts are difficult to find without searching specific hashtags or following individual users. The aforementioned post came from a user with five followers; it had no comments or echos. It’s entirely possible that I was the first person to see it.

For those of us who aren’t “verified influencers,” Parler is more like watching conversations play out from behind a screen, rather than participating in them. Posts from people with small followings get drowned out by Parler’s celebrities. I tried to send a direct message to Matze on the platform and found that I couldn’t because I did not have a “verified real person” badge on Parler, which requires sending a photo of identification, like a driver’s license, to the platform. In a twist of fate, Parler had left me silenced—not so much a public square or even a social network, but a place where only the pundits get to speak.

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