The basic idea of Parler is an awful lot like Twitter. But instead of tweets, users post Parleys. Instead of retweets, there are echoes. And upon registering, the suggested accounts to follow include new outlets such as Breitbart, the Epoch Times, and the Daily Caller, as well as the political accounts for Rand Paul, Mark Levin, and Team Trump.
In June, right-wing users started flocking to this alt-Twitter, whose main selling point is that it vows to champion free speech. As mainstream platforms banned more far-right accounts, removed hate speech with newfound vigour, and attached warning labels to a few of President Donald Trumps tweets, Parler became, for many, an attractive solution to Twitters supposed ills.
Now, its the second most popular app in the App Store, and last week it was estimated to have reached more than 1.5 million daily users, snagging somehigh-profile newbies: Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Elise Stefanik, Representative Jim Jordan, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump. What led to Parlers founding in August 2018 was, predictably, disillusionment with the likes of the Silicon Valley giants. Henderson, Nevadabased software engineers Jared Thomson and John Matze created the platform, according to Parlers website, [a]fter being exhausted with a lack of transparency in big tech, ideological suppresssion [sic] and privacy abuse.
Yet while the platform is being billed as the big free speech alternative to Twitter, it isnt exactly unique. Nor is it as uncensored as it claims to be. Parler is just the latest in a long line of rival social networks that have appeared (and, often, disappeared) in the past decade as alternatives to Big Tech. And, if the past is any indicator, its unlikely that Parler will become anything more than a fringe platform in the near future.
Some of the platforms to emerge as alternatives to the major social networks have taken a hard line on data privacy.Ello, for example, was founded in 2014 as an ad-free network that promised never to sell user data to advertisers. (After beingdubbed a Facebook killer,the site was overwhelmed with new users and crashed frequently; it could never scale up and instead became acommunity for digital artists.) MeWe, another Facebook rival, offers theindustrys first Privacy Bill of Rights. (It also takes alaissez-faire approach to content moderation.) And while its 8 million users are dwarfed by Facebooks2.6 billion, MeWe is one of the few successful alternative networks in that its continued to grow since its founding in 2016.
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Matze, Parlers CEO whocounts Ayn Rand and conservative economist Thomas Sowellamong his influences, fancies his platform a sort of free-speech utopia: Were a community town square, an open town square, with no censorship, Matzetold CNBC. If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler. And while Parler says it is unbiasedMatze isoffering a $20,000 progressive bountyfor a popular liberal pundit to joinits evidently become an unofficial home to the far right, which has long claimed to be mistreated by mainstream platforms. When alt-right celebrities, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Laura Loomer, are banned from Twitter, Parler is their next step. (Loomer announced last week that she has become the first person whose Parler following572,000exceeds her pre-ban Twitter following.)
In this regard, Parler is most similar to Gab, the free speechdriven platform launched in 2017 thats known as ahaven for extremists. [F]ar angrier and uglier than Parler, Gab quickly became a breeding ground for anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, where postscalling for terrorist attacks and violence against minoritiescirculate.
Gabs fate, however, represents one iteration of the circle of life for platforms of its ilk: After it was connected to an instance of terrorism in 2018, when the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue shootingposted about his intentions to actjust before he killed 11 people, Gab never quite recovered. Its server, GoDaddy, dropped it, and though it eventually found another home online, its popularity waned following the shooting and the period offline. In 2019, a software engineer for Gabs web hosting companysaidthat the platform probably had a few tens of thousands of users at mostrather than the 835,000 that Gab claimedthough the hosting company laterdenied that.
But Parler doesnt quite have Gabs teeth. (Andrew Torba, Gabs founder, hasreferred to Parleras a network for Z-list Maga celebrities.) While even Gab has limits to free speech, since its content policypurports to ban extremism, Parler is stricter. It goes far beyond what you might expect from a platform whose entire ethos is freedom of expression. Matze listed a few of the basic rules in a Parley on Tuesday:
As the top Twitter comment points out, Twitter allows four of the five things that Parler censors. Parlers thoroughcommunity guidelinesalso prohibit spam, terrorist activity, defamation, fighting words, and obscenity, among other kinds of speech. And Parlersuser agreementincludes clauses that may seem antithetical to its mission.
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The platform may remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason or no reason, it states. But perhaps most surprising is this:
17. You agree to defend and indemnify Parler, as well as any of its officers, directors, employees, and agents, from and against any and all claims, actions, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to all attorneys fees) arising from or relating to your access to and use of the Services. Parler will have the right to conduct its own defence, at your expense, in any action or proceeding covered by this indemnity.
The indemnity provision means that if Parler faces a lawsuit for something you post, you pay. Basically, youre free to say whatever you wantas long as it falls within the community guidelines, and as long as youre willing to take the risk.
That Parler has beenreportedly banning usersen masse this week only further illuminates the faade of free speech on the platform; but regardless of the extent to which one can or cannot Parley whatever they want, the fact remains that the platform is becoming an important space for the American far right.
Its worth considering, then, what its members might do with it. Part of the concern over polarised platforms is that they can lead to radicalisation: In general, theyre seen as part of the pipeline to extremism. First, extremist movements find a foothold in mainstream platforms, where they present their norms in a slightly more palatable way, explained Jeremy Blackburn, a computer science professor at Binghamton University who researches fringe and extremist web communities. Then they gain ground in platforms like Parler that straddle the fringe and mainstream.
Once you remove any question of there being an echo chamber, theres just obvious consequences, Blackburn said.
While this may be cause for concern,Amarnath Amarasingam, an extremism researcher and professor at Queens University, is skeptical that Parler will really galvanise the right. I think part of what animates the rightand the left to some extentand particularly the far right, is the ability to argue with the other, Amarasingam said.
Interacting (and fighting) with the left reinforces the far rights identity, giving it meaning and purpose, he said, and from studying similar platforms like Gab, Amarasingam has found that talking to yourself in the dark corners of the internet is actually not that satisfying. And while he believes it might lead to the radicalization of certain individuals within the far right, the platform itself wont necessarily further the ideologies of extremist right-wing groups.
What Parler could do, Amarasingam believes, is serve as a kind of sounding board for the far right, a place for fringe movements to try out and refine different arguments. Essentially, it could be a factory of sorts, churning out ideas before theyre deployed into the mainstream. Maybe one day, at leastfor now, a good portion of the conversation of Parler is about how fantastic the platform is and how dumb the old tech giants are. Amarasingam acknowledged this.
[W]hat that indicates to me is that they actually are just using Parler to vent their anger of being suspended from what really matters, which has been more mainstream platform, he said. And so I think theyll very much try to get back into wherever the conversation is happening.
Also read: Why Regulating Social Media Will Not Solve Online Hate Speech
Theres also the matter of growth. Normally, these networks just dont get that big. Theyre considered fringe platforms for a reason, and theres rarely a solid business model behind them.
In Parlers case, the network was started with angel funding, and Matze hasnt devised a clear business plan since. Currently, histentative modelis to match conservative influencers with advertisers, and have Parler take a cut of the influencer fee. But given brandsrecent reluctance to advertise on Facebook, this plan seems far from foolproof. With only 30 employees, Parlers ability to handle more users will be tested.
It might growespecially if Trump does decide to join after allbut, as Amarasingam put it, if youre not in the mainstream, youre not in the mainstream.
Generally speaking, what I expect to see in these sites is they hit a certain threshold of users, just like any other social networking platform, said Blackburn. And then for these types of platforms that are explicitly attracting these certain types of users, probably one of them will do something stupid, then they get shut down or deplatformed, and the next one pops up.
Chloe Hadavasis a writer based in Washington.
This piece was originally published onFutureTense, a partnership betweenSlatemagazine, Arizona State University, and New America.
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