hobbits_friend wrote in ontd_political

What’s the Deal With Parler and its Rising Popularity?

Examining the “free speech”–centric, far right–friendly alternative to Twitter.

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 Trump’s tweets, Parler became, for many, an attractive solution  to Twitter’s supposed ills.

Now, it’s 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 some high-profile newbies:  Senator Ted Cruz, Representative Elise Stefanik, Representative Jim  Jordan, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump. What led to Parler’s founding  in August 2018 was, predictably, disillusionment with the likes of the  Silicon Valley giants. Henderson, Nevada–based software engineers Jared  Thomson and John Matze created the platform, according to Parler’s  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 isn’t 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, it’s  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 being dubbed a “Facebook killer,” the site was overwhelmed with new users and crashed frequently; it could never scale up and instead became a community for digital artists.) MeWe, another Facebook rival, offers the industry’s first Privacy Bill of Rights. (It also takes a laissez-faire approach to content moderation.) And while its 8 million users are dwarfed by Facebook’s 2.6 billion, MeWe is one of the few successful alternative networks in that it’s continued to grow since its founding in 2016.

Matze, Parler’s CEO who counts Ayn Rand and conservative economist Thomas Sowell among  his influences, fancies his platform a sort of free-speech utopia:  “We’re a community town square, an open town square, with no  censorship,” Matze told CNBC. “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.” And while Parler says it is unbiased—Matze is offering a $20,000 “progressive bounty” for  a popular liberal pundit to join—it’s 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 following—572,000—exceeds her pre-ban Twitter  following.)

In this regard, Parler is most similar to Gab, the free speech–driven platform launched in 2017 that’s known as a haven for extremists. “[F]ar angrier and uglier” than Parler, Gab quickly became a breeding ground for anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, where posts calling for terrorist attacks and violence against minorities circulate.

Gab’s  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 shooting posted about his intentions to act just  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 Gab’s web hosting company said that  the platform probably had a few tens of thousands of users at  most—rather than the 835,000 that Gab claimed—though the hosting company  later denied that.

But Parler doesn’t quite have Gab’s teeth. (Andrew Torba, Gab’s founder, has referred to Parler as a network for “Z-list Maga celebrities.”) While even Gab has limits to free speech, since its content policy purports 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.” Parler’s thorough community guidelines also prohibit spam, terrorist activity, defamation, “fighting words,” and obscenity, among other kinds of speech. And Parler’s user agreement includes clauses that may seem antithetical to its mission.

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, you’re free to say whatever you want—as  long as it falls within the community guidelines, and as long as you’re  willing to take the risk.

That Parler has been reportedly banning users en masse  this week only further illuminates the façade 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.

It’s  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, they’re 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, there’s just obvious consequences,” Blackburn said.

While this may be cause for concern, Amarnath Amarasingam,  an extremism researcher and professor at Queen’s University, is  skeptical that Parler will really galvanise the right. “I think part of  what animates the right—and the left to some extent—and particularly the  far right, is the ability to argue with ‘the other,’” Amarasingam said.

Interacting  (and fighting) with the left reinforces the far right’s 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 won’t 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 they’re deployed into the mainstream.  Maybe one day, at least—for 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 they’ll very  much try to get back into wherever the conversation is happening.”

There’s  also the matter of growth. Normally, these networks just don’t get that  big. They’re considered “fringe” platforms for a reason, and there’s  rarely a solid business model behind them.

In Parler’s case, the  network was started with angel funding, and Matze hasn’t devised a clear  business plan since. Currently, his tentative model is to match conservative influencers with advertisers, and have Parler take a cut of the influencer fee. But given brands’ recent reluctance to advertise on Facebook, this plan seems far from foolproof. With only 30 employees, Parler’s ability to handle more users will be tested.

It  might grow—especially if Trump does decide to join after all—but, as  Amarasingam put it, “if you’re not in the mainstream, you’re 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.”



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