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Parler, a “free speech haven” banished from the web, is working on a comeback

22 January 2021 04:00
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Reading time: 5 mins
  1. What is it?
  2. How is it similar and different from Facebook and Twitter?
  3. Who’s behind Parler?
  4. The controversy around Parler
  5. Parler’s uncertain present and dim future
  • 1

    What is it?

    Launched in 2018, Parler social network has positioned itself as a free speech haven from day one. The website and app market themselves as unbiased social media where everyone can “speak freely without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views” – a not so subtle hint at the Big Tech products, like Twitter and Facebook, which won’t hesitate to ban you if you disobey the rules. Leading up to the US presidential elections in November, they adjusted their policies even further in an attempt to crack down on misinformation. As a result, right-wing political speech was oftentimes labeled as misinformation, and following the election conservatives’ allegation of election fraud were censored. This inadvertently fueled Parler’s growth so much that on the weekend of November 8th it became the most downloaded app on App Store racking up over 10 million users. Accused of harboring the users who encouraged off-platform violence and celebrated the Capitol riots on January 6th, the app was banned by Google, Apple and Amazon and, subsequently, lost its hosting with Amazon Web Services or, plainly speaking, was kicked off the public internet. Here’s what you need to know about Parler – a fringe social media platform that’s suing Amazon for violating antitrust law and has recently resumed operation using a Russian IP-address.

  • 2

    How is it similar and different from Facebook and Twitter?

    In case you haven’t had a chance to use Parler before it went down, it’s very similar to Twitter in the way it looks and functions. “Parleys” (same as “tweets”) from people you follow appear in your feed, you can “echo” their posts (i.e. “retweet”) and “vote” on them (i.e. “like” them). Initially Parler drew attention for its anti-censorship stance, as it refused to “curate” your feed, but instead lets the posts from the users you follow appear chronologically. As for the rules, despite embracing freedom of speech, Parler still got some: its community guidelines ban terrorism, unsolicited advertising, defamation, blackmail, bribery and porn. Still, Parler bills itself as “an unbiased social media focused on real user experiences and engagement.” In his interview with CNBC John Matze, Parler’s 27-year-old founder and CEO, said “We’re a community town square, an open town square, with no censorship. If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.”

    But unlike Twitter, Parler has a decidedly conservative slant. Trump fans and conservatives flocked to Parler after Twitter started to remove or label their posts as misinformation. Republican Senator Ted Cruz, former US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, several GOP governors, multiple members of the Trump family, his attorney Rudi Giuliani, and great many celebrities and TV personalities are among the users. When Donald Trump was permanently banned from Twitter in the aftermath of the election, many expected he’d set up an official Parler account, however, it hasn’t so far been confirmed.

    trump twitter ban
    A photo illustration shows the suspended Twitter account of U.S. President Donald Trump./REUTERS by Joshua Roberts
  • 3

    Who’s behind Parler?

    Although Parler emphasizes that it has got no ideological affiliation its backing is conservative. John Matze, the CEO, and Jared Thomson, its co-founder and chief technology officer, have long refused to disclose Parler’s ownership. However, in November 2020, conservative donor Rebekah Mercer revealed she’d been bankrolling the service all along. "John and I started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended, and also to create a social media environment that would protect data privacy," Mercer wrote in a post on Parler (currently unavailable). Mercer’s name has been linked to Cambridge Analytica – a political consulting firm hired by the Trump campaign in 2016 and which allegedly collected the personal data of some 100 million Facebook users.

  • 4

    The controversy around Parler

    A social network that cropped up as an alternative to mainstream platforms accused of stifling free speech, Parler has no fact-checkers or editorial boards. Still, it claims to make sure the contents abide by American Federal Communications Commission guidelines and Supreme Court rulings. Despite this, it was reported that accounts and posts of dubious moral quality weren’t too hard to come by on Parler while it was running. Some expert groups, like ADL, reported that “while the site itself is not extremist, extremists have joined Parler in large numbers alongside millions of mainstream users,” specifying that “Proud Boys, QAnon adherents, anti-government extremists <…> and white supremacists <…> openly promote their ideologies on the site, while Holocaust denial, antisemitism, racism and other forms of bigotry are also easy to find.” Participants of the Capitol siege allegedly used Parler so recruit for and organize the event, others simply celebrated it on the platform. Posts mentioning future violent actions around Biden’s inauguration were also spotted. This, being an example of failed content moderation, became the grounds for Parler to be shut down by the companies it relied on to stay online.

    trump twitter ban
    Campaign rally with U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican U.S. senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, ahead of their January runoff elections./REUTERS by Jonathan Ernst
  • 5

    Parler’s uncertain present and dim future

    Amazon cites violent content  that included musings of race war and killing democrats as the reason for shutting off services to Parler. Apple that pulled Parler from its app store hopes, however, that once the platform succeeded in fixing the issues that let to its ban, it could return. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, specified later that the app wasn’t banned altogether, but rather suspended.

    Following the discontinuation of services by Amazon, Parler sued the company on January 11 in a Seattle federal court, complaining that the media giant was “apparently motivated by political animus” and sought to “reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter.” Few believe that Parler has got a leg to stand on their lawsuit, however, it could resume its service if it moves to a different server. Amazon has assured it would preserve Parler’s data to assist in the company’s migration.

    Parler went dark on January 10th, but these days, should you go to parler.com, you’d hit a landing page citing “technical difficulties” followed by a few messages including Matze’s own, assuring the users, “Our return is inevitable due to hard work, and persistence against all odds.” Parler remains down as a social network, even if parler.com is up. The IP-address it currently uses belongs to a Russian-owned cybersecurity company DDoS-Guard, listing the Russian Ministry of Defense among its many clients. The identity of the server that hosts Parler is obscured by DDoS-Guard and hasn’t been revealed. Parler’s “move” to Russia didn’t remain unnoticed, as Adam Sculthorpe, a cybersecurity expert, tweeted: “By moving to infrastructure controlled by Russia, Parler is actively helping improve Russian disinformation campaigns, and help Russia identify strategic targets.” This kind of reaction is only predictable for anyone viewing Parler as a danger to society. Those who view it as a harbor of free speech, would, perhaps, view a new chapter in Parler’s story as a sign of hope, although Parler’s staying power is an open question.