Parler and the Free Speech Red Herring

Candace Owens appears with Turning Point USA president Charlie Kirk during a visit to Texas State University in San Marcos in 2018. (Carrington Tatum / Shutterstock.com)

It happened just two weeks before Christmas in 2018.

Candace Owens—a conservative firebrand and pro-Trump activist—introduced Parler to the MAGA grassroots movement with a tweet that began, “Wow. Everyone just found out about the new Twitter. Just want to say that I WAS THE FIRST CONSERVATIVE TO JOIN … Feels like a long-overdue social media rebellion.”

The “new Twitter” to which Owens referred is Parler, marketed as a free speech alternative to Twitter. The new social-media platform quickly attracted a handful of well-known right-wing politicians such as Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, as well as far-right activists banished from mainstream social media, including Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes and right-wing gadfly Milo Yiannopoulos. By mid-2019, Parler had acquired just over 100,000 users and earned a reputation as an insular gathering space for vocal Trump supporters, featuring such trending hashtags as #IslamExposed, #IllegalImmigrants, and #BuildThatWall.

While Parler was still smaller than its fellow alternative platforms like Gab at the time, the network has since grown at an exponential pace, especially during the 2020 presidential cycle. Owen’ tweet alone yielded a reported 40,000 new followers to the burgeoning social media network, which caused server malfunctions at Parler. What started as a tool for media outlets to redirect revenue from mainstream social networks has since become one of the most influential platforms for far-right voices on the internet.

Origins & Mercer-Family Funding

Founded in August 2018 by John Matze and Jared Thomson, Parler bills itself as “unbiased social media focused on real user experiences and engagement” while touting “free expression without violence and no censorship.” The company is based in Henderson, Nevada, and has been described as an alternative to mainstream social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

Matze, a self-proclaimed libertarian who serves as the company’s chief executive officer, revealed that one of Parler’s early investors was Republican donor Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of American hedge fund manager Robert Mercer. Matze confirmed Mercer’s involvement after Wall Street Journal first reported on the story. Mercer has a long history of funding organizations that support right-wing political causes in the United States (such as Breitbart News) and was a significant donor to entities supporting President Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Mercer also helped white supremacist Steve Bannon get a senior role in Trump’s campaign.

“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,” Rebekah Mercer wrote on Parler last week. “The ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords demands that someone lead the fight against data mining, and for the protection of free speech online. That someone is Parler, a beacon to all who value their liberty, free speech, and personal privacy.”

Robert Mercer is also the former principal investor in now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm that used personal data from millions of Facebook users—acquired without their consent—for political advertising and to influence elections around the world, including the political campaigns of Trump and Ted Cruz.

Parler — a French word for “to speak” — has marketed itself as a free speech utopia, an entity set up as the solution to unsubstantiated claims by conservatives and other members of the right that they are being censored on Facebook and Twitter by the overlords of Big Tech. While there is no evidence of widespread anti-conservative censorship on mainstream social media, Parler’s usership has continued to grow in 2020, exacerbated by the fallout of the 2020 presidential election and ensuing baseless conspiracy theories about widespread voter fraud, which have been increasingly labeled as such by Twitter and Facebook.

On Wednesday, Matze told viewers of Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson that Parler’s users are “liberated from restrictions” and compared the platform to a “community town square.”

“Well, when you go out in public, people say crazy things all the time,” Matze said. “Everybody has opinions and some of them might not be the norm, right? It’s not against the law to have those opinions. It’s not against the law to express yourself, you know. And if you like one political candidate or another or you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whatever it might be, you know, you shouldn’t be taken offline because of it.”

In the two weeks following Election Day, Parler has more than doubled its user base to more than 10 million registered users, topping other alternative social media platforms like BitChute, MeWe, and Gab. However, the network has also attracted a wide range of far-right extremists, including members of the Proud Boys, QAnon adherents, militia members and anti-government extremists from the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters organizations, dangerous conspiracy-mongers such as Alex Jones, and even loyalists to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who was responsible for the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

A Far-Right Echo Chamber

On Nov. 17, Ivanka Trump became the latest high-profile conservative to join Parler. The daughter of the defeated president announced the news on Twitter, inviting her 10 million-plus followers to follow her on the network.

Ivanka Trump appears to be the third Trump family member to be verified on Parler. Her brother, Eric Trump, joined on May 27, and his wife Lara joined that same month. Their half-sister Tiffany also joined Parler earlier this year. However, neither the president, nor his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., appear to have verified Parler accounts yet.

While the outgoing president has yet to create a personal account on Parler, the website has enjoyed several waves of conservative sign-ups over the past year. On June 24, 2020, the Trump reelection campaign announced that they were looking for alternative social media networks after Twitter and Facebook heavily moderated and restricted some of their posts and advertising campaigns for including Nazi symbolism. One of the alternatives generating buzz was Parler, prompting Republicans—including Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley—to join the network.

Around the same time, Parler also garnered an international far-right following, which included far-right British media personality Katie Hopkins and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his son Flavio, who brought the platform a wave of sign-ups from Brazil.

In many cases, Parler has reaped benefits from the mainstream social media networks crackdown on violent extremist groups, white supremacists, neo-Nazi groups, conspiracy theories, and disinformation campaigns. The network is home to hundreds of thousands of accounts held by Saudi Arabian users, the vast majority of whom are loyalists of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Parler first experienced this influx of accounts from the Middle Eastern kingdom in June 2019, following claims that Twitter had purged inauthentic accounts and bots spreading Saudi propaganda and disinformation. Parler welcomed the users from Saudi Arabia and described the migration as part of “the nationalist movement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Parler was also ready to accept the stream of far-right users banned from YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter over the past few months. Since then, thousands of QAnon adherents, Proud Boys, and militia movements have migrated to Parler.

Tito Ortiz, a former UFC champion turned QAnon adherent who was recently elected to the Huntington Beach city council, was one of the recent sign-ups to Parler. In the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, he has used that account to spread misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, voter fraud, and QAnon. He even placed the WWG1WGA slogan—an abbreviation of the QAnon battle cry “where we go one, we go all”—in his Parler bio.

Fellow MMA fighter Tara LaRosa—a pioneer of the sport who now spends her time in street fights alongside the Proud Boys—also migrated to Parler, where she posted about her experience at the “Million MAGA March” last week while flashing the OK hand gesture, a designated hate symbol used to denote white power.

Parler has even attracted Gina Carano, an actress on Disney’s “The Mandalorian” who has been criticized for her conspiracy-ridden tweets about COVID-19, mandatory masks, QAnon, and election fraud. She started her Parler account after the hashtag #FireGinaCarano was trending on Twitter.

The network has managed to build its audience by imposing few restrictions on what can be posted on the network. Parler’s community guidelines bar “content posted by or on behalf of terrorist organizations, child pornography, and copyright violations.” The network has also taken a hard line against spamming, but makes no mention of limiting false information, propaganda, conspiracy theories, and extremist ideologies. This, in turn, will create a far-right echo chamber that some experts believe will help strengthen their controversial ideologies.

“I share a lot of concerns that have already been voiced about how many people are migrating to online spaces in terms of how this could intensify the filter bubbles they already live in,” said Dr. Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Director of Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University and award-winning author of six books, including “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.” “Gab and Parler are more likely to be echo chambers or filter bubbles that increase the likelihood of people encountering ideas that only reinforce their existing beliefs, rather than introduce new ones.”

An Ideological Dichotomy

“I’m going to Parler and mewe, I’m done with these tech companies censoring my opinion,” Christopher Brown, a disillusioned user, wrote on Twitter.

Brown is not alone. His concerns about censorship have been shared by thousands of Twitter and Facebook users, many of whom are currently transitioning to Parler. While the social network alternative has managed to attract these disgruntled users and convince them to make the switch, it remains to be seen whether Parler will be able to keep them.

While Parler is being billed by conservatives as a free speech utopia, the network has some concerning business practices. According to the Terms of Service, Parler requires a telephone number in order for a user to sign up to the network. You are also required to “notify Parler when you cease to own or control that number.” Some Parler services require you to “supply a social security number and/or tax identification number.” Parler also requires a picture or scan of your driver’s license in order for users to employ its direct-messaging function.

According to the terms of service, Parler may “remove any content and terminate your access to the Services at any time and for any reason to the extent Parler reasonably believes (a) you have violated these Terms or Parler’s Community Guidelines, (b) you create risk or possible legal exposure for Parler, or (c) you are otherwise engaging in unlawful conduct.” It also added that Parler may modify the terms of service “without notice to you.”

Given the arbitrary community guidelines and terms, it is possible that some users may question Parler’s commitment to privacy and free speech.

“I would expect that some of the people who migrated over will get disillusioned with the platform, either because it has more restrictions than they anticipated or because they find they don’t like the echo chamber nature of it,” said Dr. Miller-Idriss. “It will be important to follow over the coming months and see how it develops.”

According to Oren Segal, the vice-president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center of Extremism, Parler’s standing as a bastion of free speech will largely depend on how the terms of service will be enforced. “[Parler] can talk about banning pornography or obscenity … but if it’s not enforced, then maybe it does become this utopia of free speech for those who want to find a place to say things as extremist as they want to be.”

Questionable terms of service aside, Parler continues to be one of the most popular apps on the U.S. Apple app store, topping the list of free apps over the past couple of weeks. While it may not necessarily be as popular in international markets (it ranks 72nd in the Canadian app store as of the time of writing), its dominance in the U.S. means that Parler’s leadership might be pressured to loosen its terms of services (or their enforcement) in order to appease the platform’s newly developed audience and further its growth.

“Would it be a surprise that, if this is the No. 1 most downloaded app, they would try to continue to leverage this momentum by loosening up their enforcement?” Segal asked. “This is not unique to Parler.”

Indeed, Parler is not the first platform to brand itself as an alternative to mainstream social networks like Twitter and Facebook. However, while Gab, MeWe, and Telegram all had a loyal base of users at one point or another, none of them were granted the legitimacy bestowed on Parler. While Gab became a platform vacuum for extremists and white supremacists, Parler received support and endorsements from prominent mainstream conservative voices like Fox News host Sean Hannity.

According to radio host Dan Bongino, who purchased an ownership stake in Parler back in June, part of Parler’s success among big-name conservatives is “rage and anger” at having their “speech crushed.”

”People always want free speech,” Bongino told The Washington Examiner. “Always. And if you’re going to suppress free speech for conservatives, then you’re going to give me another business opportunity.”

Yet while Parler boasts some of the prominent and respected conservative voices on the internet, it has also attracted some of their most odious counterparts. Waves of extremists have migrated to the network in an attempt to find the sizeable audiences denied to them on mainstream networks.

From QAnon adherents and conspiracy peddlers to anti-government militias, neo-fascist groups and white supremacists, Parler has welcomed them all with open arms—refusing to distinguish between right-wing conservatism and far-right extremism—all in service of the elusive notion of free speech. While that may serve its current purpose of growing its business to rival mainstream competitors, it could also serve to alienate their more moderate voices such as establishment conservatives and Republicans.

“If this is being billed by its founders as a conservative alternative to existing social media and if big name users who are promoting it view it as an alternative to other social media, you would think that they more than anyone else would want to make sure that extremists are not proliferating on their platform,” Segal said.

As Parler continues to grow and attract some of the most controversial and dangerous voices on the internet, the company faces the delicate balancing act of matching user expectations regarding free speech absolutism, and creating a legitimate and sustainable network that obstructs extremism and the vile ideological cesspool propagated on message boards like 8kun. How Parler ultimately handles its current ambivalence will determine its future.

“The danger is that the Overton window of what is acceptable regarding misinformation, regarding hate speech, is further moved and that there is a further blurring between fact and fiction and between extremism and more mainstream,” Segal said. “In other words, between the right and the far-right. And I would think that the right would want to prevent ​[the expansion of] that gray area more than anyone.”