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A Twitter for conservatives? Parler surges amid election misinformation crackdown

Its embrace by prominent conservatives and a sudden influx hint at a once informal online dynamic that has recently become more official: the blue internet and the red internet.
Image: President Donald Trump Holds Campaign Rally In Tampa
Supporters wait for President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., on Oct. 29.Octavio Jones / Getty Images

As Twitter labeled tweet after tweet from President Donald Trump in recent days, some conservatives decided they'd had enough.


"So long Twitter friends~exiting all big techs & switching to PARLER!" wrote another.

And there were plenty more. Distrust of the major social media platforms among some Trump supporters came to a boil around the election as Twitter and Facebook — already the targets of complaints about liberal bias — began to take swift and severe action on election-related misinformation. More than a few Republican politicians echoed the sentiments.

And so, many of them joined Parler, a Twitter-like social media platform that has for two years been a minor destination for conservative politicians and media figures. Like other social media apps, Parler has a feed of posts to scroll through. Posts can be up to 1,000 characters, and they can include links and photos. Users can follow one another, as well as explore a "discovery news" tab, which was dominated Tuesday by allegations of election fraud. Its community guidelines fit onto a few pages and address the most basic content problems: criminal activity and spam.

Now, Parler is surging. It sits atop the charts of app stores, boosted in large part by supporters who agree with Trump's decision to continue fighting the results of the election — in the courts and on the internet. Twitter declined to comment on the growth at Parler.

And while Parler is far from the first social media platform to cater to users who feel that policies regulating hate speech, harassment and disinformation have gone too far, its embrace by prominent conservatives and its sudden influx of users hint at a once informal online dynamic that has recently become more official: the blue internet and the red internet.

"In the same way that Fox News found there was a market for journalism with a particular political view, Parler may find that there's particular value for where it is right now," said Josh Pasek, an associate professor of political communication at the University of Michigan.

And while social media companies have traditionally boasted about growth, the emergence of an alternative platform like Parler comes at what might be considered an opportune time for the platforms it's meant to replace.

Antitrust enforcers have been scrutinizing Facebook's dominance and whether it has been stifling competition in social media, while lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission are considering revisions to the legal shield tech companies enjoy from many lawsuits, including those for defamation.

Parler has been No. 1 over the past few days on the app stores of both Apple and Google, a rare accomplishment for any app, let alone one that's trying to compete with social media's established companies. MeWe, another upstart social media app, was also ranked highly on both app stores in recent days.

Parler, based in Nevada, said Tuesday that its number of users had nearly doubled in the past week, from 4.5 million to 8 million. It said the number of active users has grown from 500,000 two weeks ago to more than 4 million.

That's a rapid rate of growth, although Parler is far behind Twitter and Facebook in absolute numbers. Twitter has 187 million daily users, while Facebook has 1.8 billion.

On the app, users have noted that Parler is slow and keeps crashing, and CEO John Matze has been reassuring them that it will be able to scale up. Twitter had similar issues when it started, with its infamous "fail whale" now a part of internet lore.

"We are prepared for this mostly, however not everything is predictable," Matze replied to one user on Parler.

Most social media companies have steadily beefed up their speech policies. Not only Facebook and Twitter but also other sites, such as YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest and TikTok, have stepped up enforcement of their rules this year to try to stem content that would cause interference in the election or promote conspiracy theories. Reddit, once a bastion of the anything-goes internet, banned hundreds of subgroups in June for hate speech, including a popular pro-Trump forum.

And while some fringe message boards and services have sprung up to cater to conservatives, few have amassed the kind of user base Parler now boasts, complete with many powerful Republicans who turned what they called internet censorship by social media companies into a mainstream political issue. It offers an unabashedly conservative tilt, recommending that new users follow Fox News host Sean Hannity and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. And it's getting a boost from conservative celebrities, including the actor Scott Baio, who urged his Twitter followers Monday to switch to the startup.

Other users include people who have been banned from Twitter, such as David Duke, the white supremacist and former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard. Last week, an Arkansas police chief resigned after he used Parler to threaten death to Democrats.

"They are growing because Facebook and Twitter are finally getting their act together a little bit," said Hany Farid, a professor and computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies extremism online.

The difference in how Parler handles its platform is most pressing around the spread of false claims of election interference. While misinformation about the election continues to spread on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, the results of the presidential election are clear: Democrat Joe Biden is the projected winner and president-elect. The companies have said so directly based on authoritative news sources, and any post claiming otherwise is at risk of being fact-checked.

But on Parler, influential users have regularly posted unfounded claims about Biden's stealing votes, attracting legions of new, conservative users who aren't happy with how established apps have given weight to traditional news outlets the past several weeks.

Matze has played up the app's hands-off approach to post-election disputes over ballots, pledging that unlike Facebook and Twitter, he wouldn't try to assess baseless statements from Trump or his supporters that he defeated Biden.

"Anybody that's fact-checking any statement about whether or not a president or presidential candidate has won any state right now is speaking prematurely," Matze told the news outlet Cheddar in an interview Monday.

"We believe in people and their ability to solve these things on their own without our heavy hand," he said.

Jeffrey Wernick, Parler's chief operating officer, said Tuesday that the app was benefiting from the way users have been treated by competitors. He said people had been turned off by Facebook's mishandling of personal data and its use of algorithms to manipulate people and by Twitter's opaque process for enforcing rules.

"Our growth is not attributable to any one person or group, but rather to Parler's efforts to earn our community's trust, both by protecting their privacy, and being transparent about the way in which their content is handled on our platform," Wernick said in a statement.

Trump isn't on Parler yet, sticking instead with Twitter, where he has more than 88 million followers. Trump's re-election campaign has a Parler account with 2 million followers.

Parler is unusual as a tech startup in that it hasn't received any public investment from known venture capital firms. Matze said in a recent Parler post that the ownership structure is "myself, a small group of close friends and employees," along with two additional investors: Dan Bongino, a conservative commentator who runs one of the most popular pages on Facebook, and Wernick, the chief operating officer.

Francesca Goerg, a spokesperson for Parler, said she had no additional information to share about Parler's funding beyond Matze's post.

Potential hurdles for the app abound, including whether it can maintain distribution. Gab, an earlier go-to social network for the alt-right, lost its access to the Apple and Google app stores in 2017 after the companies said it failed to take down hate speech on its service. And Parler's lax enforcement puts it at risk of becoming a premier haven for racists or others who threaten violence. It's also unclear how the company is making money given the lack of advertising or other known revenue.

The rules for the Google app store, for example, spell out that the company will remove apps that promote hate speech or don't have "robust, effective and ongoing" moderation of user-generated content. Likewise, Apple requires apps with user-generated content to include a method to filter objectionable material.

Google and Apple declined to comment on whether Parler was following the rules for their app stores.

That's not to say that some experts think there isn't some upside to having services like Parler that offer a different experience. Farid said it's possible that Parler members' mixing in a smaller pool will reinforce one another's radical views and push one another to be even more extreme, although he said much of that was already happening anyway on Facebook and Twitter because of how the sites' algorithms push certain content.

"These guys were already living in their own little echo chamber," Farid said. "There's a benefit to peeling off some of the most vitriolic, hateful, racist people into their own ecosystem, because I think it cleans up some of the most mainstream sites."

Some conservatives, however, such as the commentator Benny Johnson, have proclaimed that they were switching from Twitter to Parler, only to keep on tweeting.

Generating revenue could pose another challenge, although it's unclear whether Parler would need additional cash any time soon. Corporate advertisers have typically had little interest in buying ads that could run adjacent to controversial material, and subscription models for social media apps haven't worked out in the past.

Farid said an app like Parler risks alienating vendors who provide basic business services, such as cybersecurity vendors or credit card processors, if it gets a reputation as a gathering place for white supremacists. He noted that MasterCard, American Express and Visa have used their clout before to hobble websites they thought were too risky.

"Economic pressure can come in different ways from companies that believe these are problematic sites," he said.