In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has been subject to critique across various social media platforms. A Trump campaign advert displaying Nazi symbology was removed from Facebook, the subreddit ‘r/The_Donald’ has been shut down, and Twitter recently attempted to moderate Trump’s tweets. Following this action from tech companies, various high-profile Republicans close to Donald Trump have promoted the social media platform ‘Parler’ as a less censored alternative to ‘mainstream’ social media. In the week following this spur of online promotion, the site reportedly saw a 246% increase in downloads, and towards the end of June it experienced the largest ever influx of new users in the app’s history.
Co-founded in August 2018 by John Matze and Jared Thomson, Parler describes itself as a “non-biased free speech driven entity” with a commitment to empowering users to “control their social experience” and “be responsible to engage with content as they see fit”. The essential features of the site closely resemble those of Twitter. Users establish their own profiles where they are encouraged to share “parlays” – akin to tweets – which can then be “echoed” – retweeted – and commented on by other users.
While many features of the site are not exactly novel, new users are ceremoniously welcomed to Parler in a flurry of automated posts, including one from a “Parler concierge”, encouraging them to celebrate their newfound technological “freedom”. However, upon creating an account, it becomes clear that this ‘freedom’ is yet to be embraced by both sides of the political spectrum.
Who’s on Parler?: Trump Supporters, Conspiracy Theorists and Proud Boys
New users on Parler are immediately provided with a list of suggested accounts to follow, all of which skew toward the political right, including Zero Hedge, a financial blog involved in the spread of conspiracies and misinformation, an account for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and Katie Hopkins, the British right-wing contrarian who was personally welcomed to the platform by CEO John Matze after being permanently suspended from Twitter in June 2020 for violating its hateful conduct policy. Following these initial suggestions, one’s feed is immediately dominated by content from right-leaning sources – immediately problematising the site’s commitment to ‘non-bias’.
Indeed, Parler hosts a number of accounts which have been suspended from mainstream platforms. Hopkins joins ranks alongside Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and YouTube “philosopher” and alt-right personality Stefan Molyneux, who was recently permanently suspended from both Twitter and YouTube after repeatedly violating the platform’s hate speech policies.
However, although white nationalist content can be found on Parler using specific search terms, without a doubt, the backbone its content comes from pro-Trump Republicans. As such the site is an echo-chamber flooded with users adamant on ‘making America great again’. While casually browsing the site, it is nearly impossible to avoid posts in reverence of Trump, whether this be from the official Team Trump account, accounts which exactly mirror his Twitter feed, or from the vast body of emphatic supporters that occupy the site. This imbalance has been noted by Parler’s CEO John Matze who has offered a “progressive bounty” of $20,000 to left-wing influencers with over 50,000 followers who create Parler profiles and engage in debate with others on the site.
This lack of diverse opinions creates the perfect climate for conspiracy theories to thrive. Specially, a brief search of Parler shows that around 91,000 posts have been made under the “QAnon” hashtag. Similarly, there are also thousands of results for terms related to the conspiracy such as “digital soldiers”, “take the oath” and “deep state”. While it should be noted that a significant amount of QAnon content also exists on Twitter, an initial search suggests that some of these Twitter hashtags are also used by sceptics of the conspiracy, whereas on Parler, it is difficult to find any significant push back or critique of the theory among the throngs of Q supporters.
Furthermore, Parler also hosts content from hate groups. Most notably there are at least 20 accounts on the site which claim to represent various factions of the Proud Boys – an organisation with links to right-wing wing extremism which has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as a “dominant force within the alt-lite”. At the time of writing, the main Parler account associated with the Proud Boys has 24,000 followers, a steep increase of 9,000 followers over the last two weeks.
Having been banned from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, this Parler account is one of just four official platforms linked on the Proud Boys’ website. It is also the account where they have amassed their largest online following, potentially reaching users who may be deterred by more technologically complex platforms. Both the Proud Boys and an account linked to their founder Gavin McInnes have been active on Parler since 2019 and are frequent posters, sharing pro-white propaganda and, more recently, conspiracies surrounding the coronavirus.
Parler’s community guidelines prohibit terrorist content, threats to harm, or content which is deemed “obscene” from being posted to the site, however these guidelines enable groups such as the Proud Boys, which skirt around the definitions of extremism, to remain on the platform and gain a substantial following. In fact, both the Proud Boys and McInnes have been awarded gold “Verified Influencer Badges” by the site. Parler states these badges are awarded to prominent users who run the risk of being impersonated online, yet in practice they appear to function as a kind of ‘badge of honour’ – akin to Twitter’s “blue ticks”. Thus, the Proud Boys are not only able to maintain an account on Parler, they are also afforded some level of status and legitimisation by the site.
Who’s Not on Parler?
Parler is by no means the first platform to be created as a haven of free speech. It is situated within the wider alt-tech sphere – a range of technological platforms created to circumvent or operate outside of the norms and perceived risks associated with larger tech platforms. One such similar platform is Gab, a social media platform launched in 2016 which claims to champion “free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online”, but which has been largely occupied by white nationalists and is described by the Anti-Defamation League as a “bastion of hatred and bigotry”. This reputation was solidified in 2018 when Robert Bowers posted a range of antisemitic content to the site hours before initiating a firearms attack inside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people. However, as Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg note, Gab failed to ever establish its “’cool’ among younger users”, and the site has been accused of inflating its usership numbers and “floundering” since its initial launch.
There are signs that Parler, too, may also be shunned by younger, tech savvy internet users. For instance, on 4chan, various users have critiqued Parler for being populated by Trump-supporting “boomers” – a slang term for members of older generations which implies they are out of touch – cementing its reputation as being fundamentally uncool, and lacking the edgier content younger users seek to engage with. Various posts made to 4chan promoting Parler have been decried as “shills” – engaging in covert advertising to promote Parler. Furthermore, a number of 4chan users have critiqued Parler on the grounds of privacy concerns – the site requires an email and phone number upon registering – and are distrustful of the developers.
These concerns have been echoed in other online spaces including 4chan’s sibling site 8kun, Gab, and the free speech social network Minds, where although some users appear to have created Parler accounts, others have described the site as a “conservative echo chamber”. Even users of Parler admit that the site has a number of teething issues. On top of the site’s homogenous tone, various aspects are often glitchy or take some time to load, the Android app is somewhat unstable, and some users have experienced difficulties with captcha when logging in. These problems indicate the Parler may not have been technologically prepared for the influx of users it has experienced.
In short, Parler appears to be an alt-tech platform that is not necessarily targeted towards the tech savvy. Its interface and security protocols may alienate some more technologically-minded individuals, however it has found a comfortably large userbase among right-wing users who utilise the platform to share content free from substantive critique or debate. This climate is conducive to conspiracies and may be exploited by alt-lite groups such as the Proud Boys which are legitimised on Parler after having been removed from other platforms.