Twitter wars, Facebook bans and scandals such as Cambridge Analytica have led to a mistrust of big tech corporations who decide how we view content on their platforms. A bias free social network sounds like utopia (and a great new market), but what are the consequences of self-moderation and little intervention? Parler, ‘the unbiased social media platform’.
Parler Promotional Video. Source: Youtube
An introduction to Parler
New on the scene, Parler was launched in 2018 and shares similarities with popular social media companies Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit. Parler works by allowing users to write 1000 character ‘parleys’, 720 more than Twitter. These posts can then be shared via ‘echo’, upvoted or commented on.
What differentiates Parler is the platform’s emphasis on being a ‘viewpoint-neutral’ platform, dedicated to “freedom of expression, civil discourse, and user privacy” (Apple, 2021). Parler achieves this through their unadulterated, chronological feed, which users can self-moderate if they choose. The platform surged in popularity during the 2020 US election and became a space for right-wing conservatives who believed other networks suppressed their free speech, particularly through bans and fact-checking. While Parler aims for little content moderation, the platform does not allow spam, unsolicited ads, pornography, threats to harm, blackmail, terrorists, or any content that glorifies violence against animals (Parler, 2021) (Wong, 2021).
Parler Logo via Wikimedia Commons
Parler’s beginnings and Growth
Parler began after founders John Matze and Jared Thomson became “exhausted with a lack of transparency in big tech, ideological suppression and privacy abuse” (Brewster, 2020). The app launched in August 2018 but did not gain any traction until December when conservative media figure Candace Owens joined, declaring it the new Twitter alternative.
Wow. Everyone just found out about the new Twitter. Just want to say that I WAS THE FIRST CONSERVATIVE TO JOIN.
This underground-railroad, word-of-mouth movement is 🔥.
Feels like a long-overdue social media rebellion. My handle is @Candace.
RT when you’re in on the secret. https://t.co/idKhzxZRKY
— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) December 10, 2018
Tweet by Candace Owens. Source: Twitter
By May 2019 Parler had a userbase of 100,000, consisting mainly of American republicans. This user base was quickly tripled after 200,000 accounts from Saudi Arabia were created after supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were censored on Twitter. Twitter had described these accounts were “inauthentic” and used to boost the Saudi government’s personal political agenda (Brownlee, 2019).
The growing platform hit another influx of users during 2020, kicking off when Twitter flagged then president of the United States, Donald Trump’s tweets surrounding mail-in ballots as potentially misleading. Other conservative user’s flagged for misinformation quickly joined the new platform, free from fact-checking and censorship (Watts, 2020). After Joe Biden’s election in 2020, the app continued to surge with users, becoming the number 1 app in apple’s app store for a short period of time after over a million downloads. Parler quickly became a place where election fraud conspiracists could post, discuss and propagate without fear of being banned or fact-checked.
How is Parler funded?
Parler currently makes little profit from their platform and relies on the support of venture capitalists and republican donors. Currently, Parler’s operating chief is George Farmer, a prominent U.K conservative and husband of Candace Owens. Farmer joined the platform in March after founder John Matze’s dismissal from the company, which came after his push for “a more effective approach to content moderation” that the board rejected (Needleman, 2021).
American Heiress Rebekah Mercer serves as the platform’s main investor, investing since the beginning of the platform in 2018. Mercer stated in a Parler post that this backing was dependant on the platform allowing users to control their feeds. Other key investors include conservative commentator Dan Bongino and self-described anarcho-capitalist Jeffrey Wernick.
Before his dismissal, Matze announced plans for their business model to gain ad revenue. This would rely on the Parler’s influencers, where “advertisers will target influencers and those people with a large reach, rather than us as a platform” (Bursztynsky, 2020).
Parler would then take a small cut of these influencer’s ad revenue, however little new information has been released regarding the companies revenue model since Matze’s dismissal in January.
How Parler works.
How Parler works? Promotional Video by Parler. Source: Youtube
Parler has 4 main pages:
- Homepage: Access to feed and followed users
- Discover News: See posts from the partners and affiliates of Parler
- Search: Search for Parler members or trending hashtags
- Notifications: Notifications of new posts from subscribed members, tagged posts and new comments.
However, the social media app’s most unique feature lies within its profile settings. Here the app allows users to choose how they want their content to be moderated, with options such as word filters, NSFW (Non-safe for work) filters, spam flagging, and more. Users also have the option to verify their Parler account and become a ‘Parler citizen’, a process which is done by submitting a selfie accompanied by photo ID. While Parler users can be verified they are not required to use their real name or profile photo.
“Parler citizens are recognised within the community as a real person, but they do not need to publicly display their name.” (Porter, 2020)
Parler ensures that only the users selfie is recorded within the system and that this data is private and secure via encryption.
Where does Parler draw the line with content moderation?
Content moderation and how it should be performed has been debated since the beginnings of the internet, a matter of when and how rather than if. Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Cornell Adjunct Associate Professor Tarleton Gillepsie details this struggle in his work ‘Custodians of the internet: platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media’. “The hard questions being asked now, about freedom of expression and virulent misogyny and trolling and breastfeeding and pro-anorexia and terrorism and fake news, are all part of a fundamental reconsideration of social media platforms “(Gillepsie, 2018).
Parler seems to favour a liberal view of freedom of expression, “If ever in doubt, ask yourself if you would say it in the streets of New York or national television” Matze details in his own Parler post.
“Though the benefits of this may be obvious, and even seem utopian at times, the perils are also painfully apparent, more so every day: the pornographic, the obscene, the violent, the illegal, the abusive, and the hateful.” (Gillepsie, 2018)
Despite its strict guidelines surrounding pornographic, violent, illegal and abusive content, Parler has no community guidelines surrounding hate speech. In an interview with CNBC, Matze explains that: “People want to address problems in society on their own” (Bursztynsky, 2020).
“The best thing is for everyone to engage with a bad idea and shut it down through public discourse.” A quote from Matze (Brown, 2020)
It seems that while popular social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter protect users from such material in support of ‘Freedom from’, Parler aims to enable users with ‘Freedom to’, and along with such responsibility comes more regular encounters with some degree of hate speech.
Parler’s new approach to content moderation has made it the center of controversy since its beginnings in 2018. Due to its small and homogenous user base, the conversation on Parler is particularly one-sided. This has led to the propagation of conspiracy theories on the platform such as QAnon.
Pretty much all of my leftist friends joined Parler to screw with MAGA folks, and every last one of them was banned in less than 24 hours because conservatives truly love free speech.
— Respectable Lawyer (@RespectableLaw) June 26, 2020
Tweet by @RespectableLaw, Source: Twitter
This ultimately led to Parler’s temporary shutdown in 2021, after service providers Apple, Amazon and Google cut off and banned the service. The company’s decision comes after right-winged mobs stormed the US Capitol on January 6th. Parler, among others, was one of the social media platform’s rioters used to plan the attack. Despite this, Matze commented “I don’t feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law” (Nicas & Alba, 2021). Big tech companies ultimately decided that Parler needed to consistently remove posts that encouraged violence and would no longer host their platform.
“File:50811723122_2811bdf667_c.jpg” by Blink O’fanaye on Flickr.
Despite this, Parler shortly went back online, using CloudRate as their new host and has been unbanned from Apple’s app store.
As of January, Parler reported having 15 million total users, but download rates have steadily declined. Ultimately Parler serves as an interesting case study and source of debate surrounding where to draw the line when it comes to content moderation, highlighting the blurred line between free-speech and hate-speech. Parler begs the question: Should users be in charge of their own content moderation?
Apple. (n.d.). Parler. Retrieved October 1, 2021, from App Store website: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/parler/id1402727988
Brewster, J. (2020, June 26). As Twitter Labels Trump Tweets, Some Republicans Flock To New Social Media Site. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2020/06/25/as-twitter-labels-trump-tweets-some-republicans-flock-to-new-social-media-site/?sh=27179cca78c8
Brown, A. (2020, June 27). Parler’s Founder Explains Why He Built Trump’s New Favorite Social Media App. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/abrambrown/2020/06/27/parlers-founder-explains-why-he-built-trumps-new-favorite-social-media-app/?sh=5cf5290e5016
Brownlee, C. (2019, June 14). Rush of Anti-Twitter Saudis Inundates Right-Wing Social Media Site Parler. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from Slate Magazine website: https://slate.com/technology/2019/06/thousands-saudi-twitter-users-crash-pro-trump-social-media.html
Bursztynsky, J. (2020, July 2). How the Twitter alternative Trump fans are flocking to plans to make money. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from CNBC website: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/07/02/how-parler-app-plans-to-make-money.html
Gillespie, T. (2018). All platforms moderate. In Custodians of the internet: platforms, content moderation, and the hidden decisions that shape social media (pp. 1–23). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Needleman, S. E. (2021, May 17). Conservative Social-Media App Parler Has Returned to Apple’s App Store. Here’s What That Means. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-is-parler-app-apple-android-11610478890
Nicas, J., & Alba, D. (2021, January 11). How Parler, a Chosen App of Trump Fans, Became a Test of Free Speech. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/10/technology/parler-app-trump-free-speech.html
Owens, C. [@RealCandaceO]. (2018, December 10). Wow. Everyone just found out about the new Twitter. Just want to say that I WAS THE FIRST CONSERVATIVE TO JOIN.[Tweet]. Twitter. https://twitter.com/RealCandaceO/status/1071985751418654726?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1071985751418654726%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_c10&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Folhardigital.com.br%2Fen%2F2021%2F01%2F16%2Fnoticias%2Fquem-e-john-matze-cofundador-do-parler%2F
Parler. (2021). Community Guidelines. In Parler. Retrieved from https://parler.com/documents/guidelines.pdf
Porter, D. (2020). How To Use Parler App – Full Tutorial and Overview. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1gHI2aHx8rg
Watts, M. (2020, June 30). Parler, the Ted Cruz-approved “free speech” app, is already banning users. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from Newsweek website: https://www.newsweek.com/parler-ted-cruz-approved-free-speech-app-already-banning-users-1514358
Wong, Q. (2021, February 16). Parler returns online after monthlong absence: Here’s what you need to know. Retrieved October 15, 2021, from CNET website: https://www.cnet.com/news/parler-returns-online-after-month-long-absence-heres-what-you-need-to-know/