• Ian Cook

Parler and Outlooks for Right-Wing Social Media

Ian Cook explains the rise of Parler in the conservative media sphere as high-profile Republicans continue to spread conspiracy theories about the outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election.

Going Against A Narrative of Censorship Among Top Conservative Voices

As Twitter and Facebook continue to put labels on prominent conservative personalities’ falsehoods about the results of the 2020 election, right-wing influencers are looking to create a social infrastructure wholly separate from the mainstream. For them, the future could be emerging platforms like Parler.

Trump has tweeted falsely about the outcome of the election over 300 times since Election Day, according to the New York Times. Many of his posts are among the more than 300,000 tweets Twitter has labeled as containing misinformation about the 2020 election. Twitter’s battle with Trump’s feed is only part of a broader campaign to minimize the spread of mis- and disinformation on the platform. But leading conservatives don’t see it that way.

The predominant narrative about social media among conservative media outlets is one of censorship, describing an increasingly tense conflict between outspoken Republicans and the platforms they use to reach their audience. As Twitter has tightened its grip on users’ spread of falsehoods, conservatives have pledged to move their business to platforms predicated on ideals of open discussion, no matter how factually glib the conversation may be.

For now, that platform is Henderson-based Parler, a Twitter-like alternative aiming to offer “social media the way it’s supposed to be.” In reality, discussion is sparse, save for the echo chamber nature of an isolated social media platform. Despite its appeal to the “spirit of the First Amendment,” Parler seems designed to attract exclusively staunch right-wing Americans. In my hours of searching, I have yet to find any user left of the far-right.

A Symbolic Gesture

In practice, Parler seems more like a symbolic gesture than a functional improvement. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who has visited UNR as a guest speaker on multiple occasions, posts many of his same tweets on Parler. For household name conservatives like Kirk, Parler is not yet big enough to risk leaving part of his audience behind. But many leading conservatives have claimed their intent to make the eventual switch.

Where Parler truly differs from its counterparts is in more controversial territory. As promised, the platform appears to be devoid of moderation, for better or worse. Qanon conspiracies roam free, perpetuated in particular by one Las Vegas-based Qanon account with 126,000 followers. Here, users echo conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, Governor Steve Sisolak, Dominion Voting Systems, and the “truth” about… just about anything. In the aftermath of the election, Dominion, which produces hardware and software for voter machines and tabulators, is a particular target of the alt-right.

President Trump’s position in the White House is at the heart of the web of Qanon conspiracy theories. There is little doubt Former Vice President Joe Biden won the election, but conceding to Biden could be the ruin of Q. Alternatively, it could fire up its supporters yet further. At least for now on Parler, where no one can tell Qanon supporters otherwise, the movement appears alive and well.

A Young Company Facing Explosive Growth

In the wake of the 2020 election results, Parler’s user base has surged exponentially. Last week, the platform reached eight million users, up 3.5 million from the week prior. One factor helping its growth: news organizations love to talk about it.

In an article on WIRED, senior writer Arielle Pardas wrote that, upon making her account, she was quickly met with Parler’s recommended follow list for brand new users. This is typical of any social media platform, except that the list featured Ted Cruz, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson among a long list of other well known conservatives. Ironically, Pardas found she was blocked from communicating with any of Parler’s celebrities until she verified she was a “real person” with photo identification.

To gather research for this article, I made an account, too. Sure enough, the exact same list of conservative personalities appeared. Of course, first I had to click past featured organizations like PragerU, a far-right Christian nonprofit, and The Daily Mail, a notoriously questionable news source. Then I was off on my own.

As it turns out, Parler is still working out a hierarchy of sorts. I searched for President Trump, and I found a parody account under his name with over six times more followers than the official account. In a brilliant display of the extent of Parler’s hands-off approach, the user running the parody account, using the name @PresidentDonaldTrump2020, had to acknowledge themselves that the account is not official. Users expressed their disdain in the comments.

Parler, created in 2018, is still in its early stages. Its privacy policy and community guidelines are embedded Word documents (the latter document’s header contains a MAC address in the smallest possible font, likely because the author didn’t know how to remove it). With the platform’s hands-off approach, spam bots are rife.

But it shouldn’t be ignored. Conservative radio personality Sean Hannity has already accumulated almost four million followers, suggesting Parler has potential as an alternative outlet to his 5.5 million Twitter followers.

Is it sustainable?

Big Tech appears to be at a crossroads in 2020. Relatively young, yet wildly popular platforms like Tik Tok and, yes, OnlyFans, are working to decentralize Facebook’s global influence on the social media market. They have a long, long way to go to chip away at Facebook’s three billion monthly users, but Parler could be yet another key player in an increasingly competitive market for attention.

Parler operates in a separate media sphere and, as a result, reality, from more mainstream social media platforms. And its user base prefers it that way. For those who feel they’ve been “silenced” or “censored” by Facebook and Twitter one too many times, Parler is an oasis, if not a dangerous echo chamber, for their beliefs.

The money behind Parler is somewhat shrouded. Co-founder and CEO John Matze has not disclosed any of his company’s owners, though conservative radio host Dan Bongino and Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer have both come forward, without numbers, about their financial support in the company.

Unless the right-wing media sphere chooses to fully embrace Parler, however, it seems unlikely the platform will thrive beyond its initial post-election honeymoon period for angry voters. Parler doesn’t have ads at the moment, but it seems unlikely many brands are interested in catering to its often inflammatory user base. The company’s team of six will have to expand much further and, in all likelihood, make political compromises if it seeks financial sustainability.

Whether it can last is up to the influencers and users who flocked to it. Mainstream media platforms aren’t changing their terms of service for conservatives any time soon.

Explainer Journalism by Ian Cook for the Reynolds Sandbox

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