Is Parler the Twitter Alternative for 'Free Speech'?

By: John Donovan  | 

Parler
Supporters of Donald Trump flocked to Parler after the Nov. 3 general election was called for Joe Biden as a place to air their grievances. After the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on the U.S. Capitol, however, Amazon Web Services took the social media platform down for violating its terms of service. ScottTalent/Getty Images/HowStuffWorks

Editor's note: Since we first published this article on Dec. 4, 2020, Amazon Web Services essentially put an end to Parler, the social media website that has catered to supporters of President Donald Trump, including some who used the site to coordinate the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Amazon removed the site effective Jan. 11, 2021, at midnight for what it said was a violation of its terms of services. In a letter to Parler, Amazon said it had seen "a steady increase in ... violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms." Apple and Google also have removed the Parler app from their online stores. As of the time of this update, Parler had yet to find another hosting service for the social media site.

The social media site Parler is the latest, hottest online hangout, a place where everybody has an opinion, and nobody is shy about sharing it. The name was originally meant to evoke the French word "to speak" (par-LAY), but nobody pronounces it that way. Everybody says Parler the same way they say that stuffy, front-of-the-house sitting room where ancient Aunt Biddy took to entertaining guests.

The main difference between Parler and, say, social media superstars Twitter and Facebook? Parler is, at least for now, a practically no-holds-barred "free speech" free-for-all, where just about anything goes. And, at least for now, Parler is almost exclusively a domain to talk politics. Specifically, right-wing politics.

So if you think a massive voting fraud conspiracy is the reason that Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election (and you'd never use the word lost); if you stand with the Proud Boys and against the "fake news"; if you think Twitter and Facebook are stymieing your First Amendment rights and that Big Tech is out to silence conservatives ... well, there's a place for you on Parler.

But, like a lot of social media, you'd better watch out. It can get ugly on there.

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The Rise of Parler

Launched in 2018 and at least partially backed by the conservative Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of billionaire Robert Mercer, a big financial supporter of President Trump and conservative causes, Parler was a niche site until the November 2020 general election. When Twitter, Facebook and other sites started slapping the social media equivalent of warning labels on a series of high-profile, very possibly untruthful, and often almost certainly inaccurate posts, Parler's popularity went ballistic.

In the week after the presidential race was called in favor of Joe Biden, some 4.5 million people joined Parler, according to the site's CEO, John Matze. Parler's free app shot to the top of the charts on both the App Store (for Apple products) and Google Play (for Android). A host of conservative influencers, unhappy with what they viewed as Big Tech censorship of their posts on Twitter and Facebook, led a supposed exodus of their followers from the big sites to Parler.

Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, for one example, said she was bolting Twitter after one of her tweets was flagged on Nov. 5.

About that exodus, though: It really hasn't happened. Bartiromo's Twitter account has stayed extremely active, with dozens of tweets in the days since her announced departure. Bartiromo has more than 950,000 Twitter followers, which may be one reason she's reluctant to say goodbye.

"I am very unconvinced that there's much, if any, deleting of Facebook and Twitter accounts when people make a Parler account. And not just for the major influencers ... but also their followers," says Bridget Barrett, a fellow at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and research lead for the digital political ads project at UNC's Center for Information, Technology and Public Life.

"This is a politics-first social media platform. It is not a replacement for Facebook, by any stretch of the imagination. Your friends aren't on there. Your cooking recipes aren't showing up in your feed. Your favorite movies aren't getting covered. And even Twitter; Twitter is still where reporting happens. People are still going to be on Twitter to see what's happening."

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How Parler Works

Parler is very similar to Twitter in both appearance and function. When you sign up for an account, you choose to follow others on the app and can post "parleys" (Parler's version of tweets), and your content shows up in a chronological feed. A parley can include up to 1,000 characters, compared to just 280 in a tweet, as well as hashtags, photos, GIFs, memes and videos. If you like a parley someone else posts, you can comment on it, "echo" it with the megaphone icon (it acts like the Twitter retweet button) or upvote it to indicate you like it. You can only upvote a parley, but you can also upvote or downvote others' comments. You must be at least 13 years old to sign up for an account.

Parler also has direct private messaging like Twitter, though it currently doesn't have a trending topics feed.

Parler
Parler's interface looks and feels similar to Twitter.
Parler

What makes Parler so different is its moderation, or lack thereof. So far, the app's main draw has been touting its minimal moderation and free speech standards. "We're a community town square, an open town square, with no censorship," CEO Matze told CNBC in an interview back in June. This policy differs from other Big Tech apps, including Facebook, Twitter and even Reddit, which do moderate their platforms. In June, for instance, Reddit permanently banned its largest community of Donald Trump supporters on the grounds that some posts incited violence. And in February 2020, Twitter updated its policy to begin flagging tweets that included misinformation or misleading altered media. Parler's guidelines say it won't do that.

"Parler is committed to non-partisan free speech," the site's account trumpets. "You determine social discussion/direction, not us."

CEO Matze has said that if specific laws are broken, the site reserves the right to step in. Parler's guidelines state, for one example, "We will remove parleys or comments found to be defamatory by a court of law having jurisdiction over Parler."

But, the guidelines continue ...

"Otherwise, we will avoid making our own determinations about the truth or falsity of statements posted on Parler."

That means inaccuracies, outright lies, wild and unproven conspiracy theories, ambiguous threats ("fighting words" are not a violation of the guidelines) and racist hate speech — the kinds of posts that Big Tech is trying to curb, with various degrees of success — are easy to come by on Parler. All of it makes for an environment that can inflame passions to a boiling point, and one in which dissenting opinions and cooler heads are as hard to find sometimes as the truth.

"You can see it in the comments sometimes, someone trying to come in and make a dent. But it's not made for that," Barrett says. "The people at Parler will say they're trying to make a space for debate and free speech in the marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas are able to win out and you're able to make your own choice about what you see and what you think is right. That of course is not what Parler is. It's very close to the opposite of that."

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It's Politics First on Parler

Still, unhappiness with the Big Tech sites clearly has been a benefit for Parler. And it's clear, too, who's unhappy and what they're looking for. That's one of the first things you notice when signing up for a Parler account: Most of the suggestions of people to follow are right-wing media types like Bartiromo, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Dan Bongino (who's also an investor) and Dinesh D'Souza. Republican elected officials like Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California are on there, too. So are outspoken conservative entertainment types like Kirstie Alley and Phil Robertson.

Their big-name liberal counterparts are nowhere to be found on Parler.

In many ways, that's not surprising. The right, it seems, knows how to work social media. From a September 2020 article on political activism and social media in Science, written by some of Barrett's UNC colleagues:

Despite some similarities, recent research indicates that left and right differ sharply in how they use digital media. Whereas the left generally combines on- and offline protest actions with transmedia branding, an approach known as "hashtag activism," the right tends to eschew offline protest (notwithstanding a few prominent exceptions), preferring instead a combination of "trolling" or manipulating mainstream media, protest against and even strategic exit from platforms owned by "Big Tech," and cooperation with ideologically friendly media outlets.

The very existence of the site, Barrett says, furthers the political polarization in the country. It may be reassuring to hang out on sites like Parler with like-minded people. But when hate speech goes unchecked, when lies are allowed to spread without regard for the truth, when opposite viewpoints are demonized and debate is discouraged, nothing is settled.

Worse, the hope that anything will be settled, at least any time soon, quickly begins to fade.

"I think that there needs to be a reset of trust," Barrett says. "But until that happens, it's hard to see a solution."

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Originally Published: Dec 4, 2020

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