Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube continue to face criticism from all segments of the political spectrum. On the left, the Silicon Valley companies are under fire for moving slowly—and sometimes not moving at all—to remove hate speech, disinformation, and distorted videos. And on the right, users complain that the sites censor conservative and right-wing posts and users. Some have even left the platform in protest for other sites that market themselves as open spaces friendly to those on the right.
Now there’s a twist on that familiar tale. Disdain for Twitter’s policies has spread to the Arabian Peninsula, where nearly 200,000 new users—largely from Saudi Arabia—flocked to a pro-Trump social media network called Parler. The users who left Twitter complained the site was suppressing their speech. The new Saudi users actually used Twitter to promote their migration to the new platform, posting hashtags like #Twexit and sharing cartoons and memes of the iconic blue Twitter bird in distress.
The new Saudi users are supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s young leader, who has been criticized for his role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Some are even emphasizing common ground with Trump supporters and members of the far-right on the site, sharing photos of Trump with members of the Saudi royal family and the countries’ flags while using the #MAGA hashtag.
Twitter hasn’t said whether it has taken any new actions to remove posts from Saudi users that would have prompted the backlash, according to Reuters. But the social media company has said in the past it removed hundreds of “inauthentic” accounts that were favorable to the Saudi government.
But the mass exodus this week has caused problems for Parler. The self-styled “free speech-driven” space has prominent users like Rudy Giuliani, right-wing provocateurs Milo Yiannopolous and Gavin McInnes (who are both banned from Twitter), and commentator Candace Owens. Since Sunday, the site has been inoperable at times with all of the new traffic. Parler’s CEO John Matze told Reuters that this week the site’s user base had more than doubled.
Launched in August 2018 as an alternative for news outlets to recover revenue lost to Twitter and Facebook, Parler looks and functions much like Twitter. Users have public-facing profiles where they can post up to 1,000-character messages. Other users can follow the account and reply to, upvote, or “echo” the posts—which functions much like Twitter’s retweet feature. As backlash to Twitter and Facebook’s new crackdown on hate speech and disinformation has increased, Parler has become more of a niche space for alt-right, right-wing, and pro-Trump users to congregate. And Politico reported in May that Trump’s team is considering making him an account on the site. His 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale, posted on the site in May for the first time, sharing a picture of himself with Matze at Trump International Hotel in Washington.
This isn’t the first time the site has gotten an influx of new users, causing its servers to malfunction. A tweet from Owens in December introduced a number of pro-Trump users to the site. But it is the first time the site has gotten such a massive influx of users. In May, Matze told Politico that Parler had only about 100,000 users—even with the new members, that’s nowhere near challenging the likes of Facebook (more than 1 billion users) or Twitter (more than 320 million users). The site’s search function barely works, and it has a clunky buffering time. Other “Twitter alternatives”—like Gab, founded in 2016—have far more users and a similarly far-right user base, including conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and white nationalist Richard Spencer.