For years, some right-wing pundits have tried to orchestrate a conservative exodus from established social media networks to greener and less fact-checked pastures. Finally, in the aftermath of an election that President Donald Trump is trying to contest in part through a barrage of disinformation, a platform looking to siphon off right-leaning users is now seeing a boom in downloads.
The aftermath of Joe Biden’s election victory saw Parler, a social network “without violence and no censorship,” rocket to the top of the Apple App Store’s download charts over the weekend. Parler is a microblogging platform that closely resembles Twitter with its endless feed of short posts (there’s a 1,000-character limit), verified “influencer badges” for well-known pundits and politicians, and hashtags. The main difference is that the platform is far more permissive when it comes to misinformation and hate speech.
Parler saw more than 980,000 installs in the U.S. in the five days following the election and reached the No. 1 spot in the App Store on Sunday, the day after Biden’s victory was called by most major news organizations. The platform now claims to have about 8 million members. Obviously, that pales in comparison to the major social media players; for comparison, Twitter has 187 million daily users, while Facebook has 1.8 billion. The fact that Parler had enough momentum to claim the top spot could be an indication that a social network for conservatives has finally broken through. But it remains to be seen whether these users will keep flocking to the site, or if they’ll even feel they need to. Conservatives have dominated platforms like Facebook for a while now, and mainstream platforms have only committed to stepping up moderation efforts for the election period.
Tech entrepreneurs John Matze and Jared Thomson founded Parler in 2018 and enjoyed some early buzz from pro-Trump figures.* Over the past week, major conservative figures like Dan Bongino (who has an ownership stake in the company) and Mark Levin have been encouraging their fans to follow them on Parler in reaction to Twitter and Facebook’s stricter moderation policies. The two major platforms have been ramping up their measures against misinformation in order to avoid a repeat of the 2016 election, during which conspiracy theories and foreign interference were able to skew public debate. Trump and other politicians have had their social media posts labeled as disputed and misleading as they’ve lied about, and tried to cast a fog over, the election results.
No worries about that on Parler. Debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud that can’t find purchase on traditional social media platforms are flourishing on the social network, although the audience there seems to have already been in the pro-Trump camp. Last week, Facebook banned a group called Stop the Steal in which more 350,000 members had been sharing this misinformation with one another. On Parler, there’s a verified Stop the Steal account with 115,000 followers that has been spreading debunked misinformation about voting glitches in Wisconsin and Georgia. Elsewhere on the site, false reports about poll workers in Arizona tricking Trump voters into using sharpies on their ballots and about the Department of Homeland Security putting watermarks on ballots in order to find forgeries are also running rampant.
Parler is not the first effort by disaffected Twitter and Facebook users to form their own community. There are a number of alternative social media platforms that advertise lax moderation standards in order to cater to right-leaning users. For instance, tech entrepreneur and Trump supporter Andrew Torba launched a platform called Gab in 2016 in a similar bid to “be the home of free speech online.” What ended up happening is that Gab became the online home of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. Gab was also where the man who allegedly perpetrated the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh often posted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. The imageboard 8kun, formerly known as 8chan, is even more of a mess, hosting violent and extremist content that has been connected to multiple mass shootings.
Hobnobbing with Nazis and Klansman on Gab or 8kun is surely going to look bad for prominent figures who still want to maintain some mainstream credibility while spreading misinformation unchecked. But if you’re a fan of mainstream right-wing voices like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity, or even Eric Trump, you can now find them posting regularly on Parler than on other alternative platforms. A quick survey comparing the Parler and Twitter accounts of prominent conservatives suggests that they basically post the same material on both platforms. The only real distinction is that the content on Parler never gets slapped with a fact-checking label. Parler has standards that are just strict enough so that users don’t have to wade through porn and racial epithets—this sort of material does exist on the platform, but it isn’t ever-present like on 8kun or, to a lesser extent, Gab.
According to its community guidelines, Parler does not allow users to post death threats, pornography, doxing, encouragement of human trafficking, and, strangely, anything that “impl[ies] the purchase of marijuana if it is not legal where you reside.” Parler’s administrators have also had to set the tone for what’s acceptable or not on the site. In response to people complaining that they had been kicked off the platform in June, Matze wrote on Twitter, “When you disagree with someone, posting pictures of your fecal matter in the comment section WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.” He also told users on the platform to stop posting obscene images and pornography. In essence, it seems that Parler has effectively established a space where misinformation can thrive without being sullied by scatological, explicitly violent, and pornographic content. And right now, that looks a lot like the reality Trump is trying to conjure up.
Correction, Nov. 11, 2020: This post originally misspelled Jared Thomson’s first name.