Bias and censorship on social media are real problems, but Parler may not be a panacea
If you’ve been hearing the word Parler bandied around in recent weeks then you might be wondering what it is and why it’s suddenly in vogue amongst British conservatives.
The avowedly ‘unbiased’ social media site based in Nevada has been around for two years but has rapidly gained traction amongst Trump supporters in the US, Brexit and Conservative supporters in the UK, and pro-monarchists in Saudi Arabia. (Yes really).
The raison d’être is free speech and in its ‘Declaration of Independence‘ Parler outlined the injustices, as they see it, of the existing big tech firms:
“They manipulate their platform to hide information. They shadow ban, trick and deceive. They have become enablers, and often leaders, of the vicious cancel-culture mob who goose-step through our online communities and scream down those who dare to disagree.”
The document ends by calling on users to “#Twexit to Parler” – i.e. leave Twitter and join them.
But will they succeed?
The first thing to notice is, in the UK at least, they’ve got much further than previous alternative ‘free speech’ social networks have managed. Sites like BitChute, a YouTube alternative, and Gab, launched in 2017 (which uses the ‘alt-right’ Pepe the frog meme as its logo) haven’t achieved anything like the breakthrough recognition that Parler has managed.
By contrast, the most recent alternative to big tech already boasts a number of British conservative commentators and five Tory MPs: Henry Smith, Greg Smith, Steve Baker, Ben Bradley and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who yesterday retweeted (or ‘echoed’ in Parler parlance) a long anti-woke status by Ben Bradley. Interestingly Bradley’s message wasn’t replicated on his Twitter profile.
Steve Baker MP told me his reasons for joining:
“There seemed to be a demand for MPs on Parler and I’ve always felt people of goodwill should be everywhere. I note with gladness that Parler has much stronger features for comment moderation and even automatic user blocking. That may seem counterproductive but it makes sense for a free speech platform to give users more control over the speech they keep off their timeline. And of course there are robust community guidelines. My hope is that competition and innovation from Parler may inspire Facebook and Twitter to implement features to exclude hateful words from our timelines and post comments. In a sense it’s about property rights, like the right to exclude. I’m merrily blocking people now, and I feel much better for it.”
At the moment the network has very few global users compared to its sworn enemy Twitter. Parler’s entire user base has grown to 1.5 million from 1 million in about a week according to CEO John Matze. An impressive rate of growth: but Twitter had about 152 million daily active users at the end of 2019.
The criticism of Parler, (which is that it’s a conservative retreat into a right-wing fantasy echo chamber – when the real battle is being fought on Facebook and Twitter), has a grain of truth to it. Numerous times over the last few weeks I’ve observed Parler users expressing delight that the site is free of “woke, remainer, BLM, social justice warriors” But the reason that many on the platform say they are there is because they believe big tech firms are biased against them.
When a network can piously ‘fact check’ the president of the United States’s political rhetoric but doesn’t do the same to his rivals, it’s clear there is a problem. Parler now contains thousands of users who have left or been banned from Silicon Valley sites, and not just people like Hopkins and Tommy Robinson (107K Parler followers). Graham Linehan, the creator of shows like Father Ted and The IT Crowd has just been permanently banned from Twitter for tweeting “men aren’t women tho” in response to the Women’s Institute, who had wished transgender members a happy Pride. A Twitter spokesperson said that his account had been “permanently suspended after repeated violations of our rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation.” He is now on Parler (244 followers) but hasn’t started using it yet.
Many are fed-up of creating new accounts and losing their followers. During research for a previous article, I spoke to a number of individuals who had faced action against them, including a Lincolnshire man in his 50s who had his account locked for calling on members of the UK Government to “hang your heads in shame”. Twitter said the Tweet was promoting suicide and deleted his account.
The more insidious methods Twitter seems to engage in is reducing the reach of certain accounts (shadowbanning), reducing their follower count and reducing the number of likes on popular tweets. Whether this is deliberately targeting conservatives or not, the lack of transparency over these practices (Twitter claims not to shadowban) certainly feeds the paranoia.
It seems like Parler’s popularity is a symptom of censorship in big tech, but building a rival “free speech” network has its own problems.
For a start, Parler will throw you to the wolves if they get sued over your posts.
Parler requires users to “agree to defend and indemnify Parler, as well as any of its officers, directors, employees, and agents, from and against any and all claims, actions, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to all attorneys fees) arising from or relating to your access to and use of the Services.”
And in order to use Parler, individuals must also forfeit their right to sue it in court or join a class-action claim. Instead they must settle disputes in arbitration.
It’s also worth pointing out that Twitter once branded itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and said it took a “neutral” view of tweets posted by users because of the company’s founding principles. Those principles are now gone, gradually removed in response to a need to protect their bottom line.
CEO and co-founder of Twitter Jack Dorsey (often harangued by Twitter users via his @jack Twitter handle) only controls about 2 percent of Twitter’s outstanding shares, worth about $531 million. The top shareholders of Twitter are multinational investment firms: Vanguard Group Inc. holds a 10.6% stake, BlackRock Inc holds 6.6%, and Morgan Stanley owns about 6.1%.
Over at Parler, there is greater freedom partly because there is less money at stake. Fox News contributor Dan Bongino announced he is buying shares in the platform because of its free speech credentials, rather than anything to do with profits. This altruism, of course, could easily change as the site grows in popularity, and investors.
There is a problem with big tech firms and free speech, and many understandably feel they have no option but to join a new network, but the long-term viability of Parler’s “free speech” USP will be difficult to maintain if big money rolls in, or of course, if those who believe censorship is essential to public discourse join the platform en masse. Both of which, presumably, are what Parler is hoping for.
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