They’ve been banned from Facebook, purged from Twitter and blocked from Instagram. Some of them have been barred from setting foot on the continent of Australia. But you can still find them all on the fledgling social media network Parler.
The Twitter-like platform was initially hatched last year as a tool for digital news outlets to claw revenue back from big social networks like Facebook. But as those platforms purge some of the internet’s most inflammatory supporters of President Donald Trump over posts deemed dangerous or offensive, Parler has carved out a niche among these banned right-wing influencers — like Gavin McInnes, Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos.
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As conservative distrust of social media giants rises to the top of Washington’s political agenda, Parler has also gained the notice of some bona fide Republican leaders: Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and Utah Sen. Mike Lee both began posting on the site this month.
According to one person close to Trump’s campaign, the president’s team is considering setting him up with an account on the site. A senior Trump campaign official said that there was no imminent plan to have the president join the platform, but that Parscale is scouting Parler. “It’s something he’s aware of and is checking out,” the official said of Parscale. “We don’t currently have a plan to make a big move to the platform.”
Having Trump’s imprimatur would give the platform overnight cachet and satisfy calls from his social media-savvy supporters for the president to stick it to the Silicon Valley companies with which he maintains a strained, symbiotic relationship.
“Donald Trump should just switch social media platforms altogether because everyone will follow him,” said Candace Owens, a pro-Trump activist close to Trump’s campaign team. Owens, who is black, was recently banned from Facebook — and then swiftly reinstated with an apology from the company — for posting “Black America must wake up to the great liberal hoax. White supremacy is not a threat. Liberal supremacy is.”
Owens — who recently departed the conservative youth group Turning Point USA — introduced Parler to the pro-Trump grassroots with a December tweet that began, “Wow. Everyone just found out about the new Twitter. Just want to say that I WAS THE FIRST CONSERVATIVE TO JOIN.” Her tweet in turn linked to a tweet from the chairman of X Strategies, a conservative communications firm, promoting Parler.
Parler’s founder, John Matze, said the Owens tweet swamped his site with 40,000 new users, causing its servers to malfunction. (He also said that X Strategies approached him after the tweet. The firm now does public relations work for Parler.)
Parler is the french word for “Speak,” and is pronounced “par-lay.” But as its user base has grown, Matze has seen that Americans tend to pronounce the word phonetically, as in “parlor,” evoking the room in a house where friends might sit down to chat.
Matze and Owens said they first encountered each other late last year in New York at the Gatestone Institute, a think tank that was formerly chaired by Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton, and is known for its hostility to Islam.
Owens was there to speak, and Matze was working on integrating Parler with Gatestone’s website. Matze, who leans libertarian in his personal views, had not set out to cater to Trump supporters. Originally, he had conceived of Parler as a commenting plugin with social features that media outlets could integrate into their websites as a way to capture more engagement with their content themselves — rather than letting the bulk of engagement and ad dollars flow to established social media platforms.
He said he expected left-leaning digital publishers to become core partners. But as large social media platforms have responded to calls to curb extremism on their sites with bans of several far-right figures and other, more opaque measures like “shadow banning,” conservative users have become increasingly distrustful of the likes of Facebook and Twitter.
This has created an unexpected opening for Parler with pro-Trump users, though it is still far from challenging large social networks. Many aspects of its user interface, such as its search function, remain clunky. And its user base remains miniscule in the grand scheme of things.
Matze said the site had about 100,000 users in total. Twitter, by comparison, claims 326 million.
Activity on the site appears to be devoted mostly to a small universe of Trump-friendly discussions. On a recent Tuesday, trending topics on the site included “#IslamExposed,” “#IllegalImmigrants,” “#BuildThatWall” and “#WomenForTrump.” Even among Trump’s most avid online supporters, many have never heard of Parler. At the moment, the two outlets that appear to use the site most actively are Breitbart News and the Epoch Times, a newspaper associated with Falun Gong — a Chinese spiritual movement on the outs with China’s ruling Communist Party — that has attracted notice for its pointedly pro-Trump editorial line.
Given its limitations, even those sympathetic to Parler remain skeptical of its prospects. Will Chamberlain, who recently relaunched the conservative publication Human Events with a focus on social media censorship, said that though he plans to post his outlet’s content to Parler, he does not expect it to displace the reigning platform for news. “I think Twitter has a natural monopoly,” he said. “I think there are profound network effects.”
And even by the standards of free speech Twitter alternatives, Parler is small. Another platform, Gab, founded in 2016, claims a million users. “Parler is a ghost town,” said Gab’s founder Andrew Torba.
Like Parler, Gab takes a laissez-faire approach to offensive speech and has been a magnet for those banned from other platforms. Its users include white nationalist Richard Spencer and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The perpetrator of a 2018 mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue was also a Gab user. There are even questions about whether Gab’s frog logo is an homage to Pepe, the cartoon frog symbol of the alt-right, though Torba has said the frog is an allusion to the Book of Exodus. Gab’s popularity with the virulently racist alt-right has tainted Gab’s brand, stymying its prospects for growth into a mainstream platform even as it amassed a large user base.
While Parler’s founder does not want to be limited to a far-right user base, much of the content posted on Parler falls into categories deemed offensive and discouraged by the large platforms — such as anti-Islam and anti-feminist sentiment. In one post typical of the site, a user with the handle @liberalismiscancer, shared a meme criticizing the burka, the body covering worn by some Muslim women, along with the comment, “Where are my fellow feminists why is the oppression of women ok if it’s in the name of ISLAM ? Why are Moslems treated differently free from criticism.”
Matze said he still hopes to attract users of all political persuasions. “We’re pretty much bipartisan from our standpoint,” he said. “I really don’t want to take a stance at all on the political side of things. However it seems extremely relevant right now for conservatives at least to build a platform where they can build trust. They feel extremely abused by social media.”
Matze said he plans to bypass these issues by using the FCC’s definition of obscenity to determine what posts cross the line, and to leave up anything that does not meet that threshold, while giving users tools to personally filter out content they do not want to see.
Ongoing fights about the sorts of speech and users that tech giants permit on their platforms have returned to the fore in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the White House posted an online survey seeking to collect information about possible political discrimination by these platforms.
The senior Trump campaign official said that the campaign is also using its financial leverage with social media platforms like Facebook to push back against perceived bias. “We’re a significant advertiser so we make sure our viewpoint is heard,” the official said. Trump’s campaign has spent roughly $5 million so far this year on Facebook ads, far more than any of his Democratic rivals, according to a New York Times analysis.
Despite this heavy ad spending, distrust of large social media platforms has loomed large in the strategic thinking of Trump’s team. In October, POLITICO reported that Trump’s 2020 campaign was investing heavily in efforts to reach supporters directly, such as via text message, in order to bypass the platforms.
Earlier this month, Matze swung through Washington, where he ran into Parscale at the Trump Hotel. The Trump campaign manager posted a photo of himself with Matze and Elise Rhodes, a vice president of client relations at X Strategies, to Parler.
While in town, Matze also met with Lee, the libertarian-minded senator, and sold him on Parler’s free speech ethos.
Lee was so taken he decided to set up an account. Matze said he offered to help Lee’s staffers set up an account for him, but the senator insisted he did not want his staff to have access to the account, because he wanted to post directly to it himself.
A spokesman for Lee, Conn Carroll, said he could not confirm the specifics of the conversation, but did confirm that Lee personally posts to Parler himself.
Lee has posted a handful of times in recent weeks on the site — though he hasn’t exactly been unleashed. When a user named “Anon, yo!” called Lee a “typical RINO fake congressman” for not sponsoring term limits, Lee responded, “I’ve cosponsored term-limits every year I’ve been in the Senate.” This elicited an apology from “Anon, yo!” to the senator.
Matze said he hopes the site will foster civil discussion, and that he has seen users wish each other good night at the end of evenings of heated debate. That civility though, may be a function of the fact that most of the platform’s heavy users share a broadly similar worldview. And it is not clear whether an initial user base that is so invigorated by arguing with liberals — a recent trending topic was “#Triggered” — will find as much satisfaction on a platform dominated by their fellow travelers.
Michael Morrison, a conservative activist who operated a Twitter parody account of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez until being banned from that platform, said many right-leaning social media figures are treating Parler as a backup. They are attracting modest followings on the platform in case they are banned from the larger social networks.
“Obviously I’d like to see it build up,” he said, “For now, it’s a small, nice, conservative community.”