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Pro-Trump social media app Parler was a breeding ground for extremism - so why has it only been taken offline now?

At the height of its powers, Parler had 10 million users.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

SEEMINGLY WITH JUST the click of a button, internet giants Apple, Google, and Amazon were able to effectively shut down Parler, a social media platform popular with right-wing online communities and supporters of US President Donald Trump.

It begs the question, why didn’t they do it sooner?

The app — a fertile breeding ground for racist content, extreme political opinions, conspiracy theories and misinformation — was central to the unrest witnessed last week in Washington DC when hundreds of Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building following a rally in the city.

Five people were killed amid the riots, including a Capitol Police officer who later died in hospital from his injuries. 

Experts say that the possibility of violence at the event was discussed openly on Parler for weeks in advance.

The hashtag #LockandLoad was used on the app in connection with the event in the weeks leading up to it.

Worryingly, before being all-but removed from the internet last night, Parler enjoyed a huge audience, mostly based in the United States.

Ciaran O’Connor — a disinformation analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue; a London-based think tank that monitors extremism online — says that late last year, Parler’s user base was estimated at around 10 million people.

Those numbers only grew in the hours and days after the riot.

“On Friday, 8 January, after Trump was kicked off Twitter, migration towards Parler kind of surged, primarily from pro-Trump users and communities that were claiming that Twitter and other mainstream platforms were censoring conservative voices,” he said.

Some 210,000 users installed the app last Friday alone, buoying Parler to number one in the Apple App Store before it was removed.

How did it get that far?

Censorship and ‘violent rhetoric’

Parler was founded in 2018 by developer John Matze with, it was revealed last year, the financial help of Republican investor Rebekah Mercer.

Mercer is the daughter of billionaire Robert Mercer; a prominent backer of the far-right news site Breitbart News.

He was also a major stakeholder in Cambridge Analytica, the controversial, now-defunct data analytics company that played a central role in the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Parler positioned itself as a ‘libertarian’ alternative to mainstream social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, promoting free speech while its founder Matze hit out at his more established rivals over perceived anti-right bias and censorship.

Discussing Parler’s content moderation policy with Forbes journalist Abram Brown last year, Matze was asked if, for example, the use of racial epithets like the N-word are permitted on the app.

Quoting Matze, Brown wrote:

‘It depends on the context. If they just said that word alone, I don’t think we would touch it.’ He thinks a couple minutes longer, then restates his opinion. ‘If somebody came on there and said the N-word to somebody, and they got very upset as a result of that, then it would get taken down.’

Parler’s laissez-faire attitude towards content moderation made it, in reality, a haven for Trump supporters, violent white supremacists and conspiracy theorists.

Far-right group the Proud Boys used it as their “main communication and social media platform because they have been banned from other mainstream sites”, O’Connor explains.

Though it began as a fringe platform, it quickly received a lot of attention from more mainstream politicians in the US and abroad.

When Twitter began labelling some of Trump’s tweets as ‘misleading’ last year, Parler really took off with the American president’s supporters.

Even Republican senator Ted Cruz joined the app last year, claiming mainstream internet companies were “flagrantly silencing those with whom they disagree, from conservative media organizations to the president of the United States — and millions of Americans in-between”.

Parler was also widely used to share misinformation and pro-Trump conspiracy theories before and after last November’s US Presidential election.

O’Connor said: “It was a hive for false voter fraud claims and claims about voting machines… We saw lots of sharing of fringe news or fringe media websites that shared an out-of-context Twitter video, claiming that it was showing conclusive proof of voter fraud.” 

Violent rhetoric was common on the app throughout its lifespan and in the run-up to last Wednesday’s rally.

“I’ve kept posts that are two or three weeks old at this stage that explicitly called for violence against African Americans and members of the LGBTQ community,” O’Connor said.

“And then, ahead of Wednesday, we saw a lot of threatening rhetoric and incitement towards violence — a lot of posturing that Wednesday was the last stand. We saw that kind of sentiment across a lot of pro-Trump social platforms in the run-up to Wednesday; a lot of violent rhetoric.”

Taking action

After the riot, Parler’s light-touch approach to content moderation became a major focus of the US and international media’s attention.

In an interview with The New York Times after the storming of the Capitol, Matze said he didn’t “feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law”.

Later in the week, Parler was warned by Google and Apple that it had to more proactive in removing problematic posts.

By Saturday, it had been banned from both of those companies’ app stores.

The coup de grace was delivered last night when Amazon decided that it would no longer host the app on its web services.

In a statement, the company said, “We cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others.”

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But the timing of the bans has raised eyebrows.

O’Connor says “the horse had already bolted” by the time Big Tech began to take Parler seriously, a delay that had fatal consequences.

I think through media reports and research think tanks like ourselves, who’ve been highlighting this kind of activity on platforms like Parler, tech companies like Apple, like Google, like Amazon, should have been aware.
There’s a lot of questions to be asked over the delay in taking action against violent content.

Finding a new host

It’s also not the end of the story.

O’Connor believes it is possible that Parler may reappear somewhere else over the coming weeks. 

That’s exactly what happened with another social media platform, Gab, which was favoured by Trump supporters and neo-Nazi groups.

He explained: “After the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, where the shooter had posted on Gab prior to shooting, GoDaddy removed it as a client. It took a few months but the website tried out different hosts and tried out different platforms but it is back now on private servers.”

However, he said the ban left Gab without proper infrastructure, rendering the app rather difficult to use.

“I do think it’s very possible that Parler will return in some form. But I think that they will have struggles, firstly to find a host… and I do think it will be quite buggy and I think there will be glitches.

“I don’t think it’s the end.”

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