WHAT IS PARLER? CAN IT SURVIVE WITHOUT BIG TECH?

I’m working in the Senate every day to hold Big Tech accountable to the American people, and to make sure that your voices are heard. That’s why I’m proud to join Parler.

This platform gets what free speech is all about and I’m excited to be a part of it. For weeks around the 2020 presidential election, conservatives flocked to social media platform, Parler.

In the wake of Twitter and Facebook placing warnings on some of the president’s posts, conservative social media app, Parler, surged to the top of the Apple and Google app stores in the past week. Every time Twitter or Facebook takes authoritarian steps to curate content and act as a publication, it drives more people to our platform. Parler bills itself as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook, which some believe overstepped their bounds when they began adding fact checking labels to Trump’s posts.

And eventually outright banned the former president. People don’t want to be told what to think. People don’t want to be told what to say anymore. And people want to just be able to address problems in society on their own without Big Brother or anybody else telling them what to do. But what Parler advertised as its biggest draw, also turned out to be its Achilles heel.

In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riots, all signs indicate it was a coordinated assault that was organized online. Google and Apple quickly suspended the service, saying Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the threats of violence and illegal activity. Then this morning, Parler went dark after losing access to Amazon Web Services, which hosted the content.

Now there are hints that Parler will be back up and running. But whether it can survive without Big Tech’s infrastructure remains to be seen.

PARLER’S INTENTION

Parler was founded in 2008 by John Matze and Jared Thompson. The founders described the platform as a ‘town square’ where people could freely express their views without fear of being deplatformed. Diara Townes as an investigative researcher at First Draft, a non-profit organization that focuses on countering online disinformation.

She joined Parler last September and describes Parlor’s user experience as akin to that of Twitter. It has a very similar setup with your news feed. You have your trending topics on one side. You have accounts that they recommend that you follow, and the more accounts that you follow, the more content you will see. It does have the discovery tab so you can type in a search term and it will populate with, you know, posts that are featuring those hashtags.

Since its inception, Parler has been largely bankrolled by Rebekah Mercer, a prominent conservative donor and daughter of a hedge fund manager, Robert Mercer. Conservative talk show host, Dan Bongino, is also an investor. Early adopters included Senator Rand Paul and Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale.

Anytime there was this mass movement of conservative politicians, whether it was a, you know, Jim Jordan or a Ted Cruz or a Nikki Haley, who said, if you want my unfiltered views, check me out on Parler, the numbers would spike on Parler. Up until the middle of 2020, Parlor’s user base stood at less than 1.5 million.

According to the company, that number had ballooned to 15 million users before Amazon Web Services, which provided cloud computing power for the platform, dropped Parler, essentially erasing it from the Internet. Parler responded by suing Amazon, but Amazon has pushed back. In an emailed statement shared with CNBC, an AWB spokesperson said, “it is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service.

We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks, and during that time we saw significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services. Apple and Google have cited similar reasons for suspending Parler from their app stores. Clearly, all of these companies were aware there were issues on Parler.

It was after those issues resulted in an insurrection at the Capital that they became impossible to ignore and they swiftly took action. Despite its right-leaning user base and benefactors, Parler was not intended for just conservatives. And this is something that its CEO has desperately tried to change. Perla’s CEO, John Matze had offered $20,000 is what he called a ‘progressive bounty’ to try and attract liberal pundits, people who had 50,000 followers on Twitter or Facebook, to open up a Parler account.

The effort was not very successful. Parler remained sort of a joke among liberals. Liberals would sign up and they would take screenshots of the most ridiculous things being said on Parler and then post them on Twitter. And then it would start this whole meme about what Parler actually is.

PARLER’S REALITY

Like many social media platforms before it, as Parler grows in popularity. It’s finding it increasingly difficult to weed out extremism and violence. When you ban someone from one platform, they don’t just vanish from the Internet. They go somewhere else. And we’ve seen a real migration from places like Facebook and Twitter to free speech social networks like Gab and Parler, where content moderation is not enforced.

So you end up seeing a lot of the QAnon type stuff that is not allowed on the bigger platforms anymore migrate over there and get more radical because people are in an echo chamber. That’s not to say the Parler doesn’t have any moderation policies. In its community guidelines, the company lays out several instances that would constitute being booted from the platform.

These include posting content that is unlawful, pornographic copyright and spam. But unlike both Facebook and Twitter, which rely on thousands of content moderators and complicated AI to weed out posts that break their policies, Parler takes a much more lenient approach. According to Matze, the company relies on around 600 paid and volunteer jurors, who, in small groups, vote to determine what content crosses the line.

When content gets flagged, there is a group of people, I believe the number is five, that analyzes the content based on the terms of service, and they each make a determination on whether or not the content is in violation. And then, if four of the five say that it is in violation, then it gets removed. In an interview with Reuters, Matze described just how many partnerships the company lost following the Capital riots and Parler’s removal by Apple, Google and Amazon Web Services.

Very importantly, we lost Scylla Enterprise. It’s a very, very high-speed database. It’s really the backbone of, you know, Parler’s feed system and a lot of other components that we have. We lost access to Stripe, so even if we were online, we can no longer process ads and have revenue. American Express said nobody can pay for anything to Parler with an American Express anymore.

Twilio, so we can’t send SMS. Slack so we can no longer talk to the community jury who enforced our terms of service. Parlor’s website is now back up in a very limited capacity, but the platform’s app is still offline. Parlor’s new domain provider, Epik, is also known for hosting social media platform, Gab, which has become popular with the far right, and Info-wars, the website of conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones. But Parler has yet to find a website hosting provider, meaning its future remains very much in the balance.

WHAT IS NEXT?

For Parlor to survive, it needs to find someone to host its data and its app. In other words, it needs Big Tech. The path forward for Parler without Google, Apple and Amazon is a very treacherous one. Even Matze concedes that without Amazon, Parler’s path forward is dire. We filed a request with the state in the lawsuit that we filed that basically says we have to get back on Amazon because the damage of them taking us off is far beyond financial.

That we cannot recover unless they put us back. And so that’s the first step for us recovering is to get back there. Now, you know, the rest of it is really about whether or not we can find alternative places to go, who will do business with us again. But at least clearing our name of this, or at least, you know, helping with that could help us find other people who will do business with us.

Parler’s lawsuit is still ongoing, but it seems unlikely to succeed. On January 21st, a judge refused to force Amazon to reinstate Parler, saying that AWS was well within its rights to deny service to Parler for failing to remove content that violated the company’s terms of service. Litigation is not going to be the answer for Parler in this. It’s really sort of a last-ditch effort to throw some shade at Amazon and and sort of reignite this view that Big Tech is suppressing conservative voices.

Following the court’s ruling, Parler said in a post on its website that the company developed an AI-based enforcement system for inappropriate content. It also said it did not find any evidence that the Capital riots were planned or coordinated on Parler. Without an outside web host, one of the only paths forward for Parler would be to build and run its own servers.

This is something that Gab has done. Gab was dropped from its hosting provider after a gunman in Pittsburgh opened fire on a synagogue and killed 11 people in 2018. The gunman had been posting anti-Semitic rhetoric on Gab for years before the shooting. But building your own infrastructure is a tall order.

For Parler to build its own data center would be the kind of investment that is very difficult to come by unless you are just independently wealthy and money is not really an issue. There’s a very good reason why people don’t do that anymore. In addition to its being very expensive, the reliability just isn’t there.

The security just isn’t there. Google and Microsoft have been investing tens of billions of dollars in order to have the kind of infrastructure you need for all of the complexities of the of the modern web. Still, tech companies seem to not be completely opposed to letting Parler use their infrastructure. In an interview with CBS This Morning, Tim Cook seemed open to the idea of letting Parler back on the Apple App Store. Parler has some issues with moderation.

There is some incitement to violence examples on there, and they need to step it up on the moderation. And our hope is that they do that and get back on the store. Whatever the future ends up being f or Parler, Townes says it’s time that we consider the bigger picture when it comes to social media and violence. You can remove Parler, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these conversations and these communities, and these conspiracy theories will cease to exist because you removed one platform.

There’s so many different issues that people have with various aspects of what makes America, America, so to speak, that haven’t necessarily been addressed, but more so swept under the rug. Social media has shown us that the rug doesn’t exist anymore. And Parler, Telegram, MeWe, Gab, these are spaces where these conversations get to continue to happen.

So it’s either we let the platforms continue putting the rug back on top, or we actually look at what’s happening and have those conversations to figure out how do we make it better. This stuff is young. And so we are nowhere near done with the evolution of these platforms and of the internet, even though it seems to all of us like this stuff is entrenched. There’s going to be a lot of change going forward. And it’ll be interesting to watch.

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