Parler falls short on lofty free speech promises
Posted on November 14, 2020
In four days, a once-obscure social network that’s been around since 2018 saw its user base swell by 4.5 million people, claimed the top spot on smartphone app download charts and trolled Twitter, the platform it hopes to supplant, by becoming a trending topic.
Bristling over fact checks and warning labels applied to voter fraud claims on Facebook and Twitter, conservatives are flocking to Parler, an alternative that promises free-flowing dialogue and political neutrality in content moderation. Its post-Election Day success is building even more buzz as the news spreads from talk radio to The New York Times.
“Facebook and Twitter’s suppression of election information was a catalyst, causing many people to lose their trust. But the movement away from these platforms was already well underway,” CEO John Matze wrote in an open letter to Parler users.
Twitter labeled dozens of President Donald Trump’s tweets with the message “This claim about election fraud is disputed.” Trump supporters say Twitter moderators are betraying their political bias.
Facebook removed a group called “Stop the Steal,” which alleges Democrats committed voter fraud to benefit President-elect Joe Biden. Parler rolled out the red carpet, applying a “verified” badge to the group’s profile picture.
Co-owned by right-wing commentator Dan Bongino and hyped by Fox News host Sean Hannity, Parler isn’t shy about courting conservatives. Yet it styles itself as a nonpartisan platform that’s fighting censorship and cancel culture by upholding high-minded ideals about free speech.
“While the First Amendment does not apply to private companies such as Parler, our mission is to create a social platform in the spirit of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the website’s community guidelines state.
For a journalist whose car sports the vanity plate 1STAMDMT, that premise was too intriguing to pass up. So I created a Parler account — @coreywrites — to test the waters.
Like Twitter, there’s a suggestion to “personalize your experience” by selecting users to follow from a pre-populated list. Unlike Twitter, every account belonged to a right-wing personality or company, from Phil Robertson and Sen. Ted Cruz to PragerU and American Greatness.
News outlets including the Washington Post, NBC, CNN and Newsweek are on Parler, along with government agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department. There are plenty of parody accounts lampooning everyone from progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and California Gov. Gavin Newsom to Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Parler’s a bit clunky, with Matze acknowledging the platform’s growth has “strained” network capacity “and caused some glitches and delays.” Otherwise, it’s comparable to Twitter; like an upstart in the cola wars, it’s a lookalike product with a slightly different flavor. For example, Parler posts have a 1,000-character limit rather than Twitter’s 280-character cutoff.
For all its free speech-friendly branding, however, Parler doesn’t deliver on its promise of laissez-faire moderation.
In June, dozens of early adopters complained they’d been removed from the site. Matze responded by announcing five rules that weren’t part of Parler’s community guidelines. Enforcing such standards before they’re published only makes sense for a social network that caters to clairvoyants.
Users can report suspected policy violations to Parler’s “community jury,” a digital kangaroo court consisting of “volunteer, verified Parleyers” empowered to zap posts off the platform and issue demerits called “violation points.” Racking up 20 points within a 90-day period earns a ban.
The sort of folks who are eager to police others’ speech without payment are precisely the last people you want deciding what you can say. And doesn’t the point system bear an eerie resemblance to the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called social credit scores?
Parler says it won’t fact-check political claims or question the accuracy of news stories linked on its platform, and for those fleeing Facebook and Twitter over those practices, that difference may be enough. But it isn’t clear that enlisting volunteers instead of professional moderators and sophisticated algorithms will always lead to more tolerance for individual expression.
As a conservative counterweight to Silicon Valley’s social networks, Parler’s already a hit. Where free speech is concerned, however, it’s shaping up to be more mirage than oasis.
Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times and executive editor of Restoration NewsMedia. In this weekly column for Creators Syndicate, he explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.
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