Frustrated conservatives, bristling at perceived bias against them on Facebook Inc’s social network, have found a solution: moving to Parler, the app that reached No. 1 in downloads following Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election.
Parler Inc, which calls itself "non-biased, free speech social media”, may be the breakout platform emerging from the contentious 2020 vote. Ironically, Parler enthusiasts have relied on Facebook to spread the word about the alternative app, posting and spinning up new groups on its bigger rival’s site to promise followers and community if people make the switch. The upstart competitor has leveraged access to Facebook’s billions of users to catch on, and will need to keep doing so to grow fast enough to keep their attention.
"Hurry and follow me at Parler,” conservative author and radio personality Mark Levin wrote on Facebook. "I’m trying to encourage as many of you as possible to immediately join me there as I may not stay at Facebook or Twitter if they continue censoring me.” The Facebook post received 13,000 reactions.
"Tired of worrying about social media censorship?” the Susan B. Anthony List page posted. "Join us on Parler for unfiltered pro-life content.”
"Drop your handle and get new connections on Parler!” one Facebook group with more than 15,000 members advertises.
Normally, a competitor quickly getting attention would raise alarm bells at Facebook. The company has a history of preventing rival services from gaining traction through its site, blocking links to download apps and avoiding the full display of cross-posted content. You can’t be verified on Facebook’s Instagram, for instance, if you have a link to your Twitter profile in your bio. So far, though, the company hasn’t tried to prevent users from flocking to Parler.
That may be in part because Facebook’s history of blocking, copying or acquiring competitors has turned it into target for antitrust inquiries from the US Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and state attorneys general. The FTC is expected to decide on filing a case in coming weeks, with staff supporting the move, Bloomberg has reported. Letting Parler thrive by keeping links alive on its pages could help Facebook claim the market is competitive and push back on lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who criticise the company’s dominance.
A Facebook representative declined to comment. Parler didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Parler, founded in 2018 by John Matze and Jared Thomson, saw its count of US monthly active users increase in each month since May, and it gained 314,000 installations in October, up 23% from September, according to mobile analytics firm SensorTower. According to the researcher’s estimates, Parler had 636,000 installations from Apple Inc’s US App Store and Google Play on Nov 8, the most downloads the app has seen in a single day. Previously, its best day was in June, as protests against police brutality raged throughout the United States. On Nov 9, Parler was the top free app in the United States on the iOS App Store and Google Play.
Since Nov 3, President Donald Trump has been posting messages on Facebook and Twitter claiming that he didn’t lose the election – and that there was widespread fraud. Followers who believe him have been posting the same on Facebook, which has been labeling Trump’s posts with links to context explaining that Biden is the projected winner, and that there’s nothing irregular about vote-counting taking several days.
Facebook also removed several protest groups calling for vote-counting to stop, out of fear those groups would lead to real-world violence. Twitter Inc has been labeling posts with misinformation about the election and putting warning screens over Trump’s false claims of victory and voter fraud.
Two days after the presidential race was called for Biden, Apple’s App Store shows three of the top five most downloaded free mobile apps are those increasingly being mentioned by conservative users. Henderson, Nevada-based Parler holds the No. 1 spot, followed by MeWe Network and Newsmax at four and five, respectively.
Parler has appealed in particular to users who have seen their content fact-checked or labelled with information they disagree with. Nancy Keasberry-Pappa, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Las Vegas, said she downloaded Parler after Facebook placed a "false” warning on one of the videos she posted, about no attendance at a Biden event in Arizona. "I don’t know that Facebook should be policing that,” she said. "It’s been years and years of cultivating photos and relationships, but I can’t in good conscience stay on. I feel like I am contributing to something I don’t believe in.”
For users, Parler is set up a lot like Twitter. The two platforms have the same basic layout, with "verified” badges, hashtags and the ability for users to follow one another. It hosts heavyweight conservative voices like Candace Owens, Eric Trump, Kayleigh McEnany and Dan Bongino, who are also active on Facebook.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican of Texas, recently posted a call for donations to support an election defense fund to ensure every vote is "legal and valid” in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional race. Roger Stone on his Parler feed called Senator Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, a "backstabbing traitor” for criticising Trump’s character on Fox News. Sebastian Gorka mused that Trump’s path forward is in "rallies, the courts, organic demonstrations.”
South Dakota’s Republican governor, Kristi Noem, posted on Twitter on Nov 9 that she joined Parler. "We need social media platforms that respect and protect FREE SPEECH,” Noem wrote, adding her user name for followers to find her there.
On Parler, some subject matter labelled or blocked on mainstream platforms has found a home. Take QAnon, the conspiracy group Twitter and Facebook have attempted to cull. A search for the term on Parler returns pages of profiles with "QAnon” in their user names. The hashtag #holohoax surfaces discussion of Holocaust denial – content also recently banned from Facebook. On Parler, user @TheProudBoys carries an "Influencer” badge.
The notion that Facebook’s power has allowed it to silence conservatives has become a talking point by Republicans in Washington DC. Senators are due to confront Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg, along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, on the issue at a Nov 17 hearing. The two executives also faced bias claims, which they deny, during a hearing in late October. Trump’s allies, who continue to dispute the clear election results, may suggest the CEOs are taking part in what they insist, without evidence, is a media cover-up.
There are reasons to expect Parler’s popularity to fade. Other apps, such as Gab and Triller, have attempted to use Facebook bias claims to recruit conservative users. They’ve failed to gain significant ground, in part because Facebook’s influence comes not from the content of the site, but from the size of its network – and the ability to easily and widely spread a message there to recruit new followers.
If an exodus to alternative platforms does ensue, the major platforms will likely have a policy dilemma on their hands. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter will soon have to decide if they’ll let users directly link with content from these right-wing platforms. If they do, "then they are effectively allowing something to exist” on their platform that they would otherwise never tolerate, said Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former Facebook chief information security officer.
"They could end up being meta-moderators of these of these smaller platforms,” said Stamos, a member of the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of research entities monitoring platforms for election disinformation. "But if you block them, which makes it easy to do the moderation, that’s pretty clearly anti-competitive.” – Bloomberg