Maria Bartiromo, the Fox network anchor seen on TV six days a week, has joined a chorus of pro-Trump commentators urging followers to flock to Parler, the social network that promises no fact-checking or “editorial bullies trying to tell you what to think.”
She told Parler chief executive John Matze in an interview earlier this month that Twitter, where she has 927,000 followers and has posted more than 33,000 tweets, has suppressed her speech so mercilessly that President Donald Trump himself should abandon the site.
“I will no longer accept the censorship that is happening on Twitter,” she said. She would still use the site to promote her guests and TV shows, she added, but she would not “be dropping any scoops” there, and that “it is Parler where you will find real stories and the things I’m working on and my opinions on things.”
From election day until Sunday afternoon, she’s posted to Parler 118 times – and tweeted 174 times.
Since launching in 2018, Parler’s leaders have framed the social network as one of the last bastions of free speech online, building a fan base of annoyed conservatives who argue they had been silenced everywhere else.
The company said its user base has exploded since Trump’s election loss, doubling this month to more than 10 million accounts. In Apple’s app store, according to data from analytics firm Sensor Tower, Parler jumped from 1,023 on the most-downloaded list one day before the election to No. 1 in a single week.
The loudest voices in conservative media have praised the site as a solution to the tyranny and suppression they claim to have endured on Facebook and Twitter, whose fact-check labels on posts about Trump’s loss they have slammed as more proof of Silicon Valley thought control. Bartiromo’s own endorsement came after Twitter labeled as “disputed” a tweet in which she made multiple false claims of voter fraud, including the conspiracy theory that voters had been disenfranchised through the forced use of Sharpie felt-tip pens.
But many of Parler’s biggest cheerleaders can’t seem to quit their old social media homes ― and appear to have remained just as active, if not more active, on the platforms they continue to denounce.
“Stop the Digital Inquisition! JOIN PARLER,” tweeted Dan Bongino, a Parler investor and right-wing star who consistently ranks among Facebook’s top-performing link posts nationwide, on Nov. 11, one of his 90 tweets that day – the same day he posted on Parler 51 times.
Madison Gesiotto, a pro-Trump commentator who tweeted to her 190,000 followers that she was “sick of big tech censorship,” has posted five times to Parler but 95 times to Twitter since declaring (in a tweet) that social media is “worse than ever before!”
Perhaps that’s understandable. Conservative provocateurs have mastered the art of getting attention and amplifying opinions on the very social networks they so roundly criticize. But Parler’s rise highlights how the polarized national debate could even further splinter the American Internet, in the same way that news sources and digital social circles have split into parallel partisan realities.
Robyn Caplan, who researches social media platforms at the technology think tank Data & Society, said it’s no surprise Parler appears to be flourishing in a divided America: Millions already live in a self-selected media universe, from unbalanced TV networks like Fox News and Newsmax to the personalized echo chambers of Facebook and YouTube, where one’s viewing history tends to shape the sources they see and come to expect.
The new social media offshoots, she said, show how politically minded groups that once hoped to capture broad attention are increasingly opting instead to retrench, preferring insular communities where their viewpoints are tested less and celebrated more. The result: an Internet full of coexisting, never-touching bubbles of belief.
“There was this purposeful movement into mainstream social media spaces, and now there’s this movement away . . . where people are putting themselves back into these private spaces, making them more circular in their logic and strengthening that internal division,” she said. As a result, “we don’t really know what our fellow Americans are saying.”
A few loyalists have fully taken the Parler plunge. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., hasn’t posted in a week to Twitter, the 180-million-user site he has called an “eerily quiet . . . sewer” of people “vaporized by left wing tech tyrants.” Instead, he spends his days sending more than 1,500 posts, or “parleys,” to his 2 million Parler followers, grumbling about holiday gathering guidelines, reposting quibbles about Facebook’s acknowledgment of Biden’s election win and sharing photos of himself grilling linguica sausages.
For many conservative pundits, however, Parler serves as just another soapbox for the same messages they already share widely elsewhere.
Mark Levin, the pro-Trump radio host who has bemoaned how censored he is on Facebook and Twitter, where he has a combined total of more than 4 million followers, has repeatedly urged his audience to follow him on Parler – in some of the 562 tweets he’s posted since the election. His posts on all three sites now are virtually identical, though he tweeted this month that he would be “leaving Facebook probably” by the year’s end and that he may leave Twitter “one day.”
The site also has one very notable absence: Trump himself, who has no Parler account (besides the one run by his campaign) and tweeted or retweeted roughly 1,200 times in the past 30 days. Parler does, however, have a @donaldtrump placeholder registered in 2018 and a @Trump fan page, whose last post (“THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS!!!”) was shared in July. (The White House declined to comment.)
Nevertheless, Parler has built a growing market beyond the conservative chattering class. Anna Aquino, an author of Christian novels in Ohio, said she’d had enough of the internet censorship when Facebook told her a video she posted about the national anthem had been flagged by fact-checkers as “filled with major historical inaccuracies.”
She joined Parler in July and has posted dozens of times, echoing Trump’s false talking points about voter fraud and a suppressed cure for covid-19, without a fact-checker in sight.
Aquino mourns how polarized the nation has become and said she hopes Parler will become a place where people of all beliefs can talk and disagree civilly. For now, though, pretty much every perspective she sees there matches her own.
I “don’t think we need to stay in our little hole, that we need to be so divided,” she said. But “at the moment, it doesn’t bother me that Parler is more conservative viewpoints, because those are my values.”
The site joins a band of message boards, streaming-video and TV offshoots like MeWe, One America News and Rumble in catering to a conservative clientele. But Parler’s unmoderated content – filled with pornography spam, vile hate speech and security flaws – recalls previous free-speech message boards that became the gathering place for violent extremists.
Parler’s closest competitor, Gab, is a similarly advertised social network popular with the far right that sparked a public backlash in October 2018 when a gunman posted an anti-Semitic screed to the site before killing 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. Since then, according to data from the online-traffic firm SimilarWeb, its monthly Web traffic has more than tripled.
Parler and Gab now average about 5 million views a month, which makes them, in social media terms, microscopic. Their combined traffic worldwide last month was 0.05 percent of Facebook’s and 0.22 percent of Twitter’s, SimilarWeb data show. But Andrew Torba, Gab’s chief executive, said Parler’s growth further validates the “alt-tech ecosystem.” In a post after the election, he asked supporters to pray for the site and to “choose a side” in the “digital civil war.”
Parler’s homepage, which features a stock photo of a young woman wearing overalls near a wheat field, promises users the ability to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” Its executives have promoted it as a “non-biased,” “nonpartisan” and “viewpoint-neutral” “community town square.”
But far from nonpartisan, Parler is dominated almost entirely by the top voices of conservative thought. The recommended “People to Follow” box shown to every user is loaded with right-wing royalty, led by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the Fox News anchors Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. Just below them is Phil Robertson, the wild-bearded hunter from the TV show “Duck Dynasty,” who told his 2 million followers last month that if “the Democratic Party Marxists . . . win and this country doesn’t turn to God, they’ll take your freedoms by force.” That post has been viewed more than 800,000 times.
Parler’s Matze has called other social media companies “big and evil,” “authoritarian” “techno-fascists” and “data manipulators” “colluding to find things to find you guilty for.” “Facebook and Twitter, they have people that are addicted, and they’re using them for their data,” he said in a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, a conservative news website and weekly magazine.
The site was launched with an investment from the billionaire Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer, who with her father has helped bankroll Trump, the far-right site Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm infamous for harvesting people’s Facebook data en masse before the 2016 election.
In a post thanking Mercer for helping fund what she called a beacon of liberty against the “tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords,” Matze celebrated her as “an American patriot . . . committed to the Parler vision of neutrality.”
Parler’s ideological sameness is impossible to avoid: The top Trump hashtags are all celebratory, including #Trump2020Landslide, while the top hashtags for people like President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Anthony Fauci are baseless hoaxes and hateful attacks.
Though it’s held up as a utopian model for free expression, users have taken advantage of Parler’s anything-goes attitude to spread hate speech and misinformation. Hundreds of thousands of posts there promote or discuss QAnon and other conspiracy theories, including that vaccines kill people and the coronavirus is a hoax. Racist and bigoted hashtags – including #BlackLivesDontMatter, #WhiteSupremacy and #MuslimsAreInvaders – all have more than 1,000 posts each.
The site’s bare-bones community rules ban criminal content and spam but allow practically everything else. Instead of paying content moderators, Parler executives say they expect users to root out violations and correct misleading information on their own.
“We at Parler don’t think it’s our job to do thinking for other people,” said Amy Peikoff, the company’s chief policy officer. “We want people to think for themselves.”
Peikoff herself put Parler’s vision of an open public forum to the test when she posted a link to a New York Times article about Trump coming close to acknowledging President-elect Biden’s win. The backlash from her followers was almost immediate: “Whose side are you on??” one user commented. “You should go hang at twatter with the other morons,” another said.
Parler’s hands-off approach can make for a jarring experience, with conservative talking points often mixing with racist slurs, scam accounts and nude photos.
Though Parler’s Matze said earlier this year that they took “a hard line against pornography and nudity,” the site’s guidelines now allow images and videos of adult sex and nudity, and much of it can be found alongside Trump-ian hashtags, such as #KeepAmericaSexy, #SexyTrumpGirl and #MAGAMILFs. Spam on the site is also rampant: Many of the site’s top hashtags, like #techtyrants and #gardenclub, are typically overrun with links to porn sites and ads for cheap handbags.
Facebook and Twitter deal with the same kinds of hoaxes, spam and hate speech every day, and the sites have spent billions of dollars assembling content-moderation teams and artificial-intelligence systems to target problematic posts, with mixed results.
But Parler spurns the idea of moderators altogether, instead appointing a “community jury” of 200 volunteers who review user-reported posts and can vote for removal. While Peikoff said the company was “designed from the ground up” to prevent spam and disinformation, its techniques are fairly rudimentary, including banning unverified users from posting links in comments and requiring users to sign up with a phone number.
Online tricksters have already found ways to wreak havoc with the site’s own tools. Parler gives a “verified” badge to users who confirm their identity by submitting photos of an official ID card and a video of themselves slowly blinking their eyes, but the site doesn’t prevent those users from then changing their name – a major security oversight that has been used to impersonate more than a dozen people, including Republican members of Congress.
A Washington Post reporter two weekends ago alerted Parler to a potential impostor account that purported to reveal the identity of the mysterious Q, whose “drops” drive the QAnon conspiracy movement. Executives said they were investigating the issue, but have not responded, even as the hoax continued to spread online. Aubrey Cottle, a security researcher and co-founder of the Anonymous hacker collective, later told The Post he was behind the prank, saying the site’s security is a “joke” and that he “did it for the lulz” – the laughs.
Beyond the investment from its original funders, it’s unclear how Parler will make money long-term. Parler does not allow the kind of targeted advertising that has turned its rivals into commercial juggernauts, and the site has landed only a limited number of major marketing deals, including from Trump’s failed reelection campaign.
The site’s executives said they expect their user base will expand over time – both in numbers and political viewpoints – and they have needled the competition with trash-talk sites, such as Erasebook.info and Twexit.com, that prompt people to sign up for Parler accounts. (Facebook and Twitter declined to comment on whether they’d seen any effects from Parler’s growth.)
Parler doesn’t share detailed data about how long its users remain on the site or how frequently they visit, and it’s still to be seen how many new users will stick around. Parler’s operations chief, Jeffrey Wernick, an angel investor and bitcoin enthusiast, said he knows many people have come to the site because they were fed up with the other sites, and that “you never know when you cascade.”
But much of Parler’s newfound attention has come from its boosters promoting it on Facebook and Twitter, and many users said they have no plans to give up on those sites, where they have more established social circles and continue to talk with friends, chat in groups and post multiple times a day.
Nicole Arbour, a social media influencer and creator of videos such as “The Truth About ‘Racism,'” “The Problem With #MeToo” and “Dear Fat People,” said she joined Parler this summer because she could see it had trending potential. Besides, she was sick of her jokes getting blocked on Twitter. She’s liked what she’s seen so far, saying Parler has given her “crazy” reach even as her views on other sites can get “hindered or squashed.”
Still, she said, she wishes Parler would add ways to organize followers and create groups. She’s not going to give up on Twitter just yet. She’s posted 22 times to Parler since the election – many of them screenshots of her Twitter jokes – and tweeted 345 times.