Ann-Cherie Harden opened an account on Parler a year ago, long before the social media platform became a big hit, particularly among conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump.
“I did that then so I would have a means of communication if Facebook and Twitter decide to monitor or censor private posts and try to control what I can share,” the Whittier woman said, adding that she now sees many others have joined her on the platform billing itself as “the world’s town square.”
Harden is not imagining it. Parler is getting more crowded.
The lure of free speech
In July, Parler had a reported 2.8 million users. Within a week of the Nov. 3 election, however, that number had grown to more than 8 million. That week alone, Parler gained more than 3.5 million users, putting it at the top of Apple’s App Store list of free apps. Other social media platforms such as Rumble, Gab and Newsmax are also gaining new users. So far, none approach the popularity of Twitter with its 330 million active users and Facebook with 2.7 billion.
Among conservatives using Parler, the platform’s promise to make free speech the norm is attractive.
“Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views,” the site says. “Engage with real people, not bots.”
The surge in users, however, is not without risk, according to some. Organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League warn users that Parler’s “speak freely” philosophy could lead to unsavory elements finding a place in the platform.
In a blog post on Nov. 12, ADL said the presence of individuals with extreme views on Parler already is “creating the potential for extensive and worrying commingling of extremists and non-extremists.”
“While the site itself is not extremist, it is true that extremists have joined Parler in large numbers alongside millions of mainstream users, which is worrisome,” said Oren Segal, vice president of ADL’s Center on Extremism. “Extremists promoting their messages on social media is a tired, old story. But as Parler gains momentum and attention, extremists are making their way to the platform.”
A statement explaining Parler’s position on extremism within the platform was not found on its website, and company representatives have yet to respond to a request for comment.
Divided along party lines
The interesting thing about Parler is that it’s a combination of some hostile fringe groups mixed with well-known conservative thought leaders such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Fox News host Sean Hannity, said Karen North, professor of digital social media at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
“A lot of these conservative thought leaders have now decided that Parler is where they find their audiences,” she said.
State Sen. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, tweeted last week that she joined Parler, telling her followers: “Look forward to seeing you on @parler_app.”
— Senator Melissa Melendez (@senatormelendez) November 14, 2020
Assemblyman Chad Mayes, a Republican turned Independent, in a tweet appeared to criticize further divisions along party lines on social media. He said: “Keep the confirmation bias going! As if we didn’t learn our lesson with cable news, now we’re gonna divide our discourse on social media? Brilliant people, just brilliant.”
— Chad Mayes (@ChadMayes) June 27, 2020
These types of divisions can further erode civil dialogue, according to North.
“Algorithms are written to serve up an experience in social media that will make the person stay on that site or app,” she said. “We are provided with information, stories, events and videos that appeal to us. It’s just more and more information that bolsters the opinions we already have.”
Conservatives question Twitter
Conservatives like Harden believe it is not Twitter’s place to fact-check or censor anyone — whether they’re an average citizen or president of the United States. Facebook and Twitter censor those with conservative opinions, she said, and “add their caveats to private posts with which they don’t agree.”
“They should be posing questions to the other side too, but I don’t see that happening,” she said. “One example I’ve seen is many doctors being stopped from sharing what I think are valid opinions about COVID-19. These are trained, licensed professionals, some on the front lines, and they are having their medical opinions removed if they are not aligned with a particular narrative. That’s very disturbing to me.”
Harden also pointed to a specific tweet from Trump where the president announced he had “reversed the ridiculous decision to cancel Wreaths Across America at Arlington National Cemetery.” Twitter posted a note under the tweet, which has since been removed, informing users that “Biden is the projected winner” of the 2020 election.
“This post had nothing to do with the election, and yet Twitter adds that blurb,” Harden said, referring to the text Twitter runs as a way of correcting a misstatement of facts or incorrect information alleging voter fraud in the 2020 election as frequently alleged by Trump.
Some experts like Ramesh Srinivasan, professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and author of “Beyond the Valley,” don’t view Twitter’s move to fact-check posts as “censorship.”
“This claim that Twitter is biased against Republican interests doesn’t stand up to what we’ve seen over the last five years,” he said. “The migration to Parler speaks to a political strategy of how folks on the right are choosing to think of themselves. It is true, however, that Twitter, more so than any other tech company, has taken more direct action with labeling tweets.”
Twitter recently permanently suspended an account belonging to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon after he suggested that two federal officials should be beheaded. Srinivasan said Twitter has been more assertive in recent weeks when it comes to tamping down hate speech and disinformation, which he appreciates.
Along with other social media companies, Twitter has banned hashtags associated with hate, extremist movements or disinformation to remove those types of content from the platform.
Digital platforms and hate
Twitter had previously been slow to take down hate and extremism on its platform, while it was quick to act as a “political arbiter” of sorts, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of Global Social Action of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. The center’s Digital Terrorism and Hate Project grades social media platforms on how well they combat hate.
“Twitter engaging in political censorship is an extremely distressing development,” Cooper said. “To their credit, over the last two years, they did remove a lot of inappropriate hashtags. But, they never finished that job. Instead of going further in that direction, they’ve decided to firmly plant themselves in the political censorship department.”
The Wiesenthal Center released a 25-page report titled “Parler: An Unbiased Social Platform?” examining the content on the platform for hate speech, extremist ideology and conspiracy theories. The report says Parler has continued to allow users to deny the Holocaust, express anti-Semitic beliefs and conspiracy theories alleging that Jewish people are responsible for many of the world’s problems, including mass immigration, the coronavirus, child trafficking and civil unrest. The report also says that many Parler users openly demonstrate hate against Muslims, immigrants and the LGBTQ community. In addition, there are hate groups, including white supremacists and militia groups such as the Boogaloo Boys, present on the platform.
Cooper said Parler should be careful as it picks up millions of users who are turning away from Facebook and Twitter.
“Along with legitimate users, they are going to pick up the bigots, too,” Cooper said. “I hope that’s not what Parler wants to be known for. They should deal with the hate and bigotry early on. If not, they will find a significant number of dangerous people polluting their forum. Parler needs to send out a signal that hate will not be tolerated. And they need to do it soon.”
Source: Orange County Register