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Parler Courts Conservatives With Promises Of Unrestricted Free Speech

Parler is a Twitter-like social media platform that advertises itself as a space free of most content moderation.

The company says it doesn’t censor posts based on ideology or accuracy.

That’s catching on with conservative ideologues and Trump supporters, who say Twitter’s filters for misinformation, violent rhetoric and white supremacism violate their constitutional right to free speech.

“All we’ve ever wanted to be is an unbiased, ideologically neutral platform that is using the true free speech model, which means allowing for speech that is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution and not having any guidelines enforcement that is biased based on viewpoint," said Amy Peikoff, chief policy officer for Parler 


Peikoff does not see the site as a right-wing platform, but she said conservatives have been drawn to it because they feel they have been mistreated by other social media sites that don't have the same approach as Parler.

“One of the things that we make an operating principle at Parler is allowing each individual to curate his or her own experience on Parler. So we give you an unadulterated, chronology feed of the people who you follow,” she said.

In addition, the site allows people with a large following to monetize that following by accepting ads targeted at their followers. That influencer network gets a cut of the ad revenue.

That set up means the site does filter out spammers. 

Peikoff said besides spammers, Parler also filters illegal content.

“We will not knowingly allow our platform to be used as a tool for crime, torts fraud and all of those things,” she said.

She said the site's creators want the community of users to keep track of illegal activity, but also what might be true information and what might misinformation. 

“Our policy is that if someone was to spread some misinformation or say something that isn’t true, then that person’s reputation is going to stand and fall with that," she said, "We count on organic fact-checking from the community of users from Parler to go ahead and decide for themselves. We don’t try to do the thinking for anybody."

Critics of the site have pointed out that it has become home to white supremacists and other far-right-wing extremists. Peikoff said if any of those groups posted something on Parler that violated the law they would be dealt with, but if the speech is protected by the First Amendment they can say what they want. 

She noted they would have the same policy if any left-leaning violent groups were to use the site. 

“We think that in the long term when you have more speech in answer to that sort of speech that that is the best way to deal with it,” she said.

Alexander Reid Ross is an adjunct professor at Portland State and a research fellow at Political Research Associates. He studies far-right groups. 

He disagrees with Peikoff's assertion that Parler is a strictly neutral site.

“I don’t think that it is particularly ideologically neutral at all. I think that, as she said, the seed money came from Mercers, who are on the far-right and who are working to forward a specific agenda,” he said.

Rebecca Mercer, a contributor to Republican politicians and conservative causes, gave Parler seed money in 2018. 

Ross said when people on Parler were talking about Black Lives Matter protesters he could see the hatred and desire to suppress popular social movements.

“It’s not really about free speech per se. It’s about their ability to say whatever they want without any kind of accountability whatsoever, even if it's patently false,” he said.

The issue of who is accountable when a user posts something on a social media site is a hotly debated issue. Ross said there needs to be a thoughtful debate about how to handle that issue.

“When it comes down to it there are intentions and people do need to be held accountable for their intentions,” he said.

He gave the example of the site Gab, which he said became a place for people to talk about mass murder. In fact, the suspect in the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh announced his plans on the site before the shooting. 

“It is necessary to stop these kinds of forums before mass violence takes place," he said, "Although Parler is different from Gab, that’s for sure, it does need to be parsed out and the potential for violence and the potential for the spread of hatred, as well as disinformation, should be addressed seriously."

Ross said research has shown that when people get sucked into conspiracy theories and detach from facts and consensus reality it becomes easier to lose empathy for people that they now view as the enemy. 

“People who commit mass atrocities don’t just fall from the sky," he said, "The term ‘lone wolf’ is somewhat misleading because there are ecosystems in social media, and in society, that do breed violence and hatred."

From what he has seen, Parler has become a place for conspiracy theories to spread quickly. One theory he noticed a lot involved Bill Gates and Democratic contributor George Soros. The theory goes that Gates and Soros created the coronavirus pandemic to roll out a vaccine that will allow them to control people's minds.

"It is like tin-foil-hat level conspiracy theory," he said, "That's the kind of thing we see Parler very effective in spreading," 

Ross believes part of the reason people on the far-right are moving into sites like Parler and others is that the general public is realizing that disinformation is dividing the country.

"It really does seem like most people in the United States realize that disinformation is causing a serious problem and polarization in our society," he said, "So rather than trying to contend with that and sort of 'come to Jesus' in a sense, what they're doing is they're taking their ball and going back home."

There aren't just questions about accountability and free speech when it comes to Parler. Dave Troy is a network analyst, startup founder and investor. His questions about how Parler got started were posted on Twitter and quickly went viral.

"I think that any time people take the trouble to deploy capital in the market you want to have some sense of what their intentions are," he said, "I think with something like this where they're attempting to, ostensibly, influence public discourse and to participate in our broader media discussion... it makes really good sense to just simply ask: 'What is the nature of this thing?'"

Troy said before it was announced that Rebecca Mercer was involved in funding the site there was little transparency about the funding. Most startups talk a lot about their investors in hopes of generating more interest from other investors, he said.

Before the announcement about Mercer's involvement, the company had said that conservative radio show host and commentator Dan Bongino 'owned' it, Troy said. 

"If you're going to build a company that is intending to compete with something like Twitter or Facebook, both of whom raised tens of millions of dollars in their early phases, you need to be doing something comparable," he said.

He said it didn't make sense that the site was able to launch and build up quickly with an investment from just one person. 

Peikoff told KNPR's State of Nevada that Bongino is a part-owner.

Also before Mercer's announcement, Troy questioned whether Russian investors were linked to the project. He noted that the founder John Matze's wife is Russian and they were married in Russia. He traveled in Russia and Europe shortly before he decided to launch the site in August 2018.

In addition, when the site first launched, Troy and other observers noticed most of the accounts were from Russian-aligned people. 

All of which is not illegal, Troy noted.

"What is kind of unusual is this founding story, the combination of these Russian-aligned voices on the platform. The wife's mother was somebody connected with the Russian government. He was actually married in Russia in a government-run facility," he said.

Troy believes there are a lot of questions about the site that are still unanswered, including who has access to information collected on the site and where it is getting its funding. 

He also questions how viable Parler will be if it is only appealing to a narrow slice of the marketplace and not the entire country. 

"I feel like it was put into the market as part of a kind of high stakes poker game to illicit a specific political outcome to be a competitor for Twitter that would illicit specific changes to Section 230," he said.

Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act, which essentially protects platforms like Twitter and Facebook from being sued for the content that they carry. They are at their discretion to remove content they feel violates their user agreements.

A lot of conservatives, including President Donald Trump and Rebecca Mercer, want to change the section or eliminate it altogether. Troy said many conservatives feel "oppressed" by the way social media giants moderate their content. 

Peikoff doesn't believe the section of the law should be scrapped altogether, but platforms should be held accountable for the content they create.

Both Ross and Troy say a larger debate needs to be had about Section 230. 

"There is a really strong case to be made for a rational reconsider of the Section 230 protections, but it shouldn't be done in a really willy-nilly way, and we shouldn't repeal it," Troy said, "We really need to give this some thought. So, to some extent, this situation with Parler has brought this to a focal point where we do need to start to pay attention to this in more detail."

Amy Peikoff, Chief Policy Officer, Parler;  Dave Troy, network analyst, startup founder and investor;  Alexander Reid Ross, adjunct professor at Portland State and research fellow at Political Research Associates

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.