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Conservatives Flock To Mercer-Funded Parler, Claim Censorship On Facebook And Twitter

Nov 15, 2020
Originally published on November 15, 2020 4:07 pm

Maria Bartiromo, the Fox Business host, declared herself done with Twitter two days after the election.

She tweeted a link to an article that falsely claimed Democrats were trying to steal the election. Twitter hid the post behind a label warning that it contained misleading content. Twitter also notified Bartiromo that someone had complained about her account (even though it did clarify that she had not violated any rules and it was taking no action against her).

For Bartiromo, the label was the last straw.

"This is the same group who abused power in 2016," Bartiromo tweeted to her nearly 900,000 followers. "I will be leaving soon and going to Parler. Please open an account on @parler right away."

Parler, founded in 2018, touts itself as "the world's premier free speech platform." On Saturday, CEO and co-founder John Matze said one of the privately owned company's early investors is Rebekah Mercer, who along with her father, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, has been a backer of President Trump and is also a major donor to conservative causes, including Breitbart News and former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

"John and I started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech," Rebekah Mercer wrote on Parler on Saturday. She went on to condemn "the ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords."

The company puts few restrictions on what users can post. That has made it attractive to high-profile conservatives who claim Facebook and Twitter are censoring them, even though there is no evidence for these allegations of systemic anti-conservative bias.

Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their fight against misinformation in the weeks leading up to and following the election. They have removed groups, slapped warnings on posts and reduced the spread of the most egregious false claims of voter fraud.

"The success of Parler is partly because people understand that they're getting censored," Bartiromo said, while conducting an interview with Matze on her show. "Have Twitter and Facebook gone too far?" she asked.

"Once you start content curation and you start fact-checking, you're introducing bias," Matze replied.

Radio host Mark Levin told listeners he was "fed up" with Facebook, where his page reaches 1.6 million followers, after the company restricted his account for repeatedly sharing false information.

"I want to strongly encourage you to leave Facebook and to follow me on Parler," he said. "I won't be looking at Facebook anymore."

Interest in Parler sends app downloads soaring

Thanks to all the attention in recent days, Parler is now one of the most downloaded apps on Apple and Android smartphones. It has hit 10 million members — more than double the 4.5 million it had last week, according to Jeffrey Wernick, the company's chief operating officer.

"Our growth is not attributable to any one person or group, but rather to Parler's efforts to earn our community's trust, both by protecting their privacy, and being transparent about the way in which their content is handled on our platform," Wernick said in a statement.

Still, that is just a tiny fraction of Twitter's 187 million daily users and Facebook's nearly 2 billion.

Parler looks a lot like Twitter: You follow a feed of accounts, which post messages known as "Parleys."

In an interview with NPR this summer, Parler CEO Matze said the app intends to solve a problem he saw on the larger social media platforms. "We found that a lot of people were experiencing or were talking about censorship," he said.

Parler's community guidelines bar criminal activity, terrorism, child pornography, copyright violations, fraud and spam. The company says it tries to avoid removing content or banning users and says it does not remove or filter content or accounts "on the basis of the opinion expressed within the content at issue."

Matze says the goal isn't to be a Wild West with no rules but a town square for open discussion.

"We take a hard line against pornography and nudity," he said. "But if people disagree with one another, we're not there to mediate or moderate the conversation."

Experts say "free speech" approach lets false claims flourish

As a result of that lax approach to content moderation, experts who study online misinformation say false and misleading claims about the election that are being pushed off other platforms are popping up on Parler.

That includes the hashtag #StopTheSteal, which is being used to organize protests and perpetuate baseless claims of voter fraud. Facebook has removed several Stop the Steal groups, some of which had amassed hundreds of thousands of members.

Shannon McGregor, who studies social media at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, said the misinformation already thriving on Parler is cause for alarm.

"What we've seen in the past with some of these other fringe or alternative social media sites is, if there's no rules and if it's really siloed, then what happens is it gets more and more extreme," she said.

That includes Gab, an alternative social network that has become notorious for hosting anti-Semitic and white nationalist content. It was used by the accused 2018 shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Influencers show few signs of abandoning Twitter and Facebook

Despite Parler's rapid growth, McGregor and other experts are skeptical that conservatives with the biggest audiences will actually abandon larger social media apps — even though they are encouraging their followers to do so.

"All these people have accounts on Twitter because that's where journalists are and that's where the press is," McGregor said. "If they actually left Twitter, they would be less newsworthy."

Renée DiResta, who tracks misinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said this is what happened when Parler went through another growth spurt this summer, after Twitter began labeling Trump's tweets for making false claims.

"Even prominent accounts like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who announced [in June and July] that they were going to Parler, did not actually leave Twitter, did not decrease their posting patterns on Twitter" or post as frequently on Parler, she said.

She said she expected the flurry of activity on Parler to continue in the short term, especially as Facebook keeps shutting down Stop the Steal groups.

"But it's unclear that this is really indicative of a mass movement to vacate platforms and form socially conservative spaces," she said.

Meanwhile, over at Fox Business, Bartiromo is still posting on Twitter — and promoting her Parler username in each tweet.

Editor's note: Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

As part of combating rampant misinformation, Facebook and Twitter are removing groups, slapping warning labels on posts and reducing the spread of the most egregious false claims of voter fraud. And that's not going over well with some high-profile conservatives, who are now urging their followers to join a social network called Parler. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has a look. And we should note Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo had a bone to pick with Twitter. On November 4, she tweeted a link to an article claiming, falsely, that Democrats were trying to steal the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIA BARTIROMO: And I got a note from Twitter saying to me, hello, we have received a complaint regarding your account.

BOND: Twitter hid her tweet behind a warning that it contained misleading content. So Bartiromo fired off another tweet, saying she would soon be leaving Twitter and telling her followers to join her on Parler. She invited Parler CEO John Matze onto her show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNINGS WITH MARIA")

BARTIROMO: And of course, the success of Parler is partly because people understand that they're getting censored. Have Twitter and Facebook gone too far, John?

JOHN MATZE: Well, once you start content curation and you start fact-checking, you're introducing bias.

BOND: Bartiromo's complaint is one many conservatives have made in the past few weeks as Facebook and Twitter crack down more aggressively on efforts to cast doubt on the presidential election. Some say they found a more welcoming home on Parler. Radio host Mark Levin told his audience he was fed up after Facebook restricted his account for repeatedly sharing false information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK LEVIN: I want to strongly encourage you to leave Facebook and to follow me on Parler.

BOND: Thanks to all the attention, Parler, which was founded in 2018, is right now one of the most downloaded apps. In just the past week, its membership doubled to 10 million. That's impressive but still just a tiny fraction of the 187 million people who use Twitter every day or Facebook's billions of users. Parler looks a lot like Twitter, with a feed of posts known as Parleys. One of its early investors is Rebekah Mercer, the conservative donor known for backing Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and Breitbart News. NPR talked to Matze, the CEO, this summer. He said the app intended to solve a problem he saw on big social media platforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MATZE: We found that a lot of people were experiencing or were talking about censorship. We also saw that there was a lot of issues with algorithms changing.

BOND: Matze says the goal isn't to be a Wild West with no rules, but a town square.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MATZE: We take a hard line against pornography and nudity. But if people disagree with one another, we're not there to mediate and moderate the conversation.

BOND: And that means that some of the claims Facebook and Twitter are now removing or slowing the spread of are popping up on Parler - hashtags like stop the steal, which is being used to organize protests and perpetuate baseless claims of voter fraud.

Shannon McGregor studies social media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She's alarmed by what she sees on Parler because she says misinformation is already thriving there.

SHANNON MCGREGOR: What we've seen in the past with some of these other sort of fringe or alternative social media sites is if there's no rules and if it's really siloed, then we know that what happens is it gets more and more extreme.

BOND: But McGregor and other experts are skeptical that conservatives with the biggest audiences will really abandon larger social media apps for Parler, even as they encourage their followers to do so.

MCGREGOR: All these people have accounts on Twitter because that's where journalists are, and that's where the press is, right? And so if they actually left Twitter, they would be less newsworthy, right?

BOND: Just look at what happened this summer after Twitter first began labeling President Trump's tweets for making false claims. Republican politicians like Texas Senator Ted Cruz said they were leaving for Parler. Today, Cruz is still posting on Twitter, and so is Maria Bartiromo.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.