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Parler isn’t the problem: Why de-platforming won’t stop the spread of far-right ideologies in the US


In brief

  • Apple and Google have recently pulled the social networking site Parler from their App stores, stating that the app failed to comply with content moderation requirements.
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) has also pulled its support for Parler, which was reliant on the service for hosting its desktop site.
  • The decisions raise questions over whether deplatforming is an effective strategy in counter coordination of harm online, or whether the behaviour will merely migrate elsewhere.

Parler recap

Parler was a prominent and active service hosting a range of right-wing actors, from members of hate groups like the Proud Boys to proponents of the QAnon conspiracy theory to mainstream political figures like Ted Cruz. Of particular concern to major tech companies was the fact that users on the site frequently encouraged and attempted to organise real-world violence, as well as the widespread racist and violent hate speech shared by users on the site.

Parler after 6 January

As a result of major tech companies pulling support for Parler, it is having difficulty finding new service providers, as smaller companies reach the same conclusion regarding what their support for the site would mean. The AWS decision has taken the web version of the site offline, and Parler’s Chief Executive has also stated that all other service providers have pulled support, from text and email services to the site’s lawyers.

It is difficult to see how Parler could recover from this removal of support, and in all likelihood the site will lose users and engagement in the near future. However, there is a significant risk that de-platforming Parler will drive further division and radicalisation. The radical views prevalent on Parler will not disappear as the site does.

Parler’s success throughout 2020 was not a case of right place right time; it was carefully planned, funded and promoted to build this diverse conservative audience. While Gab and Wimkin are alternatives to Facebook, and MeWe is a prominent chatroom, Parler occupied a unique position as an alternative to Twitter. Its funding and framing as a ‘free Twitter’ helped it to attract mainstream political and media figures, such as Ted Cruz and Sean Hannity, who had multi-million strong followings on Parler.

Why Parler is important to the right

A key narrative shared by Parler’s range of actors – from Trump supporters, to QAnon believers, to militia members – is that they are being marginalised and censored by mainstream media and social media sites. The removal of Parler, a major forum for these individuals, will feed this narrative and increase their perceived marginalisation.

As options for expression disappear, these radical viewpoints will become increasingly concentrated on a smaller range of alternative social media sites. These sites may not reach the widespread success or mainstream support achieved by Parler, but engagement with them is likely to increase in the near future. Gab noted a massive spike in new user registrations following the suspension of Parler, and former Parler influencers like L. Lin Wood have already vocally promoted alternatives such as Pocketnet and Clouthub.

Research carried out by PGI has shown that there is a significant overlap between users of Parler and sites like Gab and MeWe. Users formerly active on Parler are therefore highly likely to make more use of other sites to both spread their ideology and organise real-world activity.

As a separate point of concern, most major militia and hate groups operate their own forums. These exist both publicly, for contacting potential new members, and in private forums for contacting and organising existing members. Parler’s potency was that it put this spectrum of conservative voices, from armed militias to white supremacists to newly elected members of congress, in one space where the radical extreme could merge with the more mainstream, thereby gaining legitimacy.

Is de-platforming the right direction?

However, the significance of the disappearance of Parler should not be over-emphasised. Whilst the site was used extensively for both sharing radical viewpoints, and organising real-world events, it was by no means the only online space for such activity. The viewpoints extant on Parler will not disappear as the service has and committed radical actors will continue to find ways to organise; Gab alone reported 900,000 new users in just 48 hours.

De-platforming the site may result in a temporary dip in radical actor activity, but is likely to result in the further radicalisation of individuals in the long term.

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PGI’s Digital Investigations Team work with both public and private sector entities to help them understand how social media can affect their business. From high level assessments of the risks of disinformation to electoral integrity in central Africa to deep dives into specific state-sponsored activity in eastern Europe we have applied our in-house capability globally. 

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