Inside Parler, the Right's Favorite 'Free Speech' App

There are only two rules on Parler, the “free-speech” social network: First, nothing criminal. Second, no spam. Other than that, you can post what you want, the site advertises, “without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”For that reason, Parler has gone kablooey in the past week, growing from 4.5 million users to more than 8 million. Its laissez-faire moderation stands in contrast to other platforms, where you can decidedly not post whatever you want. In the days since the election, Facebook has cracked down on political misinformation , Twitter has added warning labels to dozens of @realDonaldTrump’s tweets , and slighted conservatives have flocked to Parler. Activity on the platform increased twentyfold. For most of the week, it has been the top free app in both Apple and Google’s app stores.

The freewheeling disposition of the app has made it a strange mirrorworld to the rest of the social internet. When a post gets flagged by Twitter, it is sometimes reborn on Parler, like a phoenix in 280 characters. Accounts are reborn too, after they’ve been banned elsewhere. Right-wing luminaries who still have profiles on “lamestream” social media have made posts encouraging their followers to get off Facebook and Twitter and join them on Parler instead. This week, I decided to follow them.

I created an account for Parler on Monday. After I chose a username, the app prompted me to follow a few of its star users. The suggestions included the conservative political commentator Sean Hannity, who has called for an exodus from Twitter; internet personalities Diamond and Silk, who were throttled by Facebook in 2018 for sharing “dangerous” content; and conservative talk show host Mark Levin, whose Facebook account was recently restricted for “repeated sharing of false news.” Influencers like Dinesh D'Souza, who Vox Media has called “America's greatest conservative troll,” and politicians like senator Ted Cruz and representative Devin Nunes also feature prominently. I subscribed to all 16 accounts recommended by the app.
It didn’t take long to get up to speed. Many of Parler’s users take issue with Twitter, which they see as biased and restrictive. But they have remade their new home in its image, like refugees who wish they’d never had to leave. The familiar features have been replicated, but renamed: Retweet is called “Echo.” Likes are called “Votes.” Instead of a blue checkmark, Parler’s elite get a yellow badge that says “verified influencer.”Parler’s influencers are prolific—Sean Hannity posts roughly 20 times per day—and my feed quickly filled with posts from those I had opted to follow. “Men can identify as women. Women can identify as men. Joe Biden can identify as President-elect. But I can’t identify as a journalist,” wrote Avi Yemini, a far-right activist, who was banned from Facebook in September. “You’re not a journalist, you’re a truther,” someone replied in a comment. “Journalist [sic] is now intertwined with lies.”

I also identify as a journalist, but I decided not to out myself. Instead, my first Parler post was the one that Parler automatically generates for each new user: “I just joined Parler! Looking forward to meeting everyone here.”

Exactly five minutes later, I saw that I had a comment on my introduction post. It came from Team Trump, “the official Parler account for the Trump Campaign,” which bears Parler’s “verified influencer” badge and has 2 million followers on the platform. “Welcome to Parler! Help us MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by clicking the link below. Be sure to text TRUMP to 88022!” I navigated to the Team Trump page. It had left this exact comment on many, many other Parler users’ accounts—up to 1.6 million times, based on a review of the account’s comments.