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Parler's post-election popularity sparks misinformation concerns

Parler's post-election popularity sparks misinformation concerns
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The rising popularity of alternative social media app Parler is raising concerns over the spread of misinformation and potential for radicalizing users on a platform that’s taken a hands-off approach to regulating content.

The app has been boosted by conservatives, surging since Election Day, as Republicans amp up allegations of anti-conservative bias from social media giants like Twitter and Facebook that have clamped down on pro-Trump election misinformation.

Experts warn that a total lack of content moderation could prove harmful beyond creating political echo chambers and further spreading conspiracy theories.

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“Anytime you take a laissez faire approach to moderation — you say ‘anything goes’ right up until actual threats of real world violence — that creates a huge space for some really problematic things to happen,” said Bret Schafer, a fellow focusing on disinformation at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.

Founded in 2018, Parler describes itself as “committed to free speech” and boasts that it “does not censor content based on politics or ideology.” 

The company has criticized Facebook and Twitter over their approaches to moderating content, with Parler’s rhetoric largely echoing that of Republican lawmakers who have accused social media giants of silencing conservative voices and points of view.

While Facebook and Twitter said in the lead-up to the election that they would label content that prematurely declares victory, Parler released a memo detailing plans to “host unfiltered content during the 2020 election season.”

“Can we now move everybody from Twitter to Parler?” Fox News host Sean HannitySean Patrick HannityTiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Trump has discussed possible pardons for three eldest children, Kushner: report Talk of self-pardon for Trump heats up MORE said on air earlier this week. “Can we just make the shift together? Just say, ‘goodbye, Twitter. See ya at Jack [Dorsey]. Nice try.’ ”

Installs of Parler began to surge on Election Day, with more than 2 million U.S. installs from app stores estimated from Nov. 3 to 9, according to data from marketing intelligence group SensorTower.

Before that, Parler’s biggest download spike was over the summer, when it peaked at 120,000 installs on June 26.

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Despite some conservatives threatening to leave Twitter, many of the prominent figures who have gained large Parler followings have not severed their ties.

Hannity, for example, remains active on Twitter, where he has 5.4 million followers. His Parler account has 3.2 million followers.

The same goes for congressional critics of traditional social media platforms.

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration MORE (R-Texas), who has amassed 3.6 million followers on Parler, used Twitter to urge his followers to join him on Parler. But Cruz still tweets to his 4.1 million followers.

For those who have abandoned Twitter and Facebook in favor of Parler, it could create a new dynamic on the mainstream social media platforms.

“The idea that these people are leaving those platforms and no longer trying to red pill individuals to see their conspiracy theories on large platforms like Facebook and Twitter, I think that's a good thing,” said Jason Blazakis, director of the Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute.

He added that the shift to Parler could mean fewer people on Facebook and Twitter are “exposed to these ideas,” and “migrating to more obscure platforms” may ultimately result in a smaller audience for misinformation.

Parler is not an anomaly in marketing itself as a place for unregulated speech. Message boards such as 4chan, where the QAnon conspiracy originated, and 8chan, where the conspiracy later migrated, became homes for hate speech.

What makes Parler different, Schafer said, is that it attracts a more mainstream conservative audience.

“This is not aggrieved 20-year-old gamers flooding to Parler. This is your aunt and uncle,” he said, noting that the content isn’t too different from what’s circulating in conservative circles on Facebook and Twitter, especially on the election.

But unlike those two platforms, he said, the content on Parler is not only free from labels, it’s also unchecked by any dissenting voices on the site.

“It’s not as if Parler is taking you to the worst parts of the internet in terms of speech. It’s just an entirely conservative ecosystem, and that is problematic in the same way if you had an entirely left-wing ecosystem it would be problematic,” Schafer said.

Trump has yet to create a Parler account, but his campaign has one, known as Team Trump, that has been used to spread some of the same content that Twitter and Facebook have clamped down on.

For example, Team Trump on Nov. 4 posted that Trump won Pennsylvania. News networks and The Associated Press called the state for President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump Cruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge MORE three days later, citing his lead in the vote count.

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On Parler, the Trump campaign post went unchecked, whereas similar premature claims of victory from Trump and his allies were labeled on Twitter and Facebook as part of the platforms’ amped up content moderation measures surrounding the election.

In an interview with Cheddar, Parler CEO John Matze defended the platform’s decision to leave the Pennsylvania post up unchecked.

“Anybody can say what they want. It's a free country,” Matze said. “We believe in people and their ability to solve these things on their own, without our heavy hand. We don't want to get involved.”

When reached for comment about misinformation concerns surrounding the platform’s hands-off approach to content, Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick responded by saying: “Parler is a breath of fresh air for those weary and wary of the way they’ve been treated by our competitors. And now that many of their friends are already on Parler, they’ve decided it’s worth their investment of time to give us a try. We plan to earn their continued business.”

Schafer noted that Facebook and Twitter also didn’t aim to moderate content — or fact-check the president — when they first launched. But as issues popped up, they adapted to moderate a bit more aggressively, he said.

Some experts warn that if Parler starts chipping away at the number of Twitter and Facebook users, those two platforms may consider loosening their own policies aimed at mitigating misinformation.

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment for this story. Neither platform, however, has strongly indicated they are planning to scale back their content moderation policies.

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Unchecked content also risks exploitation of misinformation by foreign actors, much like it did on U.S. social media platforms in 2016, said Saif Shahin, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications.

But he said Parler’s success underscores that misinformation in the U.S. is now fundamentally a domestic problem.

“We have people in this country divided so sharply along partisan lines that they actively are seeking what we consider to be disinformation, but what they consider just one type of information,” Shahin said.

“It is a domestic problem, a social problem, within American society. As the problem exists we'll have newer apps, and foreign actors trying to exploit those new apps,” he added. “But those are the outcomes — those are not the causes. The cause is really the partisan divide and how people drive their own identities based on this division.”