SPONSORED:

Parler app risks charges of selling out with Apple return

Parler app risks charges of selling out with Apple return
© Getty Images

Parler is returning to Apple’s App Store after making some changes demanded by the company, but the social media platform popular with conservatives is facing accusations of selling out to Big Tech and risks losing some of its key user base.

Parler rose in popularity after the 2020 election, boosted by high-profile conservative figures who railed against mainstream platforms’ content moderation policies. After a nearly four-month ban, prompted by Parler posts surrounding the deadly riot at the Capitol, the app is set to relaunch in the App Store this week.

“It will be interesting to see whether or not ... there will be the same drive for people to join Parler this time around,” said Bret Schafer, Alliance for Securing Democracy’s media and digital disinformation fellow.

ADVERTISEMENT

“Because maybe it will have lost some of its allure and it will just be seen as a slightly less content-moderation-heavy space as the Twitters and the Facebooks and the places that those people were fleeing from the first time,” he added.

Parler marketed itself as a pro-free speech alternative to mainstream platforms and appealed to conservatives who said they were fed up with apps like Twitter and Facebook over unsubstantiated accusations that the social media giants were biased against conservative content.

Last week, Apple told top Republicans on the House and Senate antitrust subcommittees that it will allow Parler to return to its App Store with approved content moderation updates made since the social media platform was removed in January, after the insurrection at the Capitol. Apple at the time said Parler had “not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation” of threats of violence leading up to the riot.

Apple’s letter was in response to one that the Republicans, Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Energy: Colonial Pipeline says it has restored full service | Biden urges people not to panic about gasoline shortages | EPA rescinds Trump-era cost-benefit rule Senate panel advances Biden's deputy Interior pick Hillicon Valley: Global cybersecurity leaders say they feel unprepared for attack | Senate Commerce Committee advances Biden's FTC nominee Lina Khan | Senate panel approves bill that would invest billions in tech MORE (Utah) and Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckSpace Force commander removed after comments on podcast GOP votes to replace Cheney with Stefanik after backing from Trump Cheney to any Trump-backed challenger: 'Bring it on' MORE (Colo.), had sent to Apple, Google and Amazon pressing the companies over the actions they took against Parler after the deadly violence.

Buck cheered the move as a “huge win for free speech” and urged Amazon and Google to take action to reverse the measures they took against Parler.

“It’s time for Google and Amazon to follow Apple’s lead. Stop the censorship,” Buck said in a statement.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lee similarly hailed Apple’s response, tweeting: “Conservative speech must not be silenced.”

But Andrew Torba, CEO and founder of fringe social media platform Gab — billed as “The Free Speech Social Network” — wrote a blog post blasting the return to the App Store.

“Parler bent the knee and Big Tech has them under their thumb,” Torba wrote.

In the blog post, Torba touted Gab’s own ban from the major app stores as a “badge of honor” showing the platform’s willingness to stand up for “free speech” and against Big Tech.

“Gab stands alone in the market as the leader and home of free speech online. Not only was Gab’s app banned from both App Stores, but our entire Developer Account was banned from ever submitting apps to those stores ever again. So be it, we wear that as a badge of honor and it should be a sign to those of you reading this that we are and always have been serious about our mission,” Torba wrote.

Users on Gab criticized Parler for what they said was selling out, pledging not to return.

It’s “very possible” users may follow through on their pledges to stay off Parler when it returns to the App Store, said Max Rizzuto, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“I do think that some people will push back on the notion that, if Parler is back on the Apple App Store, what does that say about what happened to Parler?” Rizzuto said.

Parler maintained in its post announcing it would relaunch in the App Store this week that it did not “make changes to its broad policies to create a free and open platform without viewpoint censorship and committed to the First Amendment rights of its users.”

“Parler has and will always be a free and open forum where users could engage in the free exchange of ideas in the full spirit of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” Parler’s interim CEO, Mark Meckler, said in a statement. “We have worked to put in place systems that will better detect unlawful speech and allow users to filter content undesirable to them, while maintaining our strict prohibition against content moderation based on viewpoint.”

Neither Parler’s statement nor Apple’s letter to the Republicans confirming the approved return detailed what changes will be put in place in terms of content moderation. Spokespeople for Apple and Parler did not respond to requests for comment asking for details on the approved changes.

Parler said that some posts that will be prohibited in the App Store version of Parler will remain visible on the web-based version of Parler that has relaunched after it was pulled by Amazon’s web hosting service in January. That pledge raised red flags for critics who doubt Parler’s commitment to root out problematic content.

ADVERTISEMENT

As Torba and Gab users chastise Parler’s changes for the App Store, the platform is still facing criticism from activists who said they are skeptical Parler will make meaningful changes to address concerns they had before it was banned about the spread of misinformation and hate speech on the platform.

“What happens moving forward if they continue to allow content that breaks Apple’s policies? What’s the policy moving forward? Because if they’re not going to enforce it, that’s a whole other story,” said Matt Rivitz, director of Sleeping Giants. The activist group pushed for Parler’s removal from app stores in January.

Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press, said she’s “very skeptical” that Parler intends to comply with the App Store’s terms of service.

“We’ve seen this play time and again across social media companies,” she said. “They make certain commitments to appease — whether it be advertisers or in this case distributors — and they do that so that they can continue to make money by proliferating hate, violence, racism, disinformation. Which is really what Parler’s famous for. In fact, the very purpose of Parler is people can say whatever they want even if what they’re saying is advocating for legitimizing violence or normalizing racism or spreading lies about the pandemic or the election.”

González also co-founded Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 60 civil and digital rights groups. The coalition in November, before the Capitol riot, sent a letter to Apple calling for the tech giant to remove the Parler app, which it described as a “haven for white supremacists” where users “regularly engage in violent and disturbing activity.”

Given the recent history, González said she wants to see more accountability from Apple as Parler returns.

“What are they going to do to keep people safe? What kind of commitments have they heard from Parler and why are those good enough? What reason has Parler given anyone to trust them?” González said.