As big social media platforms crack down on political misinformation, some Americans turned to alternative platforms friendlier to misinformation and conspiracy theories. During the 2016 election, Russian actors used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread misinformation and polarize the American public. In 2020, Facebook and Twitter were more active in cracking down on misinformation. They banned political ads, labeled false posts, and slowed down how quickly posts could be shared.
They also cracked down on content promoting the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory. Twitter suspended over seven thousand accounts promoting QAnon theory, while Facebook removed approximately 1,700 pages, 5,600 groups, and 18,700 Instagram accounts. In the days following the election, they labeled President Donald Trump’s claims of widespread election fraud as false, and Facebook removed a “Stop the Steal” group that was coordinating protests to stop counting mail-in ballots, reigniting conservatives’ claims of being censored on social media.
Although conservative content has been shown to outperform liberal content on Facebook, most Americans believe that conservatives are censored on social media. According to Pew Research, almost three-quarters of US adults believe it is at least somewhat likely that social media platforms intentionally censor political viewpoints they find objectionable. 43 percent believe that these companies favor liberal viewpoints over conservative viewpoints, although 39 percent believe that the companies support liberal and conservative views equally.
In response to this crack down on misinformation, many conservatives turned to a new social media platform: Parler. Founded in 2018, the app hit the top of Google and Apple app stores after Trump’s loss, doubling its number of users in a week. Other alternative conservative platforms, like Rumble and Newsmax, also saw increases in popularity. Although Twitter’s 330 million users far outnumber Parler’s 10 million, many fear these social media platforms will strengthen the echo chamber effect of political ideologies and drive Americans further apart, a fear that was realized when a mob of white supremacists used Parler to coordinate an attack on the Capitol.
Big Social Media Platforms’ Anti-Misinformation Campaign
Facebook and Twitter both have fact-checkers that operate independently of these companies and are certified by the International Fact-Checking Network, which promotes nonpartisanship and transparency in the fact-checking process. Facebook’s process starts with suspicious content, which can be determined by a multitude of factors: users can report content they believe to be false, analyzing user patterns, such as users commenting they don’t believe a certain post, and machine learning models can be used to find suspicious content. Independent fact-checkers then review and rate the accuracy of the story in question. They start by looking at the website that published the content and pulling pertinent public records. They then call relevant sources to determine whether the information is true. If false, Facebook lists several options. Facebook pledges to remove content that violates its standards, like hate speech. They can also reduce the distribution of the false story, or inform people that the content is false through labels and notifications when they try to view or share the content. Facebook, it should be noted, exempts politicians from fact-checking, though they did add labels to several of Trump’s posts.
Like Facebook, Twitter also applies labels and warnings to misinformative content, often providing additional links for further explanation. If people try to like or share such a tweet, they would be presented with an additional warning. They sometimes also reduce the visibility of the content or prevent it from being recommended. Unlike Facebook, Twitter may also turn off one’s ability to reply, retweet, or like the tweet in question.
These platforms also impose consequences in the hopes of deterring people from spreading misinformation. If pages repeatedly share debunked content on Facebook, Facebook will reduce the page’s overall distribution, removing the ability to advertise and monetize the content for a given time period. Twitter can temporarily lock users out of their account, or impose permanent suspension.
However, most people aren’t aware of the extensive process that goes into fact-checking content. What they see are the results, and it seems like these platforms are only censoring conservatives. It doesn’t help that the most obvious examples of these new policies at play—the warning messages on Trumps’ tweets, the crackdown on QAnon content, the stifling of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden—reaffirm this notion. However, conservative posts often clash with Facebook’s guidelines on disinformation and harmful content.
The Appeal and Impact of Parler
Parler is far more lax in its moderation of content compared to Twitter and Facebook. Moderation is mostly left up to the discretion of users, who can choose to apply filters to their own feed that hide content like hate speech or graphic violence. Instead of independent fact-checkers, Parler has a “community jury” composed of two hundred volunteers who review user-reported posts and can vote for removal. According to Parler CEO John Matze, posts in question are referred to five jurors, and four out of the five must vote for removal for the post to be removed. Depending on how much attention a questionable post received, the process could take between five minutes and forty-eight hours.
As a result, misinformation is not labeled as such and can thrive on Parler. QAnon content also goes unchecked. The most popular hashtags related to Trump are positive, such as #Trump2020Landslide, while the most popular hashtags related to Trump’s political enemies are hateful attacks, like #BLMTerrorists. Other popular hashtags denoting debunked election conspiracy theories, like #Sharpiegate—a theory that Arizonans had their ballots invalidated for using poll-provided Sharpies that could not be scanned by the ballot machines—trend freely.
The rise of Parler has increased concerns over online political echo chambers. In the current news climate, Americans already get their news from different TV networks and internet sources based on their political beliefs. Splitting off into separate social media platforms based on ideology could completely disconnect both sides from each other. Social media algorithms also further enforce echo chambers. Facebook and Youtube algorithms present users with customized recommendations based on what they have already watched or read.
However, there are signs that the popularity of these alternative sites may not last. This is not the first time some conservatives have threatened a mass exodus from mainstream social media. Downloads of these platforms typically follow a cycle. After a new wave of complaints about conservative censorship in social media, alternative platforms like Parler, Gab, and Rumble see an increase in engagement, which eventually ebbs as conservatives return to Twitter and Facebook within a few weeks. This trend is currently playing out with Parler. Although more users than ever are engaged in the service, new downloads for Parler have slowed down and decreased to the same levels as before the election. In October, Parler was downloaded about 16,000 times in one day. In mid-November, it was downloaded 340,000 times in one day. But by the beginning of December, levels had dropped to 20,000 downloads a day.
Despite its sudden surge, Parler simply does not have the resources that Facebook and Twitter have. Parler cannot handle the same levels of internet traffic as Facebook and Twitter without issues. Just before Thanksgiving, Parler and Gab averaged about 5 million views a month—0.05 percent of Facebook’s traffic and 0.22 percent of Twitter’s.
This has several implications. First, the fact that even at their peak, Parler still only had a microscopic fraction of Facebook’s or Twitter’s users means that they are not even a remotely viable competitor to either platform, giving them no real incentive to change their policies in order to compete with Parler. Secondly, with fewer users, public officials and other organizations trying to reach as many people as possible have less incentive to make Parler accounts or post on Parler, because there are far fewer people to reach there.
Many conservative leaders have also demonstrated a lack of faith in the platform. Although many prominent conservatives have Parler accounts, they have not abandoned Facebook and Twitter, and still post there more frequently than Parler. Trump, who signed an executive order in May denouncing conservative censorship on social media, does not have a Parler account.
Alternatives like Parler cannot survive for two reasons. First, because of Parler’s relatively microscopic engagement, conservative leaders have smaller audiences on Parler than they would on Twitter or Facebook. This defeats the whole point of social media—to reach as many people as possible.
Secondly, and more significantly, an echo chamber platform scares away potential users with different ideologies. Although Parler wants liberal users on their platform, they have no incentive to join because it has become an echo chamber for the right. Without liberals on the platform, there is no pushback to constant conservative posts. Along with helping misinformation to fester, this can also make the platform boring and unengaging. There is no one to argue with, and there are no minds to change. All Parler provides is a place to preach to the choir.
Parler and the Capitol Riot
On January 6, the day that Congress is required to meet to certify the electoral votes, Trump supporters stormed the Capitol building. Such a breach has not occurred in over two centuries, when the British invaded Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812. The rioters had a very notable advantage over the British: social media.
People planning to attack the Capitol in protest against certifying President-elect Joe Biden as the 46th president coordinated on social media sites like Parler. However, these interactions not only prove that they planned for violence, but that they planned for the violence to be much worse than it was. According to the Coalition for a Safer Web, one Parler post recommended that those going to the January 6 riot “come armed.” Another Parler post featured a video in which MAGA supporters chanted “Hang Mike Pence.” Many of the rioters spoke of punishing Pence for not doing more to stop the proceedings, even though Pence does not have the power to do so.
For his role in inciting the mob to attack the Capitol, Trump has lost most of his social media platforms. Facebook blocked Trump from his account for at least two weeks, covering the remainder of his presidency. Twitter originally blocked Trump for twelve hours due to three specific tweets that they considered to be inciting violence, but permanently suspended his account on January 8. Trump also lost accounts with Twitch, Shopify, Paypal, Youtube, and others. Having lost these platforms, his natural next move would be to make an account on Parler.
However, Parler is also facing consequences for its role in the riot. Google suspended Parler from its Play Store for not enforcing its own moderation policies, which supposedly bar illegal and violent content. Though it originally gave Parler a twenty-four-hour-warning to step up its policing of its own content, Apple also pulled Parler from its App Store. Parler also lost its spot in Amazon’s web hosting services for not complying with their terms of service.
Losing Google meant that it would be harder, though not impossible, to download Parler on Android devices. Losing Apple was worse since it meant that people would not be able to download the app on iPhones or iPads. Those who already have the app would still be able to use it, but not for long; now that it is off the Apple store, Parler cannot be updated, which means it will eventually become incompatible with Apple software. With Amazon also out, it seems likely that Parler will go offline.
The Future Role of Social Media in Politics
Parler was never on track to fully replace Facebook or Twitter for the average user. Parler users have said that they still maintain Facebook or Twitter accounts because they do not want to cede those platforms to those on the left. They also want to see what the other side is saying and be able to argue with them, which is a feature Parler lacks. Furthermore, despite their claims of censorship, conservatives utilize social media well. Studies have shown that conservatives are better at amplifying their opinions on social media than liberals. Politico found that the best-performing liberal post on Facebook this year only got a quarter of the engagement that the best-performing conservative post did.
Twitter and Facebook’s “temporary” crackdown on misinformation was able to limit the spread of QAnon and other baseless theories on their platforms. Consequently, platforms like Parler became home base for QAnon, where its conspiracy theories festered unchecked—particularly its theories regarding the legitimacy of the 2020 election, leading to the overwhelming surge of anger that unleashed itself upon the Capitol building. However, Parler was hardly the only platform to blame for the violence—Facebook, for example, saw a group called “Red-State Secession” talk about the weapons they planned to bring with them to the Capitol.
With Parler’s prospects looking bleaker by the minute, and with the outcry over social media’s role in the January 6 riot, it seems likely that social media platforms will do more to curtail the talks of violence that led to the events at the Capitol. Though Twitter and Facebook took more concrete actions by suspending Trump’s accounts, the consensus is that the gesture was too little, too late. The riot has clearly proven the dangers of having an unchecked social media echo chamber.
It is difficult to say what the future holds. Maybe Facebook, Twitter, and other social media will take a stronger approach to stemming violent and misleading speech on their platforms, or maybe they’ll revert to their old ways within a few weeks. Perhaps Parler will find a way to thrive—they’ll always have the web browsers—or maybe conservatives will latch onto another alternative social media platform. However, it is obvious that the consequences that Trump and Parler faced for their role in the riot, however justified they were, will only serve to make conservatives feel more censored than ever.
The image featured in this article is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. No changes were made to the original image, which was taken by Jason Howie and can be found here.