Parler: Conflicts of Interest Undermine Freedom of Speech

Since 2020, American conservatives have been flocking to Parler like moths to a flame. Perhaps that analogy fits better than most would expect.

Readers who have been following my columns here on the CYGO blog for the past year probably know where I’m going with this already. To put it succinctly; one cannot have a for-profit social network that simultaneously protects freedom of expression. As I laid out in a previous brief post regarding what I feel are the proper fundamental principles of a free speech platform, “As we’ve seen in many prime examples such as Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and Instagram the interests of investors and advertisers are put before users and their communications”. At this point, I think we could safely include Parler in that list.

I think before I really get into Parler’s fundamental, systemic issues as a platform, it’s imperative to note that Parler is in large part funded by Rebekah Mercer, according to a plethora of sources including CNN and other outlets. Normally I wouldn’t link to an article from CNN, but their piece provides a decent synopsis about Rebekah Mercer if you overlook the hyperbolic and false narratives regarding Parler’s user base. It’s not only fair to say, but potentially an understatement that Mercer has deep pockets, given that her father is a billionaire hedge fund manager. Mercer also has (or rather, had) a stake in Cambridge Analytica, which you may recall having obtained personal information collected by Facebook in order to create targeted political advertising just a few years ago.

Given the fact that the main financial support and control of Parler is in the hands of an individual whom additionally has no problem with Cambridge Analytica unethically misusing personal data, what makes anyone think that Parler actually respects user privacy? Relating to that, Parler implements Google Fonts in their front-end, and everyone knows Google’s stance on personal privacy. Even more atrocious though, Parler requires a phone number to even sign up. You can’t use a VoIP number or a burner number, it must be through your mobile carrier. Then, once you’ve given up your personal phone number and all possible anonymity, to gain full functionality of your account you must upload a copy of your photo identification. No, that’s not an exaggeration, it’s what they enthusiastically call “Parler Citizen Verification”. What could go wrong giving a company funded by multi-millionaires, that is known for widespread security issues your state-issued photo identification? It sounds absolutely absurd, but really it isn’t surprising.

The entire goal of Parler isn’t to provide first-amendment style free speech on the internet. The entire goal of Parler is to simply make a profit.

Parler sells advertisements, which creates a conflict of interest. When users engage in speech that prominent, well-paying advertisers dislike, Parler is going to be under pressure to silence those users. When it comes to making a profit, I’m sure they’ll hardly have an issue silencing a few users or purging some accounts which promote ideologies deemed ‘unfit’ by their advertisers and financial contributors.

Notably, soon after Parler’s relaunch, Parler decided to ban Milo Yiannopoulos after he made “offensive” statements opposing illegal immigration and LGBT lifestyle. Clearly that isn’t indicative of free speech, that’s more of something one would expect from Facebook or Twitter. It would be rather naive to perceive this as an isolated incident, after all, if they would do so to an account such as Milo’s with a large following, what’s to stop them from doing it to smaller accounts?

Parler has a lot of other blatant issues too, such as its security breaches, lack of proper functionality (multiple attempts necessary to login, consistently timing out), amateurish user interface, comic stupidity of management (hosting on AWS and third-party proviers, and not to mention the horrible new logo design which Gab’s founder Andrew Torba accurately compared to the likeness of a menstrual pad.

The last issue I want to focus on isn’t included in that list, though. Parler seems to prioritize public figures (media personalities, politicians, celebrities, etc) over its standard users. When you browse through Parler, the only accounts you ever see are those of prominent conservatives like Sean Hannity; you never see individuals who post engaging content actually build a following in an organic way. Having open dialogue simply doesn’t work when some voices are able to unfairly shout down the voices of others, whether they are opposing or affirming.

Before I come to a close, I think I should address one thing I see so often. Individuals complain about the in-fighting between us free speech social networks, claiming that we’re ‘working toward the same goal’ and that the other ‘isn’t the enemy’. As I’ve laid out, Parler is not working toward the same goal as organizations like CYGO, Gab, and others which take freedom of speech seriously. Here, we don’t have ‘competitors’, and I have no opposition to other platforms and organizations fighting for the same cause; in fact the more we have, the better. However, when platforms claim to support our ideals, but act in an opposing way, it’s our responsibility to call it out.

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