This Twitter Alternative Was Supposed To Be Nicer, But Bigots Love It Already
“Shalom goys! Remember to accept more illegal immigrants into the USA! Remember diversity is your strength goy! What’s that? Why doesn’t Israel accept rapefugees? Uh… because… OY VEY LOOK AT THE TIME! Have to go!”
These words, which are accompanied by a caricature of a large-nosed, yarmulke-wearing Jew, read like the kind of white supremacist screed you’d find in one of the corners of the internet known for hatred and bigotry. They’re not on Gab or 4chan, though — they’re on a new, growing platform called Parler News.
John Matze, the self-described libertarian engineer behind Parler, says his goal is to provide an alternative to Twitter by fostering political discourse more like what you get in real life, when face-to-face conversations mitigate much of the anger. He hasn’t succeeded as yet, however. Parler is full of fury, fear and conspiracy theories. What’s more, the platform doesn’t have the technology or resources necessary to contain the Jew-hatred and Islamophobia so easily found there.
“I don’t think you can have it both ways,” said Alison Dagnes, a professor of political science at Shippensburg University. “I don’t think it works that you say, ‘We’re going to have a safe space for people who have been kicked off of other platforms because their speech is hateful and we promise that this safe space is going to be really civilized.’ How does that work? There is no such thing as civilized hate speech.”
The platform launched in January 2018 and has already been downloaded nearly 500,000 times. More than 400,000 people have been active on it in the last 30 days, Matze said, including nearly every member of the Trump campaign team and Utah Senator Mike Lee.
Twitter is still huge by comparison, with more than 321 million active users. At this point, Parler is more similar to Gab, another alternative social media platform patronized by high-profile, right-wing users who have been forced off of other platforms. Gab is about twice as big as Parler, and is best known for users who have actually carried out violent attacks on Jews and people of color in real life.
Matze says Parler is different, and here’s why: Unlike other platforms, it doesn’t have its own standards, hammered out by its leaders and lawyers, to help its moderators decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. Instead, they use the Federal Communications Commission’s guidelines — those against “obscene, indecent or profane” content — which will uphold standards of decency and propriety on Parler the same way they do on national television.
However, they don’t seem to be having the same impact on Parler, where the site’s most popular accounts include provocateurs like Laura Loomer, who’s no longer allowed on Twitter and who described herself as an “anti-Islam journalist” when contacted for this story. Infowars personalities Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson, both of whom have a track record of sharing demonstrably false conspiracy theories that got them banned from Facebook, have found in Parler a home where they can link to their own work and post the content Twitter or YouTube so often took down.
The belief that Jews are running the world, encouraging immigrants to flood America’s borders, controlling the media and generally working behind the scenes as master puppeteers are easy to find on Parler, as I discovered when I created an account for the purposes of writing this article. Users with swastikas as their profile pictures, and links to articles about the “Jewish cabal,” or Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros teaming up to destroy the world, came across my feed without me having to seek them out.
“A message to the kosher right,” user @Dave1488, who has a swastika as his avatar, posted. “If you live in a western country and support Israel you are betraying your own people. Jews aren’t your friends.”
In another post, @Dave1488 used the hashtag “#kikes” alongside an image of a cartoon Jewish man being flushed down the toilet. “The one piece of shit that just won’t flush,” the meme says.
Parler is also full of Islamophobic content, like images of pigs performing sex acts on the prophet Mohammed, or users calling for a ban on all the “child-raping” Saudis.
On the account I created, the top trending hashtags one day were #AOCISARETARD, #LEOSOFAMERICA, #DEEPSTATE, #BANSHARIA, #BOYCOTTAPPLE and #ITSLOOMEREDTIME. Matze said this isn’t reflective of the platform as a whole, because unlike Twitter and Facebook, there are no global trends on Parler. Instead, he said, what’s trending on a user’s feed is based solely on who that user is following. Yet I was served these trends after I merely followed some 60 users who followed me or had large followings of their own — in other words, I didn’t seek these views out. They came to me.
Matze said he hadn’t come across any Anti Semitism on the site, though he wasn’t surprised it was there. His general philosophy is that by quarantining those users, he’d only exacerbate the problem of radicalization. And he said he’s “very passionate” about combatting anti-Semitism. He said he has an ongoing dialogue with prominent Jewish figures, although none of the people he named responded to requests for comment.
“If you’re going to fight these peoples’ views, they need to be out in the open,” he said. “Don’t force these people into the corners of the internet where they’re not going to be able to be proven wrong.”
Indeed, Loomer said it was a “good thing” that an anti-Islam Jew like her could be on the same platform as Muslims or anti-Semites, taking Matze’s stance that competing views were healthy for discussion. For now, she’s using Parler to drive eyeballs to her website and stay engaged with her fans while she fights to get her account back from Twitter, where she had more than 260,000 followers when she was banned. She already has more than 64,000 followers on Parler.
“As a journalist, I need a place to push my content out, and Parler seemed like a good alternative,” Loomer said.
Chip Berlet, an expert on right-wing groups in America, rejected the idea that Parler News or Matze had any intention of elevating civil political discourse. Berlet emphasized that he was a “First Amendment absolutist” and fully supported Parler’s right to exist as a platform, but said that didn’t mean he had to respect or pay attention to Parler for anything other than his own research.
“I think he’s full of it,” Berlet said of Matze. “I think he knows exactly what he’s creating, he’s encouraging people who basically don’t like other folks in the country… it’s bologna, this is a place for people to fester in their own bigotry.”
Matze described the Islamophobia on Parler as “appalling” and said that if threatening or pornographic content showed up, it would violate the terms of service and be taken down, and the user would be banned immediately. But it’s unclear how well Parler’s reporting system is actually working.
When first contacted for this story, Matze was confronted with one popular meme depicting a pig mounting the prophet Mohammed from behind with the caption “Putting the HAM in MoHAMmed.” Matze said the post violated the terms of service, as it was pornographic and violated FCC standards. He asked that I report it — which I did — but a week later the post and the user were still live on the site. During a follow-up call where I informed Matze that the post was still up, Matze explained that just two people handle reporting for Parler and it’s not their full-time job, which he conceded was a “huge vulnerability” for the team. He asked for the user’s name, had the post removed and issued a personal warning to the woman who posted it. Her account is still active, however.
Loomer says that she’ll play by the rules on Parler, where much of the content she’s posting on is about Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim Somali refugee who is critical of Israel.
Other right-wing and pro-Trump voices have pledged to use Parler and help it grow. Former Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke, who rose to social media fame as a Trump supporter, has hinted on Twitter that he is building up his Parler profiles to eventually wean himself off the larger platform. Clarke is a promoter of conspiracy theories, such as the notion that Soros was behind the 2018 shooting in a Florida high school that killed 17.
Candace Owens, the former communications director for the right-wing advocacy group Turning Point USA, was the first big-name conservative on Parler. She joined the site after meeting Matze at the Gatestone Institute, a conservative think tank that has a reputation for anti-Muslim bias. Her promotion of the site, which Matze says he didn’t ask for, brought in more than 20,000 initial users.
After making grand claims that Parler would ultimately thwart Twitter, Owens has only used her account sparingly. On January 3, she posted about a recent spate of Parler updates. “These Parler updates are looking mighty fineeeeee,” she said. “Tick-tock, Twitter!” But Owens didn’t post again for six months, until June 12, when she again praised a new batch of updates. She hasn’t posted on Parler since and continues the use of her Twitter, where she has 1.5 million followers, daily. Owens didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Parler team is still just 10 full-time staffers, mostly college friends and siblings who helped get the app off the ground. Matze says they are considering ways to become profitable using traditional targeted advertising like other social media sites use, but “less creepy.”
After a huge influx of 200,000 Saudi users crashed the site in June, Matze realized there was a market for what Parler was offering outside of the United States. His team added a translate button in response to the influx and is considering other ways to court foreign users, media companies and liberals to share content on Parler, though no plans were set in stone.
“It’s pretty easy for demographics to completely swing in a different direction as you can see with the Saudis joining,” Matze said about the overwhelming support for Trump on Parler. “Twitter is still a lot of angry people on the left yelling at a lot of people who are in the middle or slightly right-leaning. And the people who are actually moderate MAGA conservatives feel like they are left out of this world and don’t have a home. And that’s why they are coming.”
Isaac Saul is the senior politics reporter at A Plus and a University of Pittsburgh alum. You can follow him on Twitter @Ike_Saul.