Parler looks a lot like Twitter. It’s a microblogging platform where users post short updates, called “Parleys,” which can be reshared by others. Just like its well known competitor, it uses hashtags to link content and account handles begin with the at symbol.
But the social media app, which caught fire with supporters of President Donald Trump during the election, isn’t based in Silicon Valley. It’s headquartered in Henderson, Nevada, a suburb of Las Vegas.
Parler owes its newfound popularity to promotion by right-wing media figures and its promise to never censor users, unless they post illegal content, spam or pornography — a major draw for conservatives who object to recent reforms on Twitter and Facebook designed to limit the spread of misinformation.
But experts warn the site is becoming a right-wing echo chamber, where average Republican voters are exposed to conspiracy theories and extremist propaganda.
Amy Peikoff is Chief Policy Officer for the platform, which was established in 2018.
“All we’ve ever wanted to be is an unbiased, ideologically neutral platform,” she said in an interview with Nevada Public Radio. “Allowing for speech that is protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.”
But according to Alexander Reid Ross, that doesn’t accurately reflect the site’s user base.
“There are very few left-wing or liberal contributors to the site,” he said. “The content is almost exclusively far-right, and it is dominated by conspiracy theories.”
Ross is an adjunct professor at Portland State University and a fellow at Political Research Associates, where he follows the far-right paramilitary movement. According to his research, far-right groups have migrated to Parler from Facebook and Twitter, where they can freely post extremist propaganda.
Parler’s initial investment came from Republican mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, whose family has backed a range of other conservative projects, including the far-right website Breitbart.
Conservative podcaster Dan Bongino has also come forward as an early supporter of the site, although the extent of his financial investment remains unclear.
Despite all that, Peikoff says Parler’s right-wing bent is incidental. Instead, she points to Twitter’s policy of adding warning labels to misinformation — including Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him by President-elect Joe Biden.
“As it happens, there were conservatives who felt that they were mistreated in this regard on the other platforms,” she said. “So of course we’ve had a large number of conservatives come over to Parler.”
Either way, the platform exploded after Election Day. It was downloaded more than 2 million times between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9.
Peikoff estimates the site has been downloaded more than 11 million times in total, but the number of active users is far lower — roughly 4 million at its peak.
For an upstart platform, those are impressive numbers. But Parler is still dwarfed by Twitter’s 330 million users and the 2.74 billion monthly active users reported by Facebook.
That sudden popularity raised the suspicions of Dave Troy, a network analyst, disinformation specialist and startup investor from Baltimore.
In a now-viral Twitter thread posted Nov. 13, he explained Parler’s business model was out of step with industry standards.
“The company has not raised any traditional [venture capital] rounds that we can see,” he wrote. “Any company aiming to challenge firms at Twitter scale needs a massive supply of funds to hire employees competitively and pay for rapidly scalable computing infrastructure.”
According to Troy, it’s common practice for tech startups to broadcast their investors, partly because it can help attract others. But in the case of Parler, fundraising was kept out of the public eye.
“Any time that people take the trouble to deploy capital in the market, you want to have some sense of what their intentions are,” he said in a recent interview.
Troy’s research into the firm also revealed that Parler’s founder, John Matze, is married to a Russian immigrant with family connections to the Kremlin. He says that, along with a large number of Russian-linked user accounts, adds to the uncertainty surrounding the platform’s origins.
“Being associated with Russian nationals and that sort of thing is not a crime in the United States and there’s no problem with that,” he said. “What’s kind of unusual is this founding story, the combination of these Russian-aligned voices on the platform.”
Meanwhile, far-right content is thriving on Parler.
A review of the platform by CapRadio revealed overt neo-nazi propaganda being shared by users who advocate for violence against the Jewish community.
The site also includes members of the white supremacist Proud Boys, who have threatened Black Lives Matter supporters in Carson City and fought with counter-protesters in front of California’s State Capitol in recent weeks.
Affiliated accounts on Parler have posted videos of Proud Boys engaging in violence, which is encouraged by the organization.
To Ross, all of this points to a cynical misrepresentation of the First Amendment.
“When you see people on Parler and on the far right in general talking about Black Lives Matter protesters, you can see the hate and the violence and the desire to suppress popular social movements,” he said. “It’s not really about free speech per se, it’s about their ability to say whatever they want without any kind of accountability whatsoever.”