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Can the right thrive on Parler?

Right-wing personalities are moving away from liberal social media “echo chambers”, but risk building a useless one of their own.

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In the days following the US election, hard-right politicians, commentators and social media stars were lacking a platform on which their conspiracy theories could go viral. Both Twitter and Facebook were flagging their endless stream of posts suggesting the election had been “stolen”, warning they were misleading or contained false information. The right needed a place to regroup; the platforms that had served as megaphones were slipping from their grasp. So, in what perhaps felt like a last shot, they encouraged each other to go to Parler: the “free speech” platform, heralded by corners of the right as their last social media hope. 

Parler is a relatively new platform, which encourages the mindset that “the only rule is there are no rules”. It brands itself as a foil to mainstream platforms – the place users can go to say what they can’t say elsewhere. After launching in August 2018, it surged in users the following May, when Politico reported that Donald Trump’s then-campaign manager Brad Parscale was considering making the president an account amid “free speech” concerns on Twitter. He didn’t; but he did set up an account for the Team Trump campaign, which is still active. Parler enjoyed greater popularity among right-wingers as a result. In the UK, there was a similar pull to the platform in June when a user created an account that pretended to be Katie Hopkins – who had recently been banned from Twitter – and managed to raise $500 for “legal fees” before anyone realised it was a hoax. This saw British commentators and Conservative MPs sign up to the site, proof of Parler’s free speech USP. 

After a quiet few months, Parler crept back into the news in October, ahead of the 3 November election. It became a hotbed of QAnon, Pizzagate and Hunter Biden conspiracy theories. In the week after the election, it was top of the American app store charts, listed as the most downloaded product on both Apple and Android devices. 

With the endorsement of countless right-wing celebrities and politicians, it has swelled to ten million users worldwide – up from 2.8 million users in July. Right-wing personalities across the globe are now encouraging users to commit to Parler and to quit Twitter for good. And that user growth, coupled with the support of so many mainstream political voices, makes the platform different from its predecessors. If its biggest stars quit other platforms outright, there would be an even bigger draw for the average user to keep coming back. 

But can Parler really thrive on the right? Can it become a household name? What does the right get out of social media like Parler – a platform where, perhaps for the first time, its own mainstream political echo chamber has been created?

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Parler is not the only place the right is, or has ever, gathered online with little to no left-wing influence. 4chan, Gab and messaging service Telegram have become popular with the alt-right at different points over the last 15 years. However, the vast majority of these platforms have gained reputations as being toxic, and have become synonymous with the worst of the internet. Milo Yiannopoulos, an early far-right British starlet who was banned from Twitter in 2016, infamously posted on Telegram last year: “I can’t put food on the table this way.” 

Parler, on the other hand, has been able to style itself as more mainstream, more sanitised in the short time it’s been live. But, despite its more palatable public face, it still allows most of what you would find on more notorious alt-right sites. After a blip this summer, CEO John Matze warned the platform would not allow obscene words in usernames, repeated harassment in the comments, or pornographic images (all of which are allowed on Twitter), but misinformation and abuse are still rife on the site. Parler’s clean appearance therefore allows politicians, for example, to participate on the site, even though familiarly insidious content lurks underneath. This is the key to Parler’s success as a right-wing social media platform.

[See also: What is Parler? Inside the pro-Trump “unbiased” platform]

One of its biggest drawbacks, however, is the same complaint many on the right make about Twitter: it really is an echo chamber. As a user, you are met with the same set of opinions, shared in different word formations on different accounts. There is no incentive for anyone on the left to join. And so Parler posts tend to fall flat: intrigue and controversy are impossible when everyone is in agreement. 

Already, you can sense users tiring. Right-wing social media posters who are active elsewhere have barely touched Parler since joining. Fox News host Tucker Carlson has only posted twice since joining at the end of 2018 and Donald Trump Jr’s partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle, has also posted infrequently since she joined in July. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the politicians who very enthusiastically joined Parler in June, has even started sharing non-political memes clearly ripped from Facebook pages. All three of these conservative personalities still post regularly on Twitter – and many others who claimed to be leaving Twitter for good have already begun to trickle back. 

The only people who appear to use Parler as their main social media outlet are those who have been banned from all other mainstream platforms. Alex Jones, of InfoWars fame, who was banned from YouTube, Twitter and Facebook last year, posts multiple times a day to his account; Yiannopoulos has also begun posting aggressively on Parler. However, both Jones and Yiannopoulos have only drawn about a tenth of the audience they had on more mainstream platforms over the last ten years, and have subsequently faded into relative obscurity. They may be prolific on Parler, but their importance in advancing the cause of the right is very limited. 

Audience isn’t only a problem for those who have nowhere else to go. Parler is, of course, already inherently smaller, before factoring in the work it takes to grow audiences on Twitter and Facebook over the course of years. What’s the point of posting on Parler alone, when you could tweet and get upwards of 20 times the engagement? Parler’s loudest advocates would argue this is the early price users must pay to fully divorce themselves from mainstream tech platforms. But any long-term benefits to the cause will not tempt those who have become brand names in and of themselves.

However, enthusiasm for Parler is still high, even if its long-term prospects are less promising. In the two weeks since election day, new users have included longstanding political personalities and swathes of newly elected politicians. Fresh, right-wing faces in the Senate, the House and smaller state legislatures have flocked to the site. They join their senior counterparts in advocating for this new digital future for the right. 

But it’s hard to envision a reality in which Parler’s influence extends all that far. In the past, each wave of new Parler users has abated after a few days or weeks of hype. Users get bored, and its biggest names become less vocal. Enthusiasm only lasts if effectiveness does too.

[See also: How QAnon conspiracy theorists entered the US Congress]

Ultimately, for any ideology to thrive, you can’t survive on a single-minded platform made for public consumption. 4Chan thrives for two reasons: because there really are no rules, and because users eventually water down their ideas and disseminate them on more mainstream sites. For platforms that have high mainstream salience, the pay-off is created by the back and forth between two opposing sides. 

Parler, by trying to create the best of all of them, creates the worst of both worlds. It maintains a more restrictive platform than 4Chan without any of the political tension other platforms offer. The joy for many politically active social media users is criticising the other side. But you can’t "own" the liberals if there are no liberals around to "own". In an effort to create the first mainstream echo chamber, Parler proves why its theory doesn’t work in practice: there’s no ground to be gained by repeating what everyone else is already thinking. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.