I Spent the Day on Parler and It Was Hell

The prevailing republican social media narrative is one of partisan suppression. They allege that Facebook and Twitter, as part of a left-wing Silicon Valley ecosystem, censor republican voices on their platforms. Politicians like Rand Paul and Josh Hawley, pundits like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens, and non-famous, everyday republicans all cry censorship when social media companies don’t allow violent rhetoric, COVID-19 misinformation, and election falsehoods to run rampant on their sites.

Just this week, the Trump campaign’s Director of Social Media, Mike Hahn, offered up the following proof of anti-republican bias: in a 14-day period Twitter flagged 100 of Donald Trump’s posts for containing disinformation and zero of Joe Biden’s posts. Never mind that the tweets of the lame duck president — a notorious liar and longtime conman — were flagged because he mostly tweets lies about the election, while Joe Biden mainly tweets personnel updates and banal sentiments of unity.

But, so loudly have the drums of social media injustice been pounded by republican pundits and lawmakers, including the president, that a majority of Americans now think social media sites deliberately censor political opinions on their platforms, including 90% of republicans, most of whom believe that social media companies favor liberal views over conservative ones. Republican propaganda about social media censorship has been highly effective and has even prompted executive and legislative action. Amid a pandemic that has killed over a quarter of a million Americans and ravaged the economy, Trump signed an executive order about social media censorship and the Senate held a hearing on republican social media suppression with Facebook and Twitter CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

Of course, republicans’ feelings about social media censorship are not borne out by the facts. Not only are Facebook and Twitter not actively censoring republican content, but the opposite even appears to be true, especially for Facebook. Data show that conservative posts have consistently outperformed liberal or non-ideological ones on Facebook. Moreover, Facebook has pushed right-wing news outlets like The Daily Caller, while restricting information from left-leaning ones like Mother Jones. Facebook identified Breitbart — an alt-right site once headed by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon — as one of its “trusted news sources,” alongside The New York Times and CNN. Facebook’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, is a known republican activist who served as George W. Bush’s Deputy Chief of Staff and openly advocated for the seating of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, victimhood is a driving force in republican politics and the republican exodus from Facebook and Twitter to a new(ish) social media site called Parler has been swift since the election, nearly doubling the number of accounts previously on the platform. When the former social media tamped down hate speech and lies, they left many republicans without a forum for their most popular online content. Founded in 2018, Parler bills itself as a free speech haven, whose “viewpoint-neutral policies foster a community of individuals who tolerate the expression of all non-violent ideas.” Unlike its predecessors, Parler has no limits on disinformation or hate speech in its community guidelines. This has made Parler an ideal platform for overt racists and conspiracy theorists. Parler also seems to have banned some liberal Parleyers — Parler’s name for its users — on the platform. Indeed, Parler has all the trappings of a republican safe space.

Many believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory found a social media home on Parler earlier this year after Facebook and Twitter banned QAnon groups on their platforms due to the dangers posed by the unchecked spread of such wild beliefs. After the election, dissatisfied with the news on Facebook and Twitter that Trump lost, regular, non-QAnon-believing and non-nazi republicans I knew were suddenly asking people to go follow them on Parler. Red lights started flashing in my mind, Don’t go there — it’s a nazi app! It’s a QAnon freak show!

Is it though?

The short answer: Yes. Parler is Eden for people who have disgusting views and live in alternate realities. And unfortunately, more and more “regular” republicans who are primed to fall for disinformation campaigns and racial grievance politics are migrating over to Parler.

Before reviewing the content I saw on Parler, I have a few caveats:

  • Parler has nowhere near the usership of Twitter and Facebook and is just not as well-developed of a platform yet. There are very few democratic politicians, pundits, or otherwise liberal or progressive talking heads on Parler, making Trump cultists overrepresented on the platform.

Joining Parler
Joining Parler is no different than making an account on any other app. Like Twitter and Facebook, you create a name and a handle and they can differ from each other. I chose a nom de guerre, Amanda Paulson, and an innocuous handle, @CatGirl310.

As soon as you join, Parler recommends accounts for you to follow, despite having zero information about your interests. My cat handle did not generate recommendations for any feline-focused accounts. Instead, Parler recommended that I follow Ted Cruz, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Tucker Carlson, Dinesh D’Souza, Devin Nunes, Phil Robertson (the Duck Dynasty guy) — in that order. Some perusing on the app leads me to believe that everyone is recommended some subset of these accounts to follow upon joining.

Your first post on Parler is automatic: I just joined Parler! Looking forward to meeting everyone here.

Within 30 minutes, I had notifications that three people had commented on my post, which surprised me since I joined Parler with an alias purposely to avoid interaction. The first two were seemingly harmless Parler users who were also Parler Concierge, welcoming me and advising that I come to them with questions. The third comment was from Team Trump, the official Parler account of the Trump campaign: Welcome to Parler! Help us MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN by clicking the link below. Be sure to text TRUMP to 88022!

I knew Parler was a Trumpist safe space, but there is nothing in my Parler name or handle to suggest I am a Trump supporter. Parler CEO John Matze has said he’s begging liberals to join Parler, and yet Parler does nothing to prevent the Trump campaign from scraping the app for the automatic I just joined Parler! message to welcome new users and direct them toward the Trump grifting scheme to stop the [nonexistent] steal.

Parler Searches
I searched various words and phrases on Parler to see what kinds of accounts and hashtags would come up.

These searches confirmed that the overwhelming majority of Parler accounts are proud Trump supporters, including Christians, second amendment proponents, QAnon believers, etc. — and they specify right in their profile descriptions, cutting out any guesswork for me. Pretty much any name or term I tried to search on Parler invariably bore numerous Trump-worshipping accounts.

For example, searching cat provided me with a list of accounts with “cat” in their handle or name. Nearly every result was a Trump stan account and despite their names, none referenced cats in their descriptions or posted content.

The profile description for the Crazy Cat Lover account on Parler is #MAGA #KAG Conservative, Pro-Life, #1A, #2A, wildlife conservation, #buildthewall, #draintheswamp, #Trump2020, #BlueLivesMatter, #AllLivesMatter, #SupportIsrael, #BacktheBlue.

@Hottestcatlady? #Patriot #Trumpsupporter #MAGA2020

@CrazyCatRescuer? ProLife #MAGA conservative that ❤ military, animals, martial arts & Vietnam Vet husband. Also on Twitter. #Catholic #MolonLabe #CruzCrew #IStandWithFlynn

@crazycatlady? Jesus Follower, Wife, Mom, Computer Scientist, Pro-LIFE, Pro 2-A, Trump supporter, #MAGA

…you get the idea.

Sidenote — searching the hashtag #cats yields good cat videos, as reliable a subgenre of Parler content as on other traditional social media. For me, a welcome reprieve from the Trump cult.

Speaking of social media subgenres, I searched grandma to see if I could find some wholesome family content, a hallmark of Facebook grandmotherhood. These are the top searches and their account descriptions, in order:

Grandma4Trump (@MagaGrandma4Trump)
#Conservative #ProLife #2ndamendment #Veteran’s daughter, wife and
mother. #grandma to 7. Fighting for my grandchildren’s America. Love my
#God, my #family, and my #PRESIDENT.

Conservative Grandma (@Cmyohnk)
Pro Life Conservative Woman Loves her Country and her God God Bless America

GrandmaPatti (@GrandmaPattiA)
Conductor #GrandmaPatti, Making trains to connect patriots & friends #Veteran #2A #MAGA #Trump #Patriot #OathKeeper 3% #BacktheBlue
#SaveOurChildren #GodBlessAmerica

Dianne (@DeplorableGrandma)
Christian wife, mother, Grandma Love MY President Trump #MAGA #KAG #PATRIOT #americafirst Trump Train

…as with the cat accounts, I could keep going for a while. There were at least 50 more accounts nearly identical in description and content, including GlockGrandma with the handle @Ishootyou, whose description states that COVID is a disguise for social control.

To add insult to injury, none of these grandma accounts had any pictures of family or grandkids, just pro-Trump and republican memes.

I should mention that I did find some liberals sprinkled throughout Parler, seemingly an even mix of those wishing to troll, those genuinely interested in political discourse, and those just looking to make some headway as influencers in the space. These accounts were few and far between.

Searching for hashtags on Parler dispensed similarly predictable results. I typed BLM (Black Lives Matter) into the hashtag search bar to see how Parler users felt about the political movement that advocates for racial justice. There were 136,000 posts on Parler with the hashtag #blm, but not a single post that I saw was in support of the movement. To give a clearer idea of how most Parler users feel about BLM, here are the other top-performing hashtags that the #blm search delivered:

  • #blmterrorists (30k posts)

The same thing happened when I searched other generic political hashtags.

#feminism:

  • #feminismiscancer (3.7k posts)

#JoeBiden:

  • #creepyjoebiden (15k posts)

It became obvious that Parler is not the open marketplace of diverse ideas it claims to be; it’s just another right-wing circle jerk.

Three Kinds of Parler Absurdity
Parler inanity comes in three different flavors which I’ve categorized as Normal Trump Cult Parler, Tinfoil Hat Parler, and Nazi Parler.

Normal Trump Cult Parler
Normal Trump Cult Parler looks a lot like Extreme Republican Facebook and Twitter: articles about culture wars, skepticism about Biden winning the election, every democrat is a communist, you can’t trust the news except for Breitbart/OAN/Newsmax, etc. They think Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, et al. are guilty of treason and should go to jail or be killed. Crazy, but predictable.

People on Normal Trump Cult Parler also post a lot of videos and pictures that have supposedly been banned from Facebook and Twitter. Much of the purportedly banned subject matter was easily found after a simple search on the platforms, but remember, the everyone is against republicans ethos runs deep on Parler, necessitating its existence to begin with.

A noticeable difference between Parler and other social networks is the sourcing of articles shared on the platform. News pieces on Parler are almost exclusively from far-right republican-founded news sites that barely qualify as journalistic outlets, such as One America News (OAN), Newsmax and The Epoch Times. Even worse, many articles on Parler come from literal fake news sites that look real. Anything you want to be true about Donald Trump and Trumpian politics becomes true on sites like PatriotHat.com, USADailyReports.com, citizenfreepress.com, and AmGreatness.com.

I have not found Traditional Conservative Parler. While there are a few Milton Friedman acolytes espousing lower taxes and other dogma from the Chicago School, the preponderance of Parleyers are disgruntled republicans, which is to say Trump Cult Parler, since that’s what the Republican Party has been reduced to.

Tinfoil Hat Parler
Tinfoil Hat Parler consists of the most devout Trump adherents, though the boundary between Normal Trump Cult Parler and Tinfoil Hat Parler is blurry and there is overlap between the two corners of the platform. They think the coronavirus is fake, or if it’s real it’s caused by 5G, and/or was invented by democrats and George Soros. They think Trump actually won the election by a landslide (to be fair, so do a lot of people on Normal Trump Cult Parler…again, it’s a fine line). They think all democrats are pedophiles and are part of a child sex trafficking ring. They think Pizzagate was real. They think that Trump and his campaign’s embarrassing, flailing miscues in election theft attempts are actually part of a 3-dimensional legal chess strategy so complicated even they don’t understand it. #Trusttheplan is a common hashtag, to mollify anxiety about the transition of power to Joe Biden. Like a desperate prayer, this hashtag is used as a reminder that Trump is 10 steps ahead of the rest of the world and will prevail in his pursuit of overturning the election. They think the firing of Sidney Powell from the Trump campaign’s legal team was a calculated move and that she will soon release the kraken (another hashtag). This is where QAnon supporters and Dinesh D’Souza live on Parler.

The QAnon strain of Parler users is particularly scary. They believe in a Great Awakening where Trump, whom they believe was sent by God, will reveal his master plan to eliminate the cabal of satanists and pedophiles, mostly comprised of Hollywood elites, the Deep State, and of course, democratic politicians. One Parler user remarked,

Does anyone else just feel like tearing up bc u know what’s coming in a good way and how blessed we are to be a part of something so life changing? Trump will prevail and if people don’t Beleive whats coming they will just have to find out when the rest of them do. I’ve tried myself to awaken people but it’s just not their path at this moment. No matter what trump will always fight for the people until justice is served I believe.

These Parler users also talk about a Civil War. They believe anyone who’s not a Trump supporter is a brainwashed traitor, and that sometime soon there will be a war and they’ll have no choice but to kill liberal turncoats in the service of American preservation. They believe liberals and democrats have been indoctrinated through the education system and are slaves needing to be freed through violence, dovetailing nicely with the Great Awakening theory of QAnon. As one Parler user reminded his comrades, Kill them ALL. God will know His own — which reminds me, nearly everyone talking Civil War and killing liberals on Parler is also a self-described proud Christian.

Nazi Parler
There is a nazi presence on Parler — and I am using the term literally. There are many Parleyers who call themselves nazis, have swastikas in their profiles and posts, talk about getting rid of Jews, and perpetuate Holocaust denial (#Holohoax is a hashtag with a concerning amount of content across all social media).

The same is true for white supremacists — and again, I’m using the term literally. These Parleyers post glaringly racist stuff and have account names like n — word hater and variants thereof (using the actual word). Content on these accounts ranges from racist jokes to calls to kill black people.

It feels noteworthy that pretty much all the nazi and white supremacist accounts also worship Donald Trump. Draw from that whatever conclusions you wish.

Is Parler really full of nazis compared to Facebook and Twitter? Or do I just not run in nazi circles on other social media?

I think it’s a little of Column A, a little of Column B, and after a few comparative searches on Facebook and Twitter, a little of Column C: somewhat tighter regulation on traditional social networks that might otherwise be full of nazis.

I will not repeat anything seen in this section of Parler; it is truly vile, abhorrent, horrific stuff.

What Should We Do About Parler?
A day on Parler left me feeling dejected. I know that not everyone shares my political and policy views, but I also don’t share the same basic values, societal goals, or even fundamental reality with the large majority of Parler users.

I kept telling myself that the fanaticism I saw on Parler was disproportionately represented due to its novelty and Trump voter outreach, but it did nothing to quell my disgust. There are many “normal” republicans on Parler who will see this execrable content, people who are not necessarily conspiracy theorists or nazis or white supremacists, but whose beliefs and internal biases lie somewhere adjacent. All of them have been recommended to follow people like Mark Levin and Dinesh D’Souza, who knowingly traffic in conspiracies and racism for profit. With its lax community standards, Parler is an even worse rookery than its forebears for the radicalization of otherwise “normal” people, through unchecked propaganda that intentionally sows extremism, division, and confusion in our politics.

It would be easy for people like me to wash our hands of Parler completely. My initial reaction was to delete the app from my phone and revel in never having to see this kind of unhinged tripe again. (Plus, it’s just embarrassing to take out your phone and have Parler pop up among your recently-opened apps.)

Ignoring Parler completely is probably a misstep. With the acceleration of alternate social media like Parler, and the Republican Party’s desperate shift toward the fringe in an attempt to preserve its waning power, this country is barreling even faster toward a citizenry that lives in two different realities: the real world and Trumpworld. Republicans have simply decided that if their ideology doesn’t hold up under factual scrutiny, they just need to get new facts — and platforms like Parler allow and accelerate this perversion of objective truth.

So should more progressives, or at least non-republicans, infiltrate Parler to try to diffuse some of the derangement? How different would Parler feeds look if the suggested accounts upon signing up included Rachel Maddow, AOC, or Jake Tapper? Or will a liberal pervasion of Parler only push its users to other Trump cultist safe spaces, like 4chan, Gab, and MeWe?

Parler is still in its infancy, but it will grow. Its user interface will improve and more people will ensconce themselves in its cozy echo chamber of factual immunity and unchallenged prejudices. How many people need to go down the Parler rabbit hole before it’s too late, before our two countries — perhaps even worlds — are unrecognizable to each other?

In the aftermath of the election, there have been repeated cries for national unity from both sides of the political aisle, and especially from President-Elect Biden. With each additional republican who looks to Parler as a hermetic hideaway from a reality incongruous with their worldview, the probability of unification decreases.

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