TORONTO -- While Facebook and Twitter have stepped up a war on the spread of misinformation through their platforms, right-leaning voices have been taking up the call for a somewhat upstart social media site that bills itself as a bastion of free speech.

Parler, a social media platform launched in 2018, calls itself the “world’s town square” and promises not to fact-check or engage in content moderation, beyond criminal activity and spam.

Though much trumpeted by high-profile U.S. conservatives who claim they are victims of censorship on Twitter and Facebook, experts say Parler isn’t likely to gain much widespread traction but could play a role in creating and amplifying campaigns of misinformation, hate and harassment, and conspiracy theories.

#TWEXIT

Though critics say Twitter and Facebook don’t go far enough, the platforms are increasingly flagging misinformation, hiding mistruths and inaccurate content altogether, and sometimes suspending or banning flagrant rule violators.

Just three days after his defeat in the presidential election, U.S. President Donald Trump – a frequent target of Twitter’s warnings about inaccurate information – tweeted that Twitter “was out of control.”

Then Republican senators took to publicly grilling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, alleging an anti-conservative bent.

It all led to an uptick in Parler downloads and was the latest in an almost year-long campaign among prominent Americans on the right, from politicians to pundits to Fox News hosts, urging followers to ditch Twitter and head over to Parler.

There’s even a twexit hashtag for it, backed by Parler itself.

“We are sick and tired of the biased content moderation, the de-facto censorship and the abusive data practices,” reads the Twexit.com home page. “We want real discussion and a free flow of information, not information brownouts and curated content from editors and algorithms.”

Trump, a long-time and prolific Twitter user, has fired back against having many of his posts flagged with links that take users to fact-checking sources. He’s yet to publicly move to Parler, though many of his family and advisers can be found there.

WHAT IS PARLER?

Founded by a pair of tech entrepreneurs, and billing itself as a “welcoming, nonpartisan public square,” Parler has gained attention throughout the hyper news cycle of 2020, acting as a home for pandemic deniers and anti-maskers, those opposed to racial justice causes, and most dominantly, those supporting Trump in the run-up to the election and in his ongoing allegations of voter fraud since his defeat.

Parler is partly funded by Rebekah Mercer, who is a Trump back with deep ties to far-right causes, including Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica.

“The ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords demands that someone lead the fight against data mining, and for the protection of free speech online,” she wrote in a post on the site this month.

“That someone is Parler, a beacon to all who value their liberty, free speech, and personal privacy.”

The platform is also backed by influential conservative podcaster Dan Bongino, who regularly encourages his nearly 3 million followers on Twitter and nearly 4 million on Facebook to join him on Parler.

Among its users – variously estimated at 8 million to 10 million – are Trump’s children Ivanka nd Donald Trump Jr., as well as his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, White House spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany, a host of Republican leaders, and conservative media types.

They’re joined by a long list of alt-right voices who have been banned by Twitter, including former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and activist Laura Loomer, who once handcuffed herself to the door of Twitter's New York office to protest being kicked off the platform.

The site has also attracted groups that promote violence such as Proud Boys and other white nationalists.

Parler hardly stands alone on the right and far right, joining 4chan, Telegram, Gab, MeWe, Bit Chute and Rumble, for instance, but none have managed much more than a fringe presence on the social media landscape.

While Parler has been gaining millions of users in recent weeks and months, it’s still a tiny fraction of what Twitter or Facebook has amassed. It’s useful to point out that Ivanka Trump has more followers on Twitter than Parler has total users.

She’s among a group of conservatives blasting Twitter while still using it. Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has repeatedly urged conservatives to flee to Parler, tweeted 14 times on Tuesday. Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who made a video telling supporters to abandon ship for Parler, hasn’t left Twitter either.

HOW IT WORKS

The Henderson, Nevada-based Parler invites users to: “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”

It promises an “environment that lets you be you, free of agenda-driven ‘shadow-banning.’”

The app is dominated by posts claiming a cabal of news media, social media sites, ballot machine manufacturers and voting officials conspired to steal the 2020 election. Hate speech, racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny is not hard to find, and neither is a host of fantasies about COVID-19, vaccines, and climate change.

A note here on pronunciation: Contrary to how Canadians might be tempted to say it, as in the French word for “to speak” (par-lay), the common pronunciation for the platform has become “par-lour.” If that’s not bad enough, the site takes a swipe at the Canadian-invented Hawaiian pizza, too.

“Regardless of race, sex, age, sexual preference, religion, politics, or dietary choices — well , except pineapple pizza – every user is treated equally under Parler’s community guidelines.”

Parler is a similar platform to Twitter, with posts called parleys, reposts called echoes and likes called upvotes. Characters are limited to 1,000, (Twitter’s is 280), and users can follow, block or mute others, as well as use hashtags. Parler claims to not employ any algorithms or to share any data about its users.

In its community guidelines, Parler says it will keep removing users or content to “the absolute minimum. We prefer to leave decisions about what is seen and who is heard to each individual.”

The site does promise to remove illegal or criminal content, including calls to incite terrorism or violence, child pornography and spam.

Parler relies on its users to report inappropriate content and posts that violate its guidelines. Judgments are then made by a volunteer group of users, not employees. There is also no internal fact-checking and no curation of content.

“Biased content curation policies enable rage mobs and bullies to influence Community Guidelines. Parler’s viewpoint-neutral policies foster a community of individuals who tolerate the expression of all non-violent ideas.”

UPHILL BATTLE

Parler’s similarity to Twitter and its connection to American conservatives will limit its reach, says Craig Silverman, media editor at BuzzFeed.

“Many might not see themselves among that crowd or don’t want to be on an ideologically driven platform. Lots of people are not motivated by ideology or politics,” Silverman said in a phone interview from Toronto.

“I think the extreme elements will find a home on Parler, but it’s got a really uphill battle to be a true competitor to Twitter.”

Greg Elmer, a communications professor at Ryerson University also doesn’t think there is going to be a flood of Twitter users rushing to “deplatform.”

One big reason is the appeal in trolling those with different views, says Elmer, both to humiliate or vilify opponents, but also to compete with those on the same side.

He says in the “attention economy” of some social media circles, the loudest, most offensive voice wins.

“The explanation for why it gets so nasty and toxic is that, even when they’re speaking to others of the same opinion, they are competing with each other to be the most articulate or the most abusive or to come up with the wittiest or most interesting takedown of the liberal media or whoever the target is.”

“Parler might just become a platform to hang out with other conservatives but in order to grow a base and engage with others, users might still have to be on other platforms.”

CTVNews.ca reached out to Parler with some questions and an interview request, but did not receive a response. It does seem the platform is concerned about offering only a one-sided conversation.

BY THE NUMBERS

If Parler is having an effect, there isn’t much evidence it’s hurting Twitter, which reported 340 million monthly active users in the fourth quarter of 2019 and 353 million in the third quarter of this year. The platform was rated fourth in the world in October for traffic by SimilarWeb, racking up 6.1 billion visits (compared to 24.9 for Facebook, ranked at world’s No. 3).

Daily active users are ticking up each quarter too, hitting 187 million in Q3 2020, with a notable jump between Q1 2020 (166 million) and Q2 2020 (186 million). All of that growth came while Parler and its backers were ramping up attacks.

The tale is very different on the Parler side of the ledger.

According to Similar Web, Parler has a global traffic rank of 8,845 and comes in at 2,677 in the U.S. Traffic peaked in July, hitting 9.6 million before falling to 5.9 million in October.

But that doesn’t take into account a surge in downloads since the U.S. election and amid ongoing baseless allegations of election fraud coming from Trump supporters. According to the Associated Press, which cites data from app tracker Sensor Tower, Parler was downloaded more than 2 million times in the U.S. from Nov. 3 to Nov. 9. That was up more than 31 times over the week before.

Similar Web says Parler was the top downloaded social app on Google Play for the month leading up to Nov. 21 and the No. 3 in Canada behind TikTok and Instagram.

It should be noted, too, that Twitter is a worldwide platform. More than 151 million of its 187 million daily active users are outside the United States, accounting for 71 per cent of the platform’s traffic. In contrast, 72 per cent of Parler’s traffic is in the U.S., while 5 per cent is in the U.K, and 4.6 is in Canada.

HOW PARLER MIGHT PLAY A ROLE

Those engaged in purposely spreading misinformation, who tend to congregate on smaller, anonymous and highly ideologically driven platforms to create plans to spread falsehoods, conspiracy theories and harassment campaigns, may ultimately find a home on Parler, says Silverman at BuzzFeed.

Free of meaningful moderation and fact-checking, but with powerful and influential alt-right voices on board, Parler could be used to create and accelerate misinformation campaigns that then move to mainstream platforms.

“Misinformation is everywhere, on every platform,” said Ahmed Al-Rawi, a professor of news, social media, and public communication at Simon Fraser University. But it’s more pronounced in some places than others. Search “Great Reset” on Parler and you’ll be immersed in conspiracy theories about how COVID-19 is an agenda to crush capitalism and impose socialism.

Search the same on Twitter and you’ll see both proponents and opponents of that falsehood.

Some might be tempted to think congregating extremist views in one place will confine their power, but Ryerson University communications professor Greg Elmer says that’s short-sighted.

What happens on Parler won’t stay on Parler, he says. The sharing of misinformation or inappropriate content never stays isolated to one platform. It hopscotches from one to the next.

“That’s a worry and I think we should be cautious about that. But how does this intensify misinformation is yet to be seen.”

Elmer finds it interesting that this platform is taking hold at the end of a “Twitter presidency” in which Trump used the platform multiple times a day to speak directly to his base but also to discipline his supporters and his party.

“In a classic sort of authoritarian, strong man way, he mastered it as a means to hold and wield power.”

Without Trump, Parler could become a place where conservatives really hash out ideas.

“There could be this interesting fragmentation of voices and maybe more debate among conservatives without this top-down disciplinary voice of the last four years.”

It’s inevitable that Parler is going to face its own moderation issues and when the platform intervenes in those cases, it could create a backlash among users who have been told to expect free speech, says Silverman.

One of the co-founders recently warned users that they can’t threaten to kill people. No matter its libertarian bent, the platform is still bound by laws around libel, threatening and hate speech, says Silverman.

“There isn’t a full, free-wheeling platform free of rules. There are always rules.”

ECHO CHAMBER

The fragmentation of social media into hyper-partisan sites like Parler only deepens the division that is causing anxiety at both the individual and societal level, says Michael Woodworth, a psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia.

“It’s a true echo chamber where people who are like-minded are validating and normalizing extreme views. Confirmation bias is a most dependable aspect of it all. People are more inclined to latch on to certain ideas that reflect what they already believe to be true and will ignore and reject everything that contradicts that.”

In the corners of social media where extremist, deviant and conspiracy-laden thinking runs amok, and there is no check and balance of responsible moderators or other users who think differently, eventually, truth can lose all meaning, says Woodworth.

But if echo chambers are affirming of one’s world view, Woodworth says they aren’t necessarily exciting places to be, especially for those inclined to stir up trouble and cause chaos.

“There’s no one to troll if everyone is peddling the same ideas.”

WON'T BE SILENCED

Al-Rawi says Parler has been intentionally created to mobilize movement away from traditional social media sites.

Those with a far-right or libertarian outlook may be attracted by the chance to punish or just threaten to punish mainstream social media platforms that they think have imposed censorship or limited freedom of expression, says Al-Rawi.

“I think there is an expectation that this will change the mainstream sites and make them more lenient of extreme views… but traditional sites won’t be persuaded.”

Al-Rawi, who runs the Disinformation Project at SFU, says the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where Facebook data was sold to a conservative political consulting firm working for the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, along with the proliferation of bots and fake news sites used to manipulate voters taught a painful lesson.

Facebook and Twitter were late to the game in really cracking down on hate and racism and the intentional spreading of untruths, says Al-Rawi, but now that they have, there is confusion about where the lines are that can’t be crossed.

Bannon got banned from Twitter after calling for the beheadings of America’s top doctor Anthony Fauci and FBI director Christopher Wray, but that wasn’t enough for him to get kicked off Facebook. Canadian ultra-conservative Faith Goldy is banished from Facebook, but allowed on Twitter.

“There’s no consensus on what’s unacceptable and so that can be confusing to observers. That’s been exploited by some conservative figures.”

Conservatives won’t leave Twitter or Facebook en masse, says Al-Rawi. Instead, they’ll use Parler as a backup platform for when they get suspended or banned from the other sites.

“So they’ll still have a place to go to engage their followers when they get blocked elsewhere. Their message is that they’ll never be silenced.”