Fate of Twitter Competitor Parler Stirs Applause and Fear

After the U.S. Capitol riot Jan. 6, Twitter and Facebook barred President Donald Trump from their platforms. Apple and Google then banished Parler from their app stores, sparking debate over the tech giants’ outsized role in U.S. politics and stirring fears of a further crackdown on free speech.

Parler and Twitter apps shown on smartphone.
Parler and Twitter apps shown on smartphone. (photo: Ascannio / Shutterstock)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Just hours after a pro-Trump rally devolved into a violent riot that breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Facebook and Twitter blocked President Donald Trump from posting messages to his tens of millions of followers, citing the “risk of harm” from his comments challenging the election results. 

“The peaceful transition of power is critical to the functioning of our democracy, and we need our political leaders to lead by example and put the nation first,” Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an internal memo to the company’s employees.

Many of the president’s supporters fled to Parler, making the upstart “free speech” platform founded in 2018 as an alternative to Twitter one of the fastest-growing apps in the country. Apple and Google soon pulled Parler from their app stores. Then, after several warnings, Amazon kicked Parler off its web-hosting service, citing the company’s failure to effectively moderate and remove content that violated its terms of use.

Parler CEO John Matze fought back, claiming that the tech companies sought to kill competition. 

“Amazon, Google and Apple did this as a coordinated effort, knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as President Trump was banned from the tech companies,” Matze tweeted

Parler has sued Amazon for breach of contract. But in papers filed in a federal district court in Seattle, Amazon dismissed Matze’s claim. 

“[T]his case is about Parler’s demonstrated unwillingness and inability to remove from the servers of Amazon Web Services (‘AWS’) content that threatens the public safety, such as by inciting and planning the rape, torture and assassination of named public officials and private citizens,” read Amazon’s legal argument. “AWS notified Parler repeatedly that its content violated the parties’ agreement, requested removal, and reviewed Parler’s plan to address the problem, only to determine that Parler was both unwilling and unable to do so.”


Tech Power Plays

The fast-moving developments have been applauded by some Americans shaken by the mob violence at the Capitol or just wearied of Trump’s tweeting. But the actions against the president and Parler have also exposed the enormous power of tech billionaires to directly shape online political content, in part, by enforcing speech codes that many observers see as inconsistent and discriminatory.

“Is it the role of a social-media company to say, ‘We will ban one type of speech?’” asked Jesuit Father Paul Soukup, the author of Media, Culture and Catholicism, who teaches courses in technology and communication at Santa Clara University, based in the heart of Silicon Valley. 

“Legally, they can do it, but should they? And are the companies liable for what appears on their network? That is a huge policy debate that I don’t think we are ready for.”

As Father Soukup sees it, Americans have only begun to grapple with their reliance on Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and YouTube for content that shapes their worldview and clarifies their preferences, a process largely driven by algorithms designed to push posts that get liked and shared, not those that challenge the user’s politics and values.

Trump joined Twitter in 2009, and his personal account commanded an audience of 88 million followers at the time he was barred from the platform — almost half its average number of daily users. Experts charting Trump’s rise on the platform say he quickly understood that it rewards “influencers” who share their unvarnished thoughts and so create a powerful bond of intimacy with their audience. But while his gifts in this arena once brought him to the notice of elite media outlets, broadening his impact as a political candidate and then as a U.S. president, now Trump’s posts will be scrutinized for evidence in his impeachment trial, and the social-media accounts of his followers who breached the Capitol will also be mined to establish their role in the melee. 

At the same time, Twitter’s decision to silence one of its most important and omnipresent voices has ramped up a high-stakes debate over whether social-media companies should also face a reckoning. 

“We understand the desire to permanently suspend him now,” Kate Ruane, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a statement after the tech companies took action. “But it should concern everyone when companies like Facebook and Twitter wield the unchecked power to remove people from platforms that have become indispensable for the speech of billions — especially when political realities make those decisions easier.”

Indeed, after approving the decision to block Trump on Twitter, CEO Jack Dorsey acknowledged that a line had been crossed.

“Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all,” said Dorsey, in a post. But the move “sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation.”


Legal Landscape

It’s unclear whether Twitter or Facebook will face any legal consequences for silencing the president or for the posts of users who participated in the riots. 

Thus far, tech companies have benefited from Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 federal law designed to give emerging internet companies protection from liability for posts made by their users, along with the freedom to moderate content according to their terms of use.

Under Section 230, social-media companies are neutral platforms that operate more like a utility than a newspaper. 

And in one closely watched 2019 case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit found that Facebook was not liable for violent attacks tied to Hamas, the Islamic extremist organization, even though a Facebook account linked to the group had played a role in coordinating the attacks. However, the law does not shield the platforms from prosecution when the content involves child pornography or intellectual-property violations. And in recent years, social-media companies, which have benefitted from users’ supply of personal information and mostly free content that attracts advertisers, have faced mounting pressure to police language characterized as “fake news,” hate speech, or inciting violence, and they have ramped up content moderation.

“The courts have taken a generally lenient view of the platforms’ handling of speech issues,” said Harold Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow and director of the Center for the Economics of the Internet at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

That legal record, Furchtgott-Roth told the Register, reflected what has been a broader, bipartisan effort “to avoid a chilling effect on the internet economy” that could create “disincentives to investment in these services.”

“The issue for the online companies,” he said, “is whether they are protected under Section 230,” even as they engage in an “extraordinary expansion of editorial judgment.” 

Meanwhile, U.S. lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, have also been clamoring for change, as regulators pursue antitrust cases against several tech giants and conservatives and others worry about a further suppression of free speech.

Given Congress’ power to overturn or further modify Section 230, experts across the political spectrum said they were not surprised that the tech companies’ crackdown on Trump and Parler came as President Joe Biden secured his electoral victory. And some flagged Facebook and Twitter’s preelection decisions to suppress distribution of the New York Post’s stories about Hunter Biden emails and potential political corruption as early evidence of this shift in tech companies’ practices. 

“The real risk in all this is that big tech uses this moment as a justification for more broadly censoring conservative speech,” said Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a public interest group. “That is what we have to be vigilant about.”


Censoring Conservative Speech

Tedesco told the Register that well before the 2020 election, the tech sector, along with other leading U.S. corporations and banks, faced enormous pressure to accommodate the political demands of “far-left activists.” To bolster his claim, he noted the experience of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which had been labeled as an “extremist group” promoting “anti-LGBTQ” ideology by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an activist organization that also maintains a database listing hate groups that has stirred controversy and media scrutiny. The Ruth Institute, a global interfaith coalition equipping Christians to defend the family and build a civilization of love, and Courage, the Catholic apostolate for men and women with same-sex attraction who seek to live within the Church’s teaching on human sexuality, are among the groups SPLC labeled as hate groups.

He noted that Amazon used the Southern Poverty Law Center to vet the eligibility of nonprofits that apply to participate in the tech company’s Smile program, which allows customers to donate proceeds from purchases to a designated charity. The result, he said, is that the ADF, among other groups, has been excluded from that benefit, despite protests. 

“People need to understand the scope of what activists on the left are demanding of corporations,” Tedesco said. 

“We can see now that the big tech companies are the ones engaging in active censorship, but demands are being made across the board” to delegitimize conservative, faith-based organizations. Yet he was cautious about “asking for government regulation of these platforms.”

On the one hand, “you have a concentration of power over viewpoint expression in the hands of just a few corporations that are now acting in concert. So there has to be a path forward to deal with that, and it may result in revoking 230 or amending it to keep them accountable,” said Tedesco. “But here is the problem: They are a private corporation. And clamoring for government regulation of a private corporation should always concern conservatives.”

That mindset helps explain why many GOP lawmakers have been slow to rein in big tech. At the same time, social conservatives remain focused on censorship — online and offline. They fear it will intensify in the wake of the Capitol riot and the change in administrations, and they are looking for alternatives to Twitter and Facebook, even as Parler’s future remains uncertain

“I joined Parler with the idea of being able to share content and find content from people without supporting Twitter’s own censorship,” David Deavel, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas, told the Register.

Asked if he was concerned about the use of Parler’s platform to post messages inciting violence during the Jan. 6 riot, Deavel observed that Parler was not the only platform that struggled to monitor posts linked to the tumultuous events at the Capitol.

“It’s interesting that the president of Media Matters, a liberal-left group, noted that most of the organizing for the Capitol riot took place on Facebook,” said Deavel. 

The arguments justifying the treatment of Parler “might be convincing if there had been an effort to stop Facebook and Twitter, too. As it is, it looks more like killing competition than providing any kind of safety for anybody.”

Deavel believes that Americans who are alarmed by online censorship should wean themselves from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and look for other platforms that respect free-speech rights.

No doubt, many of the 15 million users that moved to Parler will embrace such a plan. 

At the same time, some commentators who backed Twitter’s move against Trump are still worried about the precedent that has been set and how it might inspire a now dominant Democratic Party to “overreach.” 

“A handful of executives made another business go away, while signaling that corporate America has chosen a political side and that it’s not afraid to go further than our government,” said Megan McArdle in a Jan. 12 column for The Washington Post.

As it reacts to the tumultuous events in Washington, and to the response of tech titans in Silicon Valley, “will blue America resist the urge to overreach, or will it try to confine Trump’s voters with him?”