Even before President Donald Trump’s election loss, Trumpist conservatives made a show of joining Parler, an app often described as a type of conservative alternative to Twitter. This charge has been led by Dan Bongino, a Secret Service agent turned Fox News analyst turned mega podcast and social media star.
The media is not set up to deal with an entire political machine that has no interest in agreeing to a basic set of rules.
Where Twitter and Facebook had become too censorious, Parler advertises itself as a bonafide “free speech” platform without the inconvenience of verification or fact-checkers to provide friction between misleading posts and pure dopamine.
Post-election, Parler and Rumble, a site that bills itself as an alternative to YouTube favored by right-wing media users, have shot to the top of the app stores in the Apple and Android ecosystems. As Platformer’s Casey Newton noted, Facebook and Twitter, in seeming to do the bidding of Trump’s enemies (truth? The media? Sanity?), are now the “hated incumbent.”
I admit to being a little Parler-curious. This mostly stems from an urgent empirical question based on my strong belief that we cannot rebuild a consensus around anything until we depolarize. On Facebook and Twitter, contrived outrage cycles feed polarization and misinformation; both sides take advantage of this cognitive trick, but conservatives, in particular, know how effective it can be to bait liberals into responding with liberal pieties by acting with malevolent mischievousness. (Think of Ben Shapiro’s Cheshire cat grin.)
This has been a tried-and-true tactic of the information wars ever since the conservative movement decided it needed to cast knowledge-seekers themselves as an enemy. It’s incredibly efficient as a mechanism for in-group solidarity. The media is not set up to deal with an entire political machine that has no interest in agreeing to a basic set of rules about how civil society should work, and that’s one reason why conservative messaging, even unfathomably insane ones, seem to diffuse across the internet so quickly.
Enemies exist on Twitter and Facebook. But so does contact with reality, which is one reason conservatives have been so angry at the content-moderation policies: They added friction, and friction is irritating, especially when you’re amped up and have grievances to air.
Enemies exist on Twitter and Facebook. But so does contact with reality.
Liberals benefit from friction. In their immediate panic of the 2016 election, half of Hillary Clinton voters believed that Russia had tampered with the vote count — a count that, by about 80,000 votes in three states, swung the Electoral College to Trump. As detailed in the resulting lengthy investigation, Russian players did get into administrative software for election offices in a few states and collected electronic poll book data, but they did not penetrate any voting systems or influence the actual tallies. Still, this false belief was based on wishful thinking; many white progressives could not imagine an America that had room for both Trump and outgoing President Barack Obama. Reality, more or less, dislodged that belief.
After the 2020 election, some polls suggest that as many as 70 percent of Republicans don’t think that the election results can be trusted. This is because in contested elections, people tend to trust the legitimacy of the process only when their side wins. But ours wasn’t a contested election. In fact, for being in the middle of a pandemic, it ran incredibly smoothly. We know, though, that the president exerted a gravitational force on his party and that his efforts to cast doubt on the election’s integrity before it even happened opened a permission structure for members of his party to enter a very narrow mind space, where any evidence and logic no longer apply.
If conservatives decamp to Parler entirely, the virulence of this misinformation will not wane. A number of people believe it might not grow because there will be no media around to amplify it, but the closed echo chamber could help crystalize these beliefs quickly. I worry about this a lot. We have experienced the decay of democratic legitimacy at an exponential rate, and hardened mistrust of the voting process itself will be lethal and harmful.
We have experienced the decay of democratic legitimacy at an exponential rate, and hardened mistrust of the voting process itself will be lethal and harmful.
But Parler may turn out to be, in the end, a false refuge. First — sorry, folks — Parler does censor. It removes users, regularly. It does not actually seem to tolerate hate speech, and because it’s a much smaller platform, it might even be more efficient in finding and exorcising it than the social giants. Oh, and the founders really, really don’t like trolling. This includes the sort of trolling that feeds the outrage cycles on Twitter, the trolling that includes scatology and expletives and “unrelated comments.” Also, dog poop. Parler doesn’t like dog poop.
The point is, Parler does not actually face what it has set itself up to welcome — furious, beleaguered, anxious conservatives who want to find an online community that grants them some esteem and will fill a narrative void in their life.
On Wednesday, Bongino, of all people, had to knock down what might have been Parler’s first piece of conservative-on-conservative viral misinformation: a screenshot of a Fox News chyron alleging that George Soros was actually the owner of Parler. “Friends,” Bongino wrote on Twitter (!), “This is a photoshopped image. THIS IS NOT REAL. There are people who are desperate to take down Parler who are spreading BS hoping you’ll buy it. I OWN PARLER. This is the 4th or 5th time I’ve had to fight back against this stuff.”
Sorry, Dan. It won’t be the last.