There is a need for platforms like Parler, the free-speech friendly Twitter alternative recently pulled into the media spotlight for hosting disenfranchised Trump supporters.
There is obviously a limit to what can be said on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and probably even WordPress. Sophisticated algorithmic mechanisms already exist to filter out content featuring contentious words; not only deliberately unpleasant terms like ‘n*gger’ or ‘k*ke’, but also controversial or misused ones like ‘Zionist’, ‘globalist’, among others; the aim being to provide a safe, friendly space that people of all stripes can use for work or pleasure.
But as these platforms have grown, so has their political and strategic value; and with politics comes passion, and with passion inevitable offence. Donald Trump, whose social media accounts are both an asset and a liability to the websites hosting them, has attracted a flood of both pro- and anti-MAGA voices to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in recent years, ruining them for some, improving them for others. Now, for the former at least, after a contested and fraught election, the official effort to regulate information has become intolerable. Migratory waves to Parler flow thick and fast.
Entirely out of curiosity, I signed up for an account last week. This is a kind of review.
As I mentioned, Parler is modelled on Twitter, and has a similar concept. You broadcast your opinions, post links, pictures, etc. and other people react to them – liking them, commenting on them, or ‘echoing’ them, which is the same thing as retweeting. Like Twitter, you have a username and an @-name; you collect followers, and can receive private messages. On first glance, the only obvious difference – apart from the content of the posts – is the colour scheme, which is paper white and cherry red.
The content is certainly different. Not surprisingly, but still strikingly. The atmosphere is like that of a political club.
As soon as the account had been activated, my automatic ‘hello’ post received automated comments and welcome messages from various official pro-Trump accounts. I was invited to ‘Stop the Steal’ and pledge my support by texting ‘Trump’ to a (now familiar) mobile number.
I decided to explore just how committed the platform was to freedom of speech. I typed the ‘n word’ (though rather more explicitly) into the search bar above the news feed. Sure enough, the word was present – in usernames, bios, posts and memes. There was a user called ‘Certified N*ggerologist’, for example; another called ‘n*gger1488’, and so on. I then tried ‘Zionist’, expecting – foolishly, it turned out – to find a wealth of anti-Semitic and conspiratorial sentiment. But though there were examples of this, the majority of hits were older American Trump supporters proudly self-identifying as supporters of Israel. The difference between this place and 4chan’s /pol/ became clearer.
Looking around at the users, the majority of which were American seniors, I felt a definite sense of unease and out-of-place-ness. There was truth to be found, yes – and even genuine insight; but also a constant, nagging contradiction. Here was freedom of speech expressed as marching uniformity. Something seemed to have gone wrong.
Parler is far from a cult forum. It was certainly never designed to be one. But the automatic messages I received from the Trump campaign at the beginning of my experiment, together with the insularity of the userbase, do not bode well for its promise of greater ideological variety.
On Twitter, the right is persecuted by the left. Liberal users routinely report conservative accounts, paying Stasi-like attention to the language of any post they disagree with. On Parler, at least presently, it appears the right has made a Twitter for itself, flipping the tables. Here it is liberal users who are swarmed and berated (though, notably, not reported).
You would be correct to point out this may only be temporary. Parler is a Trump app at the moment because Trump supporters are the people taking advantage of it; but nothing is preventing left-wing or middle-ground users migrating there as well. A free speech forum will be what users make of it. No more. No less.
My concern is that the owners of Parler are already comfortable with the idea that Trump loyalists are (and will always be) its bread and butter. I am worried that the app will remain a ‘Twitter for MAGA people’ – a safe space where they can agree with each other in peace, protected from opposing views.
Donald Trump is the not the arguments he made on the campaign trail, nor the energies conjured up or released by his movement. He is an odd person, with absurd idiosyncrasies. It is vitally important that the cause of truth, no matter how much the president has done for it, does not become the cause of Trump. Truth is eternal and perfect. Trump is temporary and flawed.
One of the most disturbing impressions Parler made on me is the idea that for millions of otherwise balanced people, a meaningful distinction between Trump and truth no longer exists. For such people, if Trump goes down, truth will follow. If Trump wins, truth triumphs likewise. Any evidence or argument against Trump is untrue by definition, and by the same logic, any argument for him is unquestionable fact.
I am confident that if the president suddenly switched places with Biden on any issue, even a sacred cause of the right, a good number of his supporters would follow him regardless. Criticism of his defection would be ‘fake news’, blasphemy, heresy. The divine mystery of the president’s ‘4D chess’ would be deemed beyond the ignorant critic’s intellectual capacity.
Consider the plight of the long-suffering paleoconservative Ann Coulter, who has done more than most to support Trump when it counts. For nearly four years now, the New York columnist has been trying to separate the causes of Trump’s election from the character of the man himself. For Coulter, immigration, elitism and future demographics were the underlying factors of the Great Revolt of 2016, not the quirks and talents of Trump alone.
She continues to receive great vitriol for this claim: “What happened to you, Ann?” – “I used to be a fan. Sad you’ve sold out to the fake news media!” Etc.
But Coulter, like a small number of others, criticises Trump from the right, and with a greater goal in mind – the preservation of a first-world America. Trump could reign for another thirty years and not save the country she values; because Trump is not the goal. And the goal matters more.