Parler Is Just a Symptom of a Much Bigger Problem

Congress asked the FBI to investigate the app’s role in promoting ‘civil unrest’ in the U.S. — but the entire social media ecosystem demands scrutiny

Photo: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The House Oversight and Reform Committee chair demanded on Thursday that the FBI “conduct a robust examination” of Parler and its alleged role in the Capitol riots on January 6, which resulted in the deaths of five individuals and for which hundreds of people are being investigated by the Justice Department.

In a letter to FBI director Christopher Wray published by the Washington Post, the committee’s chairwoman and New York Representative Carolyn Maloney asked the agency to consider Parler as “a potential facilitator of planning and incitement related to the violence, as a repository of key evidence posted by users on its site, and as a potential conduit for foreign governments who may be financing civil unrest in the United States.”

Parler isn’t the only tech company accused by Congress of facilitating violence and coordinated civil unrest. But the committee’s focus on Parler ignores how the larger social media ecosystem amplifies and spreads hate. Already, “Parler refugees” — themselves likely refugees from mainstream platforms like Facebook that have recently clamped down on far-right groups — have migrated to Telegram and MeWe, and will likely turn to other lesser known sites should they be restricted or deplatformed there. It’s an exceedingly difficult moderation challenge.

Researchers studying disinformation online have told OneZero that Facebook and Twitter carry some responsibility for the abuse running rampant on niche sites

In her letter, Maloney never mentioned these sites or the role of companies such as Facebook and Twitter in housing far-right communities prior to recent moderation efforts that led to their exodus to Parler and other alternative platforms. Researchers studying disinformation online have told OneZero that Facebook and Twitter carry some responsibility for the abuse running rampant on niche sites, and should be obligated to share cross-platform moderation resources, wherein larger platforms collaborate with smaller ones to establish industry standards for content moderation and work together to enforce them.

Parler became a popular destination for Trump supporters and right-wing personalities over the past several months against a backdrop of claims that Facebook and Twitter were “censoring” conservative voices. The deplatforming of far-right movements such as Stop the Steal last November provided an additional boost to Parler’s userbase, and its app saw roughly 11 million downloads before it was removed from the App Store and Google Play for the company’s failure to moderate threats of violence.

Though the platform’s CEO, John Matze, has long characterized Parler as a home for people claiming “censorship” on social media, it was also reportedly used to encourage and propagate unrest at the Capitol.

“In fact, the leader of the white nationalist group Proud Boys pledged on Parler that there would be a thousand ‘boots on the ground’ and that its members would ‘turn out in record numbers on Jan. 6,’” Maloney’s letter states.

Rioters thoroughly documented the event on Parler before the site was booted by Amazon Web Services on January 10. By then, however, a self-described hacker had downloaded all of Parler’s public data — more than 56.7 terabytes of posts, photos, videos, and location data — which they and a crowdsourced team have preserved for anyone to access, including federal officials. Parler is now back online in an extremely limited capacity, and its executives accused Amazon of antitrust violations in a lawsuit filed January 11.

Maloney’s letter notes the committee will embark on its own investigation of Parler, for its alleged use by right-wing insurrectionists, but also for its alleged “financing and its ties to Russia.” Parler’s return this week was enabled by DDoS-Guard, a Russian-owned tech company that offers hosting and cybersecurity services. According to The Guardian, DDoS-Guard formerly provided DDoS protection to anonymous message board 8kun, and hosts Russian government sites and the racist forum Daily Stormer.

Update: A previous version of this article misstated the date Amazon Web Services removed Parler from its platform. It was January 10.

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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