EXCLUSIVE: Conservatives who claim FB and Twitter are censoring flock to Mercer-funded Parler

According to media reports, Fox Business TV host Maria Bartiromo announced that she was no longer using Twitter two days after the U.S. election.She posted a link to an article on Twitter falsely claiming that Democrats were trying to steal the election results.Twitter hid the article behind a hashtag, warning that it contained misleading content. Twitter also notified Bartiromo that a complaint had been filed against her account (although the company did clarify that she had not broken any rules and that no action had been taken against her).

“This is the same group of people who abused their power in 2016,” BartiromoMo said on Twitter to her nearly 900,000 followers.” I will be leaving soon for Parler. please open an account at @parler immediately.”

Parler was founded in 2018 and describes itself as “the world’s premier platform for free speech.” On Saturday, Parler CEO and co-founder John Matze said one of the private company’s early investors was Rebekah Mercer, who along with her father, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, has been a supporter of President Trump and a leading conservative cause of the Donors, including Breitbart News and former White House strategist Steve Bannon.

“John and I started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech,” Rebekah Mercer wrote on Parler on Saturday. She went on to denounce “the increasing tyranny and arrogance of our tech overlords.”

The company has few restrictions on what users can post. This makes it attractive to high-profile conservatives who claim that Facebook and Twitter are censoring them, even though there is no evidence of these allegations of systemic anti-conservative bias.

In the weeks leading up to and after the election, Facebook and Twitter have stepped up their efforts to combat misinformation. They’ve deleted groups, issued warnings about posts, and reduced the spread of the most egregious false claims of voter fraud.

“Part of Parler’s success is because people understand they’re being censored,” said Bartiromo, who also interviewed Matze on her show. “Have Twitter and Facebook gone too far?” She asks. “Once you start curating content and you start fact-checking, you introduce bias,” Matze replied.

Radio host Mark Levin told listeners he was “tired” of his Facebook page, which has 1.6 million followers, because the company had restricted his account because he repeatedly shared false information. “I want to strongly encourage you to leave Facebook and follow me on Parler,” he said. “I’m not going to look at Facebook anymore.”

Interest in Parler sends app downloads soaring

Thanks to the attention it has received in recent days, Parler is now one of the most downloaded apps on Apple and Android smartphones. According to Jeffrey Wernick, the company’s chief operating officer, it has reached 10 million members, more than double the 4.5 million it had last week.

“We attribute our growth not to any one person or group, but to Parler’s efforts to earn the trust of our community, both to protect their privacy and to be transparent about how their content is handled on our platform,” Wernick said in a statement. But that’s only a fraction of Twitter’s 187 million average daily users and Facebook’s nearly 2 billion users.

Parler looks a lot like Twitter: users follow an account and post information known as “Parleys.” In an interview with NPR this summer, Parler CEO Matzer said that the app intends to solve a problem he’s seen on large social media platforms. “We’re finding that a lot of people are experiencing or talking about censorship,” he said.

Parler’s community guidelines prohibit criminal activity, terrorism, child pornography, copyright infringement, fraud and spam. The company said it tries to avoid removing content or banning users, and that it does not remove or filter content or accounts “based on opinions expressed within the content in question”.

Matze said the goal is not to be a “Wild West” without rules, but rather a town square for open discussion.

“We take a strong stand against pornography and nudity,” he says.” But if people disagree with each other, we’re not here to mediate or moderate the conversation.”

Experts say the ‘free speech’ approach has allowed false claims to flourish

As a result of this loose approach to content moderation, experts who study online misinformation say that false and misleading claims about the election have been pushed onto Parler from other platforms.

Facebook has removed several “Stop the Steal” groups, some of which had amassed hundreds of thousands of members.

Shannon McGregor, who studies social media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said the misinformation that has flourished on Parler is cause for alarm. “What we’ve seen in the past on some of the other fringe or alternative social media sites is that if there are no rules, if it’s really isolated, then what happens is it becomes more and more extreme,” she said.

That includes Gab, an alternative social network that has become notorious for hosting anti-Semitic and white nationalist content. It was used by the accused shooter at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018.

Influencers show little sign of abandoning Twitter and Facebook

Despite Parler’s rapid growth, McGregor and other experts doubt that conservatives with the largest audiences will really abandon the larger social media app — even though they’re encouraging their followers to do so. “All of these people have accounts on Twitter because that’s where the journalists are, that’s where the media is,” McGregor said. “If they do leave Twitter, their news value goes down.”

Renée DiResta, who tracks misinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said that’s what happened this summer when Parler grew again, as Twitter began labeling Trump’s tweets as false claims.

“Even senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, who announced (in June and July) that they were going to Parler, didn’t actually leave Twitter, didn’t reduce their posting patterns” on Twitter, and didn’t post as frequently on Parler, she said.

She said she expects the string of activity on Parler to continue in the short term, especially as Facebook keeps shutting down the “Stop the Steal” group. “But it’s unclear whether this is really indicative of a massive movement to vacate the platform and form socially conservative spaces,” she said.

In the meantime, Bartiromo continues to post on Twitter – and promote her Parler username on every tweet.