Parler all but vanished from the internet this week. Major tech platforms, including Apple and Amazon, booted the social network popular with the far-right for what the companies said was a failure to moderate incitement and violent rhetoric on its service that contributed to last week’s deadly Capitol riots.
But that hasn’t stopped angry Trump supporters from seeking out other digital gathering spaces, in what may now become a game of extremism whack-a-mole. Multiple alternatives have already claimed to have experienced a surge in sign-ups.
The rush to find substitutes amid Parler’s apparent demise at this time shows that deplatforming can succeed at sidelining extremism and driving it further out of the mainstream. Parler was already a tiny fraction of the size of larger platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and the alternatives may be smaller still. Parler didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
But this push to deplatform won’t eliminate extremism entirely, according to experts who study extremism and online social movements.
“Although these are important actions to have taken, it would be foolish to think this has solved everything,” said Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill who studies the role of social media in politics. That’s because, McGregor said, many of Parler’s most extreme users are likely to have been connected already on other, similar platforms even before Parler was taken down.
“Deplatforming certainly takes some wind out of the sails and makes it harder to organize on the same scale, but there’s no reason to suspect this was the only place these people are connected,” McGregor said.
Even as Parler sued Amazon in federal court Monday over its decision to cut off service, calls for violence continued on more loosely moderated forums such as 4chan, with at least one thread reviewed by CNN Business floating the idea of physical attacks on tech company data centers. 4chan didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, other alternative social networks appear to be benefiting from Parler’s takedown. One post in a channel affiliated with the Proud Boys — a group whose members participated in the riot at the Capitol building — on the messaging app Telegram claimed that Telegram has now received tens of thousands of new users seeking refuge from Parler. Telegram didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, but the app has surged to the number-two spot on Apple’s own top charts.
Telegram and Signal, an encrypted messaging app, went from tens of thousands of downloads on Jan. 7 to hundreds of thousands of downloads over the weekend, according to data from the app metrics firm Apptopia. Other apps including MeWe, a social networking app, have also experienced explosive growth over the weekend, Apptopia said. In the first week of 2021, MeWe was being downloaded a little more than 9,000 times a day in the US. But on Jan. 8, the day President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, that number jumped to more than 13,000 and hit 39,000 by the end of Jan. 9. A similar pattern played out with apps for conservative television networks Newsmax and OANN, according to Apptopia.
There may be other confounding explanations for the increase in these apps’ popularity. Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently endorsed the use of Signal, while a WhatsApp notification about how the app handles user data may have also driven some to embrace alternatives. But those events predated Trump’s Twitter ban and Parler’s deplatforming.
“Both apps have been breaking downloads records for themselves since Saturday,” said Adam Blacker, Apptopia’s VP of insights.
Gab, another platform beloved by some conservatives, said it’s added additional capacity after it claimed to have gained more users in a single weekend than in its first two years of existence. Gab itself was banned from platforms including Apple and Google’s app stores, as well as various payment processors, after it was reported that the suspected shooter behind 2018’s Pittsburgh synagogue massacre had maintained a profile on the app and expressed virulently anti-Semitic views. (At the time, Gab said it had been unfairly “smeared” and was “under attack” for defending free speech.)
Gab bills itself as “the free speech social network.” It has boasted of having self-built much of the infrastructure it now operates upon, making it theoretically immune from what happened to Parler. In a post on Gab Monday, CEO Andrew Torba said the service is seeing “roughly the population of Boston joining the site every 24 hours” and warned those posting “awful threats” that Gab cooperates with law enforcement subpoenas.
“If abusing our site is your idea of a fun time you should think twice,” Torba wrote.
On Monday, Parler’s lawsuit claimed that being cut off by Amazon Web Services would spell the nascent platform’s “death knell.” The service, which launched in 2018 and attracted prominent figures in the Republican party like Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, portrayed itself as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter that would be far more expansive in its interpretation of free speech. That same principle, however, appears to be what got the company into hot water with Apple, Google and Amazon.
In a statement Monday evening, Amazon said the lawsuit has “no merit” and that Parler had violated its terms of service because of the violent content and incitement found on its site.
“We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks and during that time we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services Sunday evening,” Amazon said.
Parler claimed in its lawsuit that after Amazon flagged numerous examples of violent content, “over the last few days Parler had removed everything AWS had brought to its attention and more,” while alleged hateful posts on other social networks did not result in Amazon sanctions.
In some ways, the notoriety associated with Parler is a distraction, according to Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Some of the groups that descended on the Capitol last week may have organized to some extent on Parler, but many have long been part of other online communities that predate Parler entirely. Armed militia groups, he said, have for years organized on military forums and chatrooms.
“There’s no central hub where everyone goes to plan an insurrection,” he said.
Brookie added: “What a lot of this large-scale deplatforming does is limit the ability of these groups to reach new audiences.”
But, he warned, there may be a cost: “Those who are already engaged in these type of online communities are more likely to become more hardened [in their convictions].”