Yesterday The Observer ran a piece titled “Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler”. Presumably anyone reading was meant to be incredibly shocked that at least 14 Conservatives had been on the app including Michael Gove, Steve Baker and Ben Bradley.
If you haven’t used Parler before – and it’s since been removed from Google, Amazon and Apple platforms, so there’s not much chance of that now – its users consider it a free speech site. Others, particularly left-wing publications, have mischaracterised it as “synonymous with the alt-right”. Those associated with it have been demonised.
I happen to be a commentator who joined Parler, and I have no guilt about my actions. I started an account last year after having concerns about Twitter’s increasing use of labels for “disputed or misleading information”, as I tend to the view that people can think for themselves and regard such signposting as tech overreach, paving the way to increased, ideologically-driven censorship. In general, I regarded Parler as a “back-up” option in case I ever left Twitter, for whatever reason.
Many others seemed to have this idea and created Parler accounts. On the occasions I logged onto Parler – which were few and far between as I found it clunky – the posts seemed friendly enough and I never saw anything untoward. However, it is clear from recent news that a cohort of extremists did use Parler to post horrible content, perhaps viewing “free speech” as an invitation to be as offensive as possible.
Here’s where Parler got into difficulties, the ultimate irony being that it’s never actually promoted absolute free speech. Parler, in fact, had its own moderators to go through posts, but there weren’t enough of them to deal with problematic content, something that became more noticeable when the Capitol was under attack. While Twitter banned Trump, Parler’s inertia in dealing with posts that incited violence against elected officials led Google and Apple to pull the plug, removing it from their app stores, thus rendering it non-existent (albeit its founder has said it will be back by the end of the month).
Whether deleting the whole app was justified is another debate. But the point of this piece is to address the smearing of Tory MPs, Conservatives and others who signed up to this site, all for the crime of exploring alternatives to Twitter. There’s something deeply sinister about the manner in which people have noted their names, viewing them as “guilty by association” because others misused the system (a rule that would mean everyone on Twitter was “guilty”, incidentally).
It’s clear that Parler will simply become a word used to damage people’s reputation. “But you were on Parler!” You can imagine an opposition MP one day charging at Nadine Dorries. These attacks are not only poor form but actually counter-productive; as Andrew Doyle carefully put it on Twitter – they can increase online echo chambers, as more moderate voices shun alternative apps, like Parler, lest they be smeared for merely logging on.
The smears began as soon as Parler became popular (see example below).
The tactic is identical whenever a credible rival to Twitter emerges.
As a result, moderate voices do not join new platforms and the “far right” accusation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
— Andrew Doyle (@andrewdoyle_com) January 17, 2021
The even greater shame is that we’re not discussing the most important aspects of the Parler story. Some of these stood out to me the other day while listening to John Matze, one of Parler’s founders, on the Megyn Kelly podcast. I discovered that he graduated in 2014, so perhaps it’s no wonder his management of free speech has been lacklustre compared to more experienced tech giants. Mild-mannered and trained as an engineer, he struck me as a geek who wanted to do good in the world, promoting healthy debate. In fact, the point of Parler is its name – “parler”; to speak – as it was designed to foster exchange between different political groups.
Instead of searching for MPs who used the app, the media should be talking about one of the most pressing issues of our time, tech censorship. There are big questions about Amazon and other corporate giants completely removed Parler (is it to gain complete control of the marketplace?). The app’s fate is arguably much more important than why Twitter deleted Trump’s account. A little more discussion on this issue wouldn’t go amiss.