Twitter’s decision to ban the viral Trump meme creator Carpe Donktum from its platform last week precipitated an unexpected development in the normally stagnant, crippled marketplace of Big Tech: a departure.
Thousands of users, sick of Twitter regulating content to suit its political bias, started setting up accounts on a social media platform called Parler. The platform was launched in 2018 by John Matze, a University of Denver grad, and marketed as a more robust free speech platform than Twitter, whose insistence on regulating the content and viewpoints of its 330 million monthly users tends to go in one direction.
For years, the defenders of Big Tech, who generally dismiss accusations of viewpoint bias as hysterical, misinformed, or irrelevant, have told unhappy users to just “build their own platform.” So, somebody finally did.
But the sour grapes response to Parler’s surge (within days, it was the most downloaded news app in Apple’s store), has presented an interesting Rorschach test for how the “build your own” crowd really feels about the people who actually go and, well, build their own.
Within days, the tech free-marketers were taking public shots at the free-market alternatives. Staff at both the Cato Institute and the Charles Koch Institute began dunking on Parler’s terms of service which are, admittedly, somewhat extreme. (The company has said the terms are being updated.) It’s striking that the same individuals who wax poetic on tech’s “free marketplace” had never once taken a good look at the free-market alternatives. That is, until they needed something negative to say about them.
The libertarians at Reason magazine, who are forever finger-wagging at anyone with bad things to say about Big Tech, started making fun of the platform’s conservative slant. Apparently it’s OK to call out the biases of Parler’s creators, but not Twitter’s. Got it.
Upset about Parler’s attempt to woo more liberals to its site to create more diversity of views, Mike Masnick of the tech industry blog TechDirt helpfully lit into them as a “shithole platform for assholes and trolls.”
Reason senior editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown also slammed Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for signing up for Parler, but not leaving Twitter. Availing yourself of all the market alternatives apparently makes you a hypocrite. No word on if Reason will also be trashing Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.), all of whom have also set up Parler accounts alongside their Twitter presence, in part because they say they are sick of Twitter’s bias.
Gleefully, the writers at Reason, the tech industry blog TechDirt, and, of course, The Dispatch’s David French began pointing out that Parler—which markets itself as a “First Amendment platform” and says “if you can say it on the streets of New York, you can say it on our platform”—were banning users for pornographic content, posting pictures of fecal matter, and other smutty content.
Haha! This crowd exclaimed. It’s not a “free speech” platform! They’re banning people! See? Content moderation is hard, isn’t it? (The unstated corollary being Twitter, the sainted platform, is thus entirely justified in its moderation practices.)
As Aaron Ross Powell of the Cato Institute hopefully put it, “Parler will be a ghost town in six months and everyone who ran to it as a safe space for conservatives will be back on Twitter pretending the whole episode never happened.”
It’s a weird brand of free marketer who so earnestly wishes for the free market alternatives to spectacularly fail.
Completely Missing The Point
There are a few things to unpack here. The first is the massive straw man that all these groups have created regarding what conservatives actually want from their social media platforms. Claiming that we’re all a bunch of hypocrites because our “free speech platform” also, like Twitter, engages in content moderation is a big swing and a miss over the actual point.
Conservatives are not angry about content moderation as a matter of absolute principle—that is, the ability to take down harassing, smutty, or obscene content. In fact, they realize how important that is. It’s why every effort in Congress to reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is tied to the ability of platforms to do just that—generally with more accountability, transparency, and responsibility when it comes to things like child sexual exploitation.
Rather, the issues that fire up conservatives center around two aspects of content moderation, both of which are routinely dismissed, ignored, or downplayed by pro-tech advocates.
First, there is the objectivity and fairness with which content moderation is applied. Twitter claims to be a “free speech platform” just like Parler, but it routinely applies so-called fact checks only to certain users, hides from view President Trump’s tweets for “glorifying violence” while leaving up death threats against Jews from the leader of Iran, and so forth. The transparency in how Twitter subjectively applies its standards is limited, and users have very little recourse.
Second, there is the ripple effect of how this viewpoint discrimination—particularly because it is done on an unprecedented scale—has over free thought, market access, behavior, and even election integrity. Ninety percent of the world uses Google. When Google decides what you see and whose words matter, the ramifications are hugely consequential.
(For a taste of the havoc Google’s “academic” definitions can render on both objective learning and individual reputations, see this unsettling essay from a former undergraduate professor of mine, Dr. Paul Kengor.)
The question isn’t if these companies have a right to engage in content moderation. They obviously do. Rather, the question at the root of much of our policy debate is how that power is being weaponized at scale, the consequences of it, and if this power has become so unaccountable that Sundar Pichai, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Dorsey are effectively deciding the terms of our national political debate—and even worse, the terms of what constitutes “appropriate thought.”
“Build Your Own So We Can Trash You For It”
Parler may market itself as just an “alternative to Twitter,” but it’s taken on an outsized role in the center of this political and policy debate over the power social media has over our society. And, sadly for a new and growing business, the so-called “free market advocates” of the tech world are intent on distorting the actual concern that Parler is seeking to address.
Parler markets itself as a “First Amendment platform” seriously, but not literally. The company does not want its platform to be a trashy mess of pornography and harassment, but it does want a diversity of views to flourish. And that’s the thing its newfound user base is responding to with enthusiastic approval.
Ironically, Twitter has said the same thing about itself. Its actions prove otherwise—but you’ll never hear the pro-tech “libertarians” point out the obvious disingenuousness of Twitter execs. That’s only reserved for Parler and its leadership. It’s also ironic because, as one former Google engineer pointed out, Parler’s efforts are actually closer to what the law governing content moderation online originally intended.
Parler, of course, is not immune from criticism, but it’s a bit rich for the “free enterprise” crowd’s first response to a surge toward a Twitter alternative to be so publicly negative, nasty, dismissive, and crude. It adds a new, insincere spin to the line “build your own;” a second clause that says: “build your own—so we can trash you for it.”