Here’s the Trump fans’ new favorite app – without “censorship”

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SvD Näringsliv

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on November 22, 2020.

Censorship. Oppression of opinion. Freedom of speech. The American right does not mince words after Twitter started marking inaccuracies from Donald Trump. As a counterforce, a new wave of radical social networks is emerging – with its own rules that better suit their opinions.

Should social networks allow untruths on their platforms? This issue has been topical and hotly debated for several years. Challengers like the Parler app ask a new, more complex question: What is even untrue from the beginning? Or perhaps rather – which truth suits us best to portray?

After the US presidential election, the social network Parler rushed up that charts as number one on the App Store. It became a haven for conservatives who neither accepted the election results, nor how Twitter applied its new election policy.

Parler is a pretty tacky Twitter clone that has been around since 2018, even in Sweden. It was initially a home for users – often right-wingers – who had been thrown out from regular social networks. Parler positioned itself as a place that stood for “freedom of speech”, but it did not take long before those mocking the site were thrown out themselves.

Now Parler has gained momentum in the United States, thanks in large part to a push from of many leading politicians and conservative thinkers. Radio presenter and Fox News anchor Mark Levin recently tweeted: “Hurry up and follow me on Parler. I may not stay on Facebook or Twitter if they continue to censor me“. Former presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrotelet’s end Silicon Valley censorship“.

There is much to suggest that these are empty threats. Social networks are often described as a meeting ground for people. But for many, they are rather used as a megaphone. And the megaphone does not fulfill its function if no one hears what is being said.

Politicians and professional thinkers will therefore not dare to drop out of any established channels until they are sure that their reach is maintained. Thus, it will take a long time, if it happens at all. According to the New York Times, right-wing conservatives are also among the most successful in spreading their posts on Facebook.

The lifespan of social networks often depends on the business model they have. Making money is not easy. For example, it took Twitter four years as a listed company before it presented a single quarter of profit. Parler’s challenge will be to find advertisers who want to showcase their brand in this environment. Companies like Disney have previously pulled its ads from Fox News after controversial statements were made there. How will they look at advertising among right-wing extremists who have been banned from other sites?

If the ads do not cover the costs, they may have to rely on the users paying themselves instead. But there are few examples in the world where it has worked in this category. Parler will therefore likely have a hard time on that front as well.

The question marks about the business model make it even more interesting to look at where Parler’s money is coming from. In Silicon Valley, many people tend to think it’s okay to take money from a Trump supporter like Paypal founder Peter Thiel, who advocated a radical political reorganization, without the company itself getting such a stamp. Even scandal-ridden entrepreneurs such as the founder of the HR company Zenefits, Parker Conrad, has successfully raised a lot of money for new companies. But in the case of Parler – given the overly clear link to the Republican Party – the funding could almost be seen as a direct political investment.

Recently, we also received evidence of just this when Rebekah Mercer told us that she was one of the financiers. In a statement, Trump supporter Mercer said that “he ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords demands that someone lead the fight against data mining, and for the protection of free speech online.

A statement that is a bit rich coming from from a person who was associated with the biggest data scandal in modern times. The Mercer family, where Rebekah is the daughter, was also the financier of the controversial company Cambridge Analytica – the company that collected data from Facebook from 2013 onwards.

Parler’s newfound emergence, however, raises the question of whether social networks will become increasingly closed in the future. Are they open squares where dissidents meet, or groups that only show what you already believe in – so-called filter bubbles? That criticism is common even for social networks like Facebook and Twitter today. But there they are often an unintended consequence. With Parler, they are the whole point.

This analysis was first published in SvD Näringsliv, in Swedish, on November 22, 2020.

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