Since Joe Biden’s election victory, Twitter and Facebook have amped up their policing of false statements and misinformation — even when coming from President Trump himself.
In response, many Central Florida conservatives have moved to Parler, a social network funded by the conservative Mercer family that touts itself as a site where people can “speak freely” without “censorship.”
But in practice, that mostly means it’s an echo chamber for not just conspiracies about the election but also for threats of violence.
The move is part of a state and national trend, as figures ranging from conspiracy theorist U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., Longwood Commissioner Matt Morgan and Gov. Ron DeSantis' press secretary Fred Piccolo are among its members.
In all, 4.5 million people have joined the site since Biden’s win was announced, according to CNN. The site now has an estimated 8 million users in total since it was launched in 2018.
Parler operates like a combination of Twitter and Facebook, with members able to post on their walls and follow other members.
But the search function is clunky, as members can really only look for people or hashtags, and messaging is only available to “verified” members. People can become “influencers” by providing government ID or their Social Security numbers.
The conservative nature of the site is apparent by the first members Parler suggests newcomers follow, among them talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson, filmmaker and felon Dinesh D’Souza and right-wing celebrities Diamond and Silk.
Randy Ross, who served as the Orange County chair for the Trump campaign in 2016, said the reason Parler has become so popular for conservatives “is because of the censorship instituted on other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.”
But, Ross added, “While I appreciate a new place to discuss political views, I’ve remained [with Facebook] and will not be leaving any social media platform to simply be part of an echo chamber. I don’t fear competing options as long as the discussion is respectable.”
Facebook and Twitter have cracked down on misinformation in the past few months, including banning QAnon conspiracy groups and adding “disputed” tags to many of Trump’s false claims of fraud following the election.
Susan MacManus, a former professor of political science at the University of South Florida, said the newfound popularity of Parler among conservatives is just part of “a lot of changing social media patterns at the moment.”
Data show “some people are also just turning their back on Facebook, whether it’s conservative or liberal,” she said. “And obviously, for a lot of Trump supporters, they’ve long felt that traditional social media has increasingly censored their viewpoints. And I’m not at all surprised that they’ve come up with this alternative social media site.”
Still, MacManus said, she’s increasingly concerned about “the siloed nature of people’s media habits. And the close alignment with partisan identification is what has a lot of advocates of bipartisanship very worried about the future of democracy.”
Parler posts include Central Floridians promoting the “Stop the Biden Steal” rally at Lake Eola, one of several such protests touting false claims of massive voter fraud in Biden’s win. Others praise Cuban Americans backing Trump in greater numbers alongside hashtags of #StopSocialism, #SocialismSucks, #cubanamericans, and #CentralFlorida.
Another post calls Gainesville-area Democratic congressional candidate Adam Christensen “an example of the modern-day left. … Violent, unhinged and dangerous,” and features QAnon hashtags such as #thegreatawakening.
Also on Parler, state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, R-Howey-in-the-Hills, continued to claim Biden received “thousands of illegal ballots” in Georgia. One user’s reply states, “When will we bring out the Marines? What happened to defending the constitution against enemies foreign AND DOMESTIC??”
The site has already seen backlash for violent rhetoric. Lang Holland, an Arkansas police chief, resigned Saturday after posting on Parler “Death to all Marxist Democrats” and “I pray all those in that picture [Hillary Clinton and President Obama] hang on the gallows and are drawn and quartered!!!! Anything less is not acceptable.”
Despite the threats, Holland appears to still have an account on Parler. But now, it’s labeled private.
Some Central Florida posts, however, are not political at all and simply promote farmer’s market businesses and provide hurricane updates.
Piccolo, a social media maven who often spars with journalists on Twitter, said he joined Parler to make sure he claimed his own name.
“I like to grab my name on any new social media platform just to have it so no one can pretend to be me,” Piccolo said. “If it ever takes off, I’ll have my usual handle.”
He had not posted on Parler as of Tuesday.
Twitter, he said, “is great. Facebook I think has gotten too far from their origins — now you have to scroll for five minutes before you see the content you always came to Facebook for.”
Morgan did not return requests for comment.
Ross said it was unclear whether Parler will continue to grow like Facebook and Twitter, or just fade away like Yik Yak and Google Plus. It may come down to the backing of one man: Donald Trump.
“Will the platform continue? Most likely,” Ross said. “My guess, however, is that Trump creates a media outlet. [And that] will include TV and social media platforms which the base will gravitate to.”
©2020 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)
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