The January 6th insurrection on the US Capitol will go down in history as perhaps the best example of the dangers of extremism in the US political system. On the fateful day, Ali Alexander, a prominent promoter of the “Stop the Steal” campaign on social media, was in attendance, along with dozens of other social media Stop The Steal advocates. In the days leading up to January 6th, Alexander and other far-right extremists mobilized people on Parler, an alternative social network associated with conservatives. These organizers also used the app throughout the siege to coordinate their actions, including discussion on what tools could forcibly open doors, whether to bring weapons into Congress, and best strategies to avoid the police. On Parler, Alexander rallied his 41,000 followers by claiming that “‘If DC escalates … so do we.’”
Infowars, a far-right website communicating conspiracy theories and false news, has an account on Parler boasting 327,000 followers. The account was one of many which promoted the January 6th insurrection, writing: “‘Today is the day – @alexjones leads largest patriot movement in history through Washington D.C.!’” Conservative social media platforms such as Parler are a symptom of the United States’ increasingly polarized public discourse and politics, and may be a harbinger of continued dangerous rhetoric that may derive from such outlets.
The emergence of “alt-right” social media platforms began long-before January 6th, and include Rumble, a YouTube alternative for conservatives, Trump’s own created Truth Social after being kicked off of Twitter, as well as Parler. However, activity on the networks surged after Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election, spurring outrage among those who supported the former president. Many, including Trump, notoriously declared that the election was “rigged” or that the election’s results were stolen and corrupted to Biden’s favor.
The outrage culminated in January 6th’s events and made it glaringly apparent the power social media has to mobilize people into dangerous and illegal activities. In response to January 6th, several platforms, including Reddit, Twitch, and Twitter, cracked down on extremist accounts and content that invigorated a “risk of further incitement of violence”—including the ban of Donald Trump. By and large, these platforms have experienced a decline in extremist activity since Trump’s presidency, but this does not suggest the end for them.
Once the social media sites where extremist and false claims were spread began cracking down on the spread of this kind of information, Republicans and conservatives countered that the tech platforms were censoring them and unjustly silencing their voices. Correspondingly, many Republican and conservative members have turned to alternative platforms where online rhetoric is less monitored and restricted. Wired observed that following Trump’s de-platforming, thousands of Trump supporters “follow[ed] their leader off Twitter and Facebook and into a new world of almost-anything-goes social media apps.”
In the past few months, celebrity Kanye West, now going by ‘Ye’, has expressed antisemitic views several times on social media platforms, resulting in his temporary removal from Instagram and Twitter. In response, he declared his intention to buy Parler. Speaking about his motivation for buying Parler, Ye said that “in a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial, we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves.” Ye’s opinion is echoed by many other supporters of alternative conservative platforms who believe that “big social media platforms have inherent liberal biases” and therefore “the principles of free speech and expression demand new platforms.” These contemporary social media sites offer refuge for users provoking mainstream platforms’ censorship policies.
Parler, which launched in 2018 during Donald Trump’s tenure in office, is one of the most popular alternative platforms among conservatives. When Parler was first established, it branded itself as a “haven for free speech with a laissez-faire approach to moderation compared with mainstream platforms.” The platform boasted few regulations on “what could be posted beyond a prohibition against illegal activity, low requirements for identity verification, and light content moderation, the platform appealed to social media users caught crosswise by mainstream platform governance standards”—a place where users could speak freely without fear of being de-platformed or censored. As a result of these lax restrictions, antigovernment and hate groups have been attracted to the platform, including the Proud Boys and the Last Sons of Liberty..
New America conducted research that illustrated just how lax Parler’s moderation was, revealing that “users themselves with only a little more than 800 users [were being] designated as content moderators for upwards of 13 million users in January 2021.” Preceding the January 6th insurgence, the platform’s loose governance standards and promotion of conservative and Republican thinkers were critical in making Parler a key instigator of the event. The site became a hotspot for conspiracy theories, “fake accounts, parody accounts targeting Democrats and perceived leftist elites, and accounts that augmented their engagement by using integrations that would ingest news article RSS feeds from media sites known for promoting disinformation, such as the Epoch Times.” Despite the platform being controversial—early last year, Apple, Amazon, and Google booted Parler off their platforms after the January 6th riot investigation led by the US House of Representatives affirmed the site’s platforming of dangerous speech— Parler has been restored on these popular platforms and may undergo a regeneration under the guidance of Ye. Parler’s restoration may be emblematic of a widespread resurgence of conservative social media platforms.
Advocates for less censorship had another win this year when Elon Musk bought Twitter. Elon Musk is decidedly right-wing, having urged his 115 million Twitter followers to vote Republicans into Congress during this year’s midterm elections “to balance against a Democratic presidency and ‘curb [its] worst excesses.’” A self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist,” he has suggested that “he would loosen standards for the policing of harmful content such as misinformation and hate speech once he takes over.” Musk’s acquisition of Twitter generated celebration from conservatives, particularly among those who felt the company’s former leadership’s censorship policies were unfairly suppressing conservative opinions.
Not to be outdone by Parler and Twitter, Rumble has recently reported significant financial investments from notable conservative venture capitalists including Peter Thiel and Senator-elect J.D. Vance. Moreover, in October, Truth Social resolved many of its legal troubles “following months of being blocked over violent content”, ensuring that both platforms will remain accessible to the public. While these platforms may have accepted new guidelines in order to be reinstated, Elon Musk’s aforementioned intentions with Twitter illustrate that there are also populist pressures for more lenient content moderation policies. If these calls are heeded by other major social media platforms, it will become even easier to disseminate false or dangerous content to a wide audience.
Despite these projections, however, many alternative platforms are still in early stages of growth and have not yet reached a point at which they can meaningfully compete with giant platforms such as Twitter or Instagram. For the first half of this year, for instance, Parler only had an average of 983,000 monthly active users, compared to almost 3 billion for Facebook. It is difficult to predict how alternative platforms will perform in the long run, but SensorTower Mobile Insights Strategist Stephanie Chan predicts that “they will likely see a surge in adoption around major US political events.” Collectively, these platforms may begin to create a new digital environment for conservative voices.
During such a divisive period in US politics, it is crucial that people are informed on how to identify misinformation and bias on social media. Although platforms like Parler primarily cater to a small, self-selecting audience, they have the power to promote dishonest rhetoric that could inspire and even excuse more events like January 6th in the future.