How Parler went offline, and how it might come back

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Parler, the largely unmoderated social network popular with conservatives, often found fans by lampooning Big Tech. But after the site got knocked off the internet over the weekend, it’s more apparent than ever how even fringe services must rely on mainstream technology providers. Now Parler is apparently trying to rebuild — with or without Big Tech’s help.

On Monday, it was reported that Parler had registered its domain with Epik, a web hosting service that has previously housed Gab, the far-right forum used by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. Right now, it’s unclear where that effort stands: Epik had previously said that it had no relationship with Parler, though at least one leader at the company seems open to working with the platform.

Parler’s shutdown comes in the aftermath of the riot on January 6, during which a mob of people who objected to the results of the 2020 presidential election broke into the US Capitol. Before the insurrection, posts on Parler encouraged violence in Washington as President-elect Joe Biden’s victory was finalized on Capitol Hill, and afterward, the platform continued to host violent content, including threats against Vice President Mike Pence.

Several major technology companies, including Google, Amazon, and Apple, severed relationships with Parler in the days following the event. This effectively brought the platform offline, around the same time that Facebook indefinitely suspended and Twitter permanently banned President Trump.

“Civil society and others raised concerns about Parler long before last week for the kinds of extremism, of racism, anti-Semitism, that have flourished on that site,” said Isedua Oribhabor, a US policy analyst at the digital rights group Access Now, who described the platform as “a place that has been attractive to extremists because of their lax or nonexistent form of content moderation.”

In shutting down Parler, several tech companies said they were trying to reduce the risk of violence and force the platform to adopt more aggressive moderation of calls for violence. The collapse of Parler also showcased the tech industry’s immense power to control what appears on the web and in app stores. Now, as Parler looks for ways to come back online, it faces an uphill battle to rebuild its former self without Big Tech’s help. That or it could become something different and more strictly moderated.

To get back online, it’s possible Parler changes its tone on content moderation

In the immediate aftermath of the violence at the Capitol, politicians, activist groups, and employees at companies that worked with Parler began calling for action to be taken against the platform for its role in encouraging the insurrection.

Google was the first to boot Parler from its Play Store on January 8. Apple gave Parler 24 hours to implement stricter moderation policies, but after it came up short, Apple removed Parler from its App Store on January 9. Amazon suspended Parler from its web hosting service on January 10, following pressure from employees at the company as well as at least one lawmaker, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA). Amazon told Parler in a letter obtained by Recode that violent content on the platform — and its lack of moderation — meant that Parler was violating Amazon’s terms of service agreement.

There’s some indication Parler might try to change its approach to moderation in order to get back online, though it’s not clear how willing Amazon would be to work with the platform again.

When Apple reached out to Parler threatening to ban the app, Parler volunteered to create a content moderation “task force” for the time being, though Apple said that effort wasn’t enough and didn’t meet its requirements. With the threat of being booted, Parler told Amazon it planned to more aggressively moderate its content with volunteers, which Amazon told Parler would “not work in light of the rapidly growing number of violent posts.” Parler also took down some content after being contacted by both Amazon and Apple, according to the Wall Street Journal.

A Google spokesperson told Recode that Parler was suspended “until” it addressed its moderation issues, and Apple made a similar statement.

While Parler’s leadership has historically been defiant about its lack of moderation — and critical of companies like Facebook and Twitter for their moderation — Parler CEO John Matze released a statement on Sunday that seemingly backtracked from this stance, which he had been openly expressing just days earlier.

“Parler is not a surveillance app, so we can’t just write a few algorithms that will quickly locate 100% of objectionable content, especially during periods of rapid growth and seemingly coordinated malicious attacks that accompany that growth,” said Matze, adding that the platform was working to improve and would welcome “feedback.”

Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence that Parler users were intimately involved in the planning and execution of the Capitol riot. After a security researcher archived nearly all of Parler’s posts — including GPS coordinates of users’ video locations — before Amazon booted it from its servers, a Gizmodo analysis found that several Parler users ventured deep into the US Capitol on January 6. Not only did Parler users encourage and celebrate the raid on the Capitol, some appeared to be at the literal center of events.

Parler could return without Big Tech’s help, but that could take time

When Reddit banned a pro-Trump subreddit called the_donald last June, amid an expansion of its hate speech policies, members of the forum turned to the messaging platform Discord, before being banned from that platform, too. When the far-right conspiracy theory site 8chan was dropped by its service providers following the El Paso mass shooting in 2019, it eventually reformed as 8kun. And when Gab, a right-wing social network that was used by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, was kicked off GoDaddy, Epik brought the site back online.

Parler may follow in the footsteps of these fringe services in order to get back online, a complicated effort that could take some time. With many platforms reticent to work with Parler — the Wall Street Journal reported that Oracle will not provide Parler with cloud services and that Microsoft has no hosting contract with Parler — Parler’s CEO has said the company is now considering other cloud providers, though it’s not clear what companies those might be. Some experts doubt Parler’s ability to bounce back after being booted from Amazon Web Services and say it will be incredibly difficult and could take quite a while. “Parler will need to build its own infrastructure,” according to ZDNet’s Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols.

At the same time, Dan Bongino, a right-wing conservative commentator who has invested in the site, recently said on Fox that he was willing to go bankrupt in order to help Parler return.

And, of course, the site might succeed in getting Epik to host it. Epik SVP Robert Davis hinted in a statement that his company would be willing to work with Parler if it developed moderation policies that could cut down on violence. Davis also told New York Times tech reporter Jack Nicas that Parler had already registered its domain with Epik without Epik’s knowledge. If a deal is worked out, Davis added, it could be about 10 days for a preliminary version of Parler to get back online and as much as three months for a full version of the site to go live again. Epik did not respond to Recode’s request for comment.

Parler might be gone, but its users aren’t

So it’s probably going to be a while before Parler is back in full force. In the meantime, would-be Parler users are likely going to other apps, says Oren Segal, a vice president for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

“Before Parler went dark, as we were monitoring the platform, we saw discussions about where people were going to migrate to — Telegram or Gab, etc.,” Segal told Recode. “They’re always preparing for where they’re going to go to next, anticipating that their platform of choice is going to go down.”

There are several platforms and services these users are turning to. Telegram, a messaging platform that claims to have half a billion users and is increasingly known for hosting some extreme far-right channels, has seen a surge in downloads. Gab, a largely right-wing social network, has also reported an increase in traffic. Then there’s the lesser-known site MeWe, a Facebook-like platform that has recently seen the number of downloads on the site triple, according to data obtained by Axios.

“People who don’t want to go back to Facebook, who are pissed off at Twitter, they’re going to look for those alternative spaces,” noted Diara Townes, an investigative researcher and the community engagement lead at the mis- and disinformation research firm First Draft. “They’ll have to navigate new user experiences through these platforms, but they’re going to look for these spaces.”

“And the more they get pushed to the side, the fringier these spaces are going to get,” Townes added.

So even if Parler doesn’t come back, its users aren’t going away. We already know that white supremacist and conspiracy theory communities that are taken offline have returned to the web in the past, and all signs point to Parler’s eventual resurrection.

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