One question I have wondered a lot over the past few years is whether the rise of a large-scale conservative social network — a Fox News of Facebook — is inevitable. Last year, during the rise of Parler, we finally got a good test case.
Here was an app backed by the Mercer family, who previously championed Breitbart News, Donald Trump, and Cambridge Analytica, among other conservative causes. It was promoted relentlessly by top conservative media personalities, including Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Dan Bongino.
And it arrived amid a contentious election in which mainstream platforms’ responsible content moderation — labeling and removing misinformation; promoting reliable information about how to vote — was castigated by many conservatives as outrageous censorship and/or interference with the democratic process.
Then came the January 6th Capitol attack. Parler had been rife with calls for violence leading up to and during the insurrection, and in keeping with the platform’s “free speech” ethos, most had been allowed to stand. Apple responded by removing it from the App Store; Google later followed.
The moment now seems to have passed
By May, Parler had fired its CEO, shored up its content moderation practices, and returned to app stores. But, as Sara Fischer reported in Axios last week, the thrill appears to be gone. According to data from Sensor Tower, Parler downloads went from 517,000 in December to 11,000 in June. It’s part of an overall decline in the popularity of alt-platforms — and in conservative media generally — since former President Trump left office.
At the height of election fever, Parler indeed had a moment. But the moment seems to have passed.
The withering of Parler has not dissuaded other conservatives from attempting to build something similar. On Thursday, Politico reported that former members of Trump’s team were behind Gettr, an app whose stated mission is “fighting cancel culture, promoting common sense, defending free speech, challenging social media monopolies, and creating a true marketplace of ideas.”
This is more or less what Parler set out to do. (Like Parler, Gettr is also essentially a Twitter clone.) But Gettr, by virtue of not having been used to help coordinate a violent insurrection against the government, started with a clean slate.
The slate remained clean for… a few minutes. It quickly became apparent that despite the involvement of former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, Trump himself had no intentions of actually joining Gettr. Meanwhile, multiple hashtags with racist and anti-Semitic slurs hit the app’s trending section, according to Recode, and multiple reports found a torrent of porn. (Sonic the Hedgehog porn, in particular.)
Then the Daily Beast reported that the whole thing had been funded by a fugitive Chinese billionaire. Then Gettr’s source code was found out in the open. Then Salon reported that a bug allowed hackers to easily download the personal information of anyone who had created an account on the site.
I’m also beginning to wonder if all these apps are their own grift in a way. Loudly launch a site no one will ever use, claim it’s a free speech sanctuary for Republicans, do the rounds on all the right-wing news outlets, and wait for it to fill up with the worst people on Earth, refuse to moderate it, wait for Apple to ban it from the App Store, and then go back to the right-wing news outlets and screech about liberal cancel culture impacting your ability to share hentai with white nationalist flat earthers or whatever.
When I first read this paragraph I assumed Ryan was exaggerating to make a point. Given the extremely predictable turmoil that emerged from Gettr’s content policies, though, I wonder if there isn’t something to this: a false-flag social network, set up only to watch it burn to the ground.
But let’s say the whole thing isn’t a put-on. What should we take away from the Gettr debacle, and the Parler debacle before that?
Lots of questions about social networks are hard. This one isn’t. If you create a place for people to upload text and images, you have to moderate it — and moderate it aggressively. You have to draw hard lines; you have to move those lines as society evolves and your adversaries adjust; you have to accept difficult trade-offs between users’ well being and their right to express themselves.
Apps like Parler and Gettr offered their conservative users an attractive mirage
Apps like Parler and Gettr offered their conservative users an attractive mirage: a free-speech paradise where they could say the things they couldn’t say elsewhere. It never seemed to occur to anyone that such a move would only select for the worst social media customers on earth, quickly turning the founders’ dreams to ash.
In a sane world, next-generation conservative founders would accept as a given that they would have to police their apps for racism, dangerous misinformation, and other harms. In return, they could use their editorial discretion to promote their favorite culture warriors, rig the trending topics as they wished, and possibly even attract enough advertisers to make the whole thing financially viable.
To be sure, active content moderation is a necessary but not sufficient, condition for running a viable platform. Even if Parler and Gettr had scrubbed themselves entirely of coup talk and Sonic porn, enthusiasm for them may have waned for any number of reasons.
But when you consider why these apps failed as quickly as they did, lax content moderation is surely among the biggest reasons. Most people will only spend so long in a virtual space in which they are surrounded by the worst of humanity. If Parler or Gettr will be remembered at all, it will be because they created networks for conservatives that not even conservatives could stand to be in.
This column was co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and democracy.