While most of us didn’t bat an eyelid, the brutal backlash against the ousted CEO of the Capital riot-linked social media platform sets a dangerous precedent.
John Matze, CEO and co-founder of Parler – the right-wing Twitter clone Donald Trump’s re-election campaign joined in 2018, was recently fired by his company’s own board of directors and his social media app was forced to go offline after Apple, Amazon and Google alleged that he allowed inflammatory posts about the January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection on its platform and that he failed to moderate the spread of calls for violence.
Is the social backlash against Parler, popular with conservatives, and now former CEO Matze, who founded Parler as the world’s “premier free speech platform”, justified or does it set a dangerous precedent? Let’s find out…
Free Speech Or Foul Play?
Parler, which says “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being “deplatformed” for your views”, found itself deplatformed after it was booted out of Apple’s App Store and Google Play Store and denied hosting services by Amazon Web Services following the January 6th riot.
Watch: Podcaster Joe Rogan and Comedian Yannis Pappas discuss the Parler CEO backlash
Matze claims Parler’s vendors and its lawyers abandoned him and he was shown the door for his “strong belief in free speech” and his product vision, including “what I believe is a more effective approach to content moderation”. However, there is more to it than meets the eyes.
#1 Apparently, Parler became a haven for racist and extremist content under Matze’s watch. Even when talk of guns and violence was widespread in Parler discussions ahead of the January 6th riot, Matze allowed “free speech”.
One Parler user on a thread pushing a QAnon conspiracy theory said, “by all the Patriots descending on Washington DC on #jan6…. come armed….”
Another message posted the day before the riot warned: “To all our enemies high and low you want a war? Well you’re asking for one…To the American people on the ground in DC today and all over this great nation, be prepared for anything.”
Powerful Backer Backs Out
#2 Although Parler received financial backing from conservative hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer and climbed to the top of the iOS and Google Play with over 1 million new downloads soon after the US presidential election, Parler’s survival was uncertain after it was dropped by the tech giants.
The Parler board is controlled by Rebekah Mercer, investor and co-founder and daughter of Robert Mercer, who terminated Matze’s position as CEO on January 29. The Mercer family’s backing to Parler was dependent on the platform allowing users to control what they see. After concerns grew that the app may not survive as it could be used to promote more violence by Donald Trump supporters, Parler and Matze were left redundant and the Mercer’s pulled the rug from under their feet.
#3 According to BuzzFeed News, Parler had offered Donald Trump a 40% stake if he posted exclusively to the platform. But Trump wanted ownership stake in return. Though the deal was never finalized, Matze claimed he didn’t want the social-media platform to work with Donald Trump.
“I didn’t like the idea of working with Trump, because he might have bullied people inside the company to do what he wanted. But I was worried that if we didn’t sign the deal, he might have been vengeful and told his followers to leave Parler,”John Matze told HBO.
Was it his insistence on limited content moderation or his failure to strike a deal with Trump that cost him his job? After all, Parler had grown in popularity with Trump supporters and right-wing users amid allegations that social media networks like Twitter and Facebook harbored anti-conservative bias.
Privacy Issues & Russian Ties
#4 American lawmakers have asked the FBI to investigate Parler’s role “as a potential facilitator of planning and incitement related to the violence, as a repository of key evidence posted by users on its site, and as a potential conduit for “foreign governments who may be financing civil unrest in the United States”. Alleging that Parler users called for “civil war”, Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House oversight and reform Committee, has also asked the FBI to review Parler’s financing and its ties to Russia.
As per a report, researchers “scraped a tremendous amount of users’ content” which included videos and location geotags which they later converted into “interactive maps of the Capitol building attack” to prove the involvement of several users of Parler. In his defence, Matze claimed that Twitter, Facebook or Apple do not follow the same rules that they set for Parler. He could be right because neither Twitter nor Facebook are ever suspended for sharing user data with governments or for not blocking users for posting inflammatory posts on their platforms. Does it mean that Parler’s suspension and CEO Matze’s unceremonious exit was an outcome of business rivalries and not just social backlash? Could be.
Yes Parler. No Matze? No Justification? No Problem!
If the Silicon Valley giants have established that they are hopelessly biased against conservative principles, and if the social media networks have confirmed that free Speech isn’t free, the right-wingers have conveyed they are unstoppable.
New social media platforms such as MeWe, Gab, and CloutHub promise ‘power to the people’ and have reported a significant uptick in users in the United States and elsewhere. Gab’s chief executive, Andrew Torba, claims traffic to his platform jumped 40% on January 6. While Parler got popular among white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, and supporters of Donald Trump, India’s homegrown microblogging app Koo is offering “free speech” (just like Parler) to supporters of Narendra Modi, government followers, and Hindu extremists.
The tenets of free and fair speech must be upheld; however, by allowing users the space to share fake news, unverified content, and biased opinions, the proponents of free speech on social media risk giving militia groups the tools to radicalize many others.
Social backlash against Parler CEO Matze sets a dangerous precedent if it is used to threaten protesters from communicating on social media and propagate right-wing extremism in the garb of free speech (both for or against the government/oppressor), or if it is reduced to a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the online marketplace.