Sarah Manavis, New Statesman, June 23, 2020
Last Friday, fans of shock-jockery, giving offence and early seasons of The Apprentice received a major blow to their existence: Katie Hopkins, the hard-right social media personality, was permanently suspended from Twitter, the platform upon which she built her international notoriety. While celebrities typically fade into the ether when banned from social media, all was not lost in the case of Hopkins. The former MailOnline columnist appeared to swiftly pivot to a new app, Parler, which claimed to reject Twitter’s perceived culture of bans and would let her say whatever the hell she wanted.
Hopkins’ fans downloaded Parler and began following and supporting her new verified account. She posted that she was considering taking legal action against Twitter, and asked fans if they’d be willing to help fund this. Acolytes eagerly agreed and began donating to a link she posted on the site. But after $500 had been donated, it was revealed that the account was not run by Hopkins at all, but had accidentally been verified despite Parler’s allegedly flawless process. The CEO, John Matze, was forced to post a public apology.
The Hopkins fiasco has helped catapult this otherwise low-profile social media app to greater attention in the UK, with right-wing commentators, Conservative MPs, and jaded Twitter users creating accounts in recent days. However, in other parts of the world, Parler’s existence has been heavily checkered and already holds particular connotations. And while its popularity may not be equivalent to that of Facebook or Twitter, its prominence is rapidly rising.
Parler launched in August 2018 and was billed as the one “unbiased” social media platform. It followed in the wake of Gab, another “free speech” project, which launched publicly the year before. Like Gab, Parler presented itself as a place where no one would be banned, have their content taken down, or even experience a brief suspension. It quickly became synonymous with Trump supporters and home to Twitter-banned icons of the alt-right.
Parler exploded in popularity in May 2019, when Politico reported that Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale was considering setting up an account for the president to pre-empt feared censorship on Twitter. The app also made headlines a few weeks later when Saudi supporters of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman joined the app over Twitter free speech concerns (the influx was so large it temporarily made Parler inoperable).
Instead of retweets, users give “echos”; instead of likes there are upvotes (much like Reddit); and the reach of each post is made publicly available, with a live counter of how many users have seen a particular post. It’s easy to find anti-Semitic, Islamophobic and pro-conspiracy theory hashtags and, though community guidelines do exist, the repercussions of breaking them appear to be non-existent.
Endorsements for Parler from popular figures on the left or the centre are nowhere to be found. However, the app does boast the approval of alt-right stars such as Candace Owens, Milo Yiannopolous and Gavin McInnes. Parscale has since created his own account and met with Parler’s chief executive in the White House last summer. And while Trump himself doesn’t have an account, several of his children (his close advisers) do.
In the UK over the last week, Parler has become a major political talking point. Right-wing pundits, such as “Tories like to party, too” Brexiteer Emily Hewertson and former Breitbart UK editor Raheem Kassam, have advocated using the app in lieu of Twitter, and at least 13 MPs appear to have created accounts. Conservative activist Darren Grimes posted on Parler last night: “I’ve just heard from Parler there have been 200,000 UK sign ups over recent days,” using the hashtag #Twexit, the app’s reliable rallying cry, which becomes popular every time a new wave of people migrate from Twitter to use it.
Hewertson tweeted about Parler on Monday afternoon, encouraging users not to use the app as “an excuse to be racist”. “The concept is good,” she subsequently posted, “It’s just a shame that every app has to attract extremists. Would love to see some more people from the other side of the argument on there. Needs balance.”
Although Parler’s mainstream popularity in the UK is only just beginning, any lingering hope of balance has already been thwarted. Despite its lunges at self-awareness through its branding and message, Parler exists as an echo chamber for hard-right views.