The freedom of speech app has been told to shut the fuck up.
Over the last forty-eight hours, Apple, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google have cut ties with the ‘free speech’ Twitter alternative, Parler. This, of course, has ruffled many feathers on the far-right as Parler became their home after Twitter began to fact check claims about voter fraud and a number of other topics prone to rampant conspiracy theory mongering. Free speech zones like Parler and Gab have been promoted as alternatives to mainstream ‘big tech’ social media sites because of their look-the-other-way approach to hate speech, as apposed to the draconian and (their favorite) Orwellian censorship policies of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
This past week in the United States we saw an attempted insurrection at the Capitol. Five people died, including one person who was shot to death. She was an avid follower of the amorphous list of conspiracy theories promoted by the pro-Trump QAnon. Much to everyone’s “surprise”, many of the Trump supporters had organized their field trip to Washington, DC out in the open on Parler, yet were able catch the Capitol Police with their pants down.
Parler’s CEO John Matze spoke with Kara Swisher on her podcast for the New York Times a couple days after the event, likely sensing the impending public relations hell-storm. On the podcast, he touted Parler as a “town square” and that any act of quashing free speech was nothing shrot of authoritarian. He also made sure to throw other communications services like Discord and other private chat services under the, bus that allegedly facilitated people’s ability to take their organizing out of the open, and delve into their more violent fantasies amongst themselves. That may have been true, but if you ventured to spend more than five minutes on Twitter, on Reddit groups like r/ParlerWatch and r/InsaneParler, or the dozens of Stop The Steal Facebook groups that popped up since the election, it would be abundantly clear that the violent intentions of the people gathering at the Capitol were violent, and had been planned for weeks.
This is what raised a number of questions surrounding the presence, or lack there of, of the National Guard, Federal law enforcement during the deadly seige at the Capitol. Never mind what we could see with our own eyes on the day, r/ParlerWatch has seventy eight thousand members and were actively encouraging people to report the violent rhetoric to the FBI in the weeks that preceded January 6th. Also, Lin Wood, one of President Trump’s lawyers, was actually removed from Parler for calling for the lynching of Vice President Mike Pence. There is absolutely no way that the FBI and DHS were unaware of the types of communications that were taking place on Parler and other websites. The work was mostly done for them.
The demise of Parler was expected. Despite their mission statement of beings a “Free Speech Social Network”, Parler was actually quite strict and closed off. From a growth perspective, requiring people to give up their phone number to participate on the service (something that Facebook and Twitter do, but do not require) was red flag number one. Second, if you wanted to be a verified “Citizen” you had to send a copy of government issued identification. For a platform so new, this was an obvious security risk, and not very encouraging if you are really a free speech warrior. In an ironic twist, they also had a penitent for booting trolls within minutes of joining. For those who were able to remain to spread happiness and good cheer, usually in the form of pro-Islam, pro-LGBTQ+ “propaganda”, they were swiftly met with death threats and some truly hilarious, hateful language. Aside from all of that, the site was real janky. It promoted itself as a Twitter alternative, but it did not function like Twitter. After a few mins of snooping around, you would see that it was at best a cash grab built to amplify certain voices, mostly conservative figures and politicians (like Ted Cruz).
The app garnered its fair share of controversy by re-platforming exiled conservative troublemakers. The controversy marketing worked. For a few weeks it was number one on the Apple App Store. Though the active user base shrank almost just as quickly, likely because of its poor usability, and that it was a cesspool of racists, white supremacists, neo-nazis, Ted Cruz, and other despicable characters.
Now, it is gone. Not without its contents being hacked and downloaded.
Parler CEO John Matze holds a pretty libertarian point of view, despite claiming to be neutral. As of the news this morning, all of his vendors and at attorneys have ‘abandoned’ him, and taking down Parler “hurts everyone”. By everyone, he means mostly him and his investors, but in his “fight” for free speech, the removal of Parler is taking us one step closer to the Orwellian future conservatives like to warn us about. Surprise, sunshine: we’re already here. Also, it is highly unlikely that these big brains have ever read Orwell’s opus, 1984, but I digress.
If I believed Matze was in any way earnest in his argument, I would have half a mind to agree with him, at least in part. Not about Parler specifically, but that in that a unilateral move by three companies — Apple, Google and Amazon — any one of us can be wiped off of the face of the earth. Noting this anti-competitive environment, and not the ills of society, is where his Libertarian starts to show. These companies — including Facebook — face very little to no accountability for their role in getting us here in the first place, when it is their algorithms that now govern the “free marketplace of ideas”. Where all of this falls apart lies on a complete bad faith argument. The people who are complaining the loudest are the ones who are upset because they feel that they are unfairly targeted by these platforms, when that is unequivocally not true. What is true, however, is that that more often than not, the things that they say do incite violence in the real world, or are violence in the form of hate speech. More insidiously, the misinformation that the data shows propagates much faster than the truth, poses far more of a public health risk than, say, Save The Whales and “Climate Change is Bad” and “stop killing black people” — incendiary issues more associated with the Left.
These issue of our privacy being held in the hands of a few monopolies is incredibly dangerous, and should not be allowed. But because of the far-right’s obsession with hate, even when they orbit very real issues in so far as it concerns problems with an overreaching or overly permissive government, their ire and energy is woefully misdirected, and is entirely based on lies and fantasy. Lies and fantasies fed to them algorithmically by Google, Facebook, and Twitter, hosted by AWS.
These corporations are at the center of our lives, whether we actively participate with them or not. Most of the internet sits atop AWS, a third of the planet is on Facebook, and so on. However, we should not confuse their actions or inactions as anything more than doing what companies do. The most profitable position in all of this is a passive one. Their God is their stock price. It would be a fools errand to look to corporations for any sort of moral rubric. After all, it took multiple deaths and an insurrection — and heavy lobbying from the reactionary government — for these companies to see Parler as a “problem”.