UPDATE: Parler has been banned from the App Store, Google Play, and Amazon's web hosting service. Shortly after this story was published, Apple warned Parler that their app would be removed in 24 hours if they did not update their moderation guidelines to bring them in line with the App Store's terms of service. Google Play has suspended the app "until it better polices its app," according to the New York Times. The news of Apple's warning came moments after Twitter permanently suspended Donald Trump's Twitter account on Friday night.
It wasn’t that long ago that top figures at Twitter and Facebook were defending their refusal not to ban President Donald Trump’s accounts from their platforms as a principled decision, even as he invoked racist rallying calls and falsely claimed to have won the election. Even their milquetoast half-measures, such as flagging Trump’s tweets with misinformation warnings, were spun as responsible steps forward. When questioned in front of Congress in mid-November, Mark Zuckerberg said, “All taken together, I think that we really went quite far in terms of helping to distribute reliable and accurate information about what was going on during this election."
But after Wednesday’s storming of the U.S. Capitol building by right-wing extremists, a dam broke. The problem had become too big and too public and too bloody to explain away inaction with niceties. Twitter suspended Trump’s account for 12 hours and banned or suspended a handful of known right-wing conspiracy theorists and agitators like pundit Dan Bongino, lawyer L. Lin Wood and Q-anon conspiracy theorist Jake Angeli. Facebook banned the President’s account “at least” until the end of his term, though Bongino and others like him still thrive on the platform.
All this is, in theory, exactly why the right wing social media app Parler was made, right? Hailing itself as a bastion of free speech in an age of internet censorship, Parler has become the go-to platform for people who thought a line of blue text under the President’s tweets are a bridge too far. After the President's Twitter ban, Parler became the number one app on the App Store. Still, Parler didn’t exactly turn out to be the temple of intellectual exchange it marketed itself as. Once they were able to get past the service’s many bugs and glitches, even the most ardent pizzagate types like Jack Posobiec remarked that the app “felt like a Trump Rally.”
If you were to look at Parler's App Store reviews, you'd think that Wednesday’s events and the banning of prominent right-wing figures, including the President himself, did not prompt the flight to Parler that one might have thought it would have — in fact, the opposite appears to be happening.
On December 28, Parler’s App Store rating count started sliding downhill. Since then, 1,400 reviews for the app have mysteriously disappeared from the App Store, with no explanation as to why. Parler’s reviews page on the App Store has become a microcosm of the internet culture war. Its average rating — which dipped suddenly from 3.6 to 3.4 in the days after media outlets began declaring the election for Biden — has always hovered in a taught mid-range, pulled in two directions by users review bombing the app and singing its praises.
Flipping through the app’s five-star reviews over the last few months shows that users are more concerned with what Parler represents rather than how it actually works. One five-star review from user “anniedollface” reads “Parler is an excellent alternative social media platform for those that want to exercise their freedom of speech!! Love it!!” Another from user “v0p” reads, “The 1-stars are from people that don’t believe in Freedom of Speech. Trying to make sure everyone conforms to their pestilent bias. Plus the owner of Twitter is most definitely a d-bag.” One-star reviews, on the other hand, are full of users both complaining about legitimate technical issues and calling out the app as a platform for hate speech.
But even a recent surge of one-star review bombs brought on by the violent riot weren’t enough to reverse the app’s rating count. There are a few possible explanations as to why 1,400 reviews suddenly disappeared from the platform. Apple allows app creators to submit a form to have a review on their app removed if they believe it contains false or outdated information, but such a steady decline in ratings makes this unlikely. Alternatively, users are able to delete their own ratings and reviews via the App Store. Whether in an act of protest against the app or an effort to disassociate from it, users could be deleting their reviews en masse. Apple could also be removing reviews which violate its terms of service. Apple did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publishing.
The decline in reviews may be a sign that Parler’s self-imposed reputation isn’t helping it absorb those who are fleeing from more mainstream platforms, and is instead causing it to draw as much scrutiny as the apps it positions itself in opposition to. Since Wednesday’s storming of the Capitol Building, Apple and Google have been on the receiving end of calls from activists to remove Parler from their storefronts for violating their terms of service by allowing users to make calls for violence on the platform. It may only be a matter of time before Parler squirms out of fear of being deplatformed like right-wing figures are across social media — there’s too much money involved for them to shut down, either by choice or by force.
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