Parler is dead. The Twitter clone patronized by the far right went dark on Sunday after Apple and Google banned it from their app stores and Amazon Web Services booted it off its servers.
Founded in 2018 as a “free speech” platform, Parler was a well-documented haven for white supremacy, disinformation, Q-Anon conspiracies, and eventually, the planning of an armed coup. Big tech united to take down the app after evidence — posts calling for various lawmakers’ deaths, as well as tips on which streets to take to the Capitol to avoid cops and what kinds of weapons to bring to pry open doors — surfaced, showing Parler was among the many platforms where the Washington riot, which left 5 dead, took shape. Not only was Parler used to plan the march, according to the trove of metadata scraped by a researcher before the app shut down, members posted on the site during the melee, from inside the Capitol.
Parler had around 15 million users when it was shuttered, according to the New York Times. Its numbers were ballooning before the Capitol riot in backlash to election content moderation on other social networks. Parler had jumped to No. 1 on the App Store after Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook on Saturday for encouraging the riot.
The app’s sudden surge was likely spurred by people boycotting Twitter and Facebook on Trump’s behalf, those who want details on the next #StopTheSteal “protest,” and others who want a front seat wherever the president might next take up posting. Many thought it might be Parler, when Trump tweeted in his last breath from the @POTUS account (his personal profile was already closed), that his team is “negotiating” with other sites and looking at “building our own platform in the near future.”
Until Trumpstagram launches or Parler reboots (which experts say isn’t likely to happen soon), all 15 million of the latter’s users are in the market for a new app with similarly lax moderation policies.
Which app will take Parler's place?
Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, an alt-social media platform made famous by users like neo-nazi Richard Spencer and Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synogauge in 2018, bragged that his site gained 600,000 new users on Sunday after Parler went dark. This morning, it tweeted new numbers: 1.7 million new users and web traffic up more than 750%.
New users are likely coming from Twitter, where Gab has been posting non-stop to its 400,000 followers about the app’s newfound success, describing it as a divine “exodus” and positioning itself as a rebel cowboy fighting for righteous freedom. Users are proudly posting screenshots of notifications from Instagram and Twitter informing them that their accounts are frozen for violating community guidelines or “suspicious activity.” Gab’s new slogan, tweeted soon after YouTube banned Trump, is, “If it is on the App store, it isn’t free speech.”
Gab, which looks like a green, rudimentary Facebook, was perfectly poised for this moment because it was already a tech pariah. Founded in 2016, it immediately made itself a safe haven for anything Facebook or Twitter won’t allow (this summer, it welcomed “the Q-Anon community,” in a company blog post). Gab never even made it onto the Apple App store and it was dropped from the Google Play store in 2017 for lacking “sufficient moderation.”
The site nearly died in 2018 after server providers GoDaddy and Joyent booted it in response to news that the Tree of Life shooter was radicalized on Gab, and made his last post there shortly before his rampage. However, it came back online within a week with help of Epik, a web services provider. Now, Gab self-hosts on servers in an undisclosed data center, according to the Wall Street Journal. Users are still pouring in, as Gab promises to add more servers to accommodate traffic, which has currently rendered the website glitchy and slow. The web page shows a disclaimer while it loads: “Gab is growing rapidly in a historic exodus from Big Tech, and fending off sophisticated attacks that seek to silence and censor your ability to Speak Freely.”
Gab is rolling out the red carpet should Trump want to take up posting on the app. On Tuesday, Gab announced that it had archived Trump’s entire Twitter and YouTube accounts on its platform, the latter on tv.gab.com, a “free speech YouTube alternative.” “Its time for President Trump to get a Gab account,” wrote one popular user.
Tv.gab will compete with Rumble, a YouTube alternative founded in 2013 that’s become popular with the right-wing. It soared in popularity this weekend, racking up 162,000 downloads, a 10-fold increase from the week before. Rumble been picking up high-profile conservatives jumping ship from YouTube since the election, including Sean Hannity and conservative congressmen Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, who now post exclusively on the site.
On Wednesday, dispatches from right-wing podcaster Dan Bongino and pundit Dinesh D’Souza ranked in its trending videos. Notably, Rumble is one of the few conservative-friendly platforms with a monetization strategy, albeit a weak one compared to YouTube: front page videos get $100 a pop and users get 50% of revenue if partners like XBox, MSN, or Yahoo use a video (which is unlikely given their incendiary content). Many people likely find Rumble through Facebook, where it has a multi-million person audience, the highest among niche conservative platforms.
Right-wingers have also been racking up earnings streaming on D-Live. Launched in 2017, the company originally positioned itself as an alternative to Twitch that didn’t take a cut from streamers. Over 150,000 people watched D-Live streams last Wednesday, as at least five accounts live-streamed the Capitol riot including, including a popular vlogger named Tim Gionet who goes by “Baked Alaska,” while fans tipped him as much $2,000 in lemons, the app’s cryptocurrency that can be paid out in hard cash.
D-Live told the New York Times it has suspended channels, frozen the earnings of anyone streaming the Capitol riot, and taken down at least 100 videos depicting it. However, D-Live has “paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to extremists,” since 2017, per the Southern Poverty Law Center. Longtime gaming users say its owners have been catering to far-right users because of the big numbers their videos attract. Similar to Gab harboring Twitter exiles, D-Live has courted people banned from Twitch, like prominent white nationalist Nick Fuentes. The app also recently reversed its no-fee policy and started taking a 25% cut of streaming revenue. (For comparison, Twitch takes 50% of subscriptions.)
When it comes to traditional networking, one of Gab’s main rivals is shaping up to be MeWe, a California-based platform launched in 2015. MeWe doesn’t market itself as a free speech platform, but rather a site focused on data privacy, touting itself as “the anti-Facebook,” and offering users a “Privacy Bill of Rights.” Its paid version includes an encrypted chat service.
MeWe says it’s added 400,000 users every day since Saturday — a total of 1 million over the weekend. On Monday, it ranked as the 5th most popular free App store download, sitting at No. 12 at the time of writing. Though CEO Mark Weinstein says MeWe doesn’t see itself as a peer of Parler or Gab and has nearly 100 content moderators, it’s become a hub for anti-vaxxers, Q-Anon supporters, and right-wing militia supporters, with these groups accounting for more and more of its content since the election.
Privacy concerns are also drawing right-wingers to encrypted messaging app Telegram, which is No. 2 on the App store at the time of writing. It surpassed half a million users on Tuesday, 7.5 million of which joined between January 6 and 10. Some of this growth is due to a confusing WhatsApp policy update that had users fleeing to the app, as well as to rival Signal. But given a new channel called “Parler Lifeboat,” which picked up 15,000 members this weekend, at least some of Telegram's growth is due to the weekend’s crackdown. Telegram had already been nicknamed “Terrorgram” by critics for its base of neo-Nazi and militia groups, a contingent that is growing.
While Gab is a hotbed of memes mocking Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and increasingly, GOP members who’ve split with Trump, potentially more sinister activity is taking place on Telegram. A Proud Boys channel added 12,000 members on Sunday, according to Mother Jones, which observed white nationalist members chatting explicitly about how to radicalize ex-Parler users.
How did we get here?
The right has felt persecuted online for years, despite tech companies often turning deaf ears to liberals’ calls to more aggressively censor hate speech, misinformation, and threats. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have long said, even as they’ve waffled, that it’s not private companies responsibility to regulate free speech. With a few exceptions, most notably Alex Jones before this week, Trump supporters’ notion that they couldn’t post as they pleased on Twitter and Facebook was largely self-persecution.
Silicon Valley has been slowly changing its tune on content moderation, leading up to the election. Conservatives began leaving mainstream social media by the millions this fall, as Reddit banned The_Donald subreddit in late June, the same day YouTube took down Richard Spencer and David Duke’s accounts (a full year after the streaming platform’s vow to ban all white supremacists).
In August, Twitter began occasionally placing disclaimers on Trump’s calling for violence against Black Lives Matter protestors and discrediting mail-in voting. By election day, all Tweets inncluding false claims about voting or election results were being flagged, including Trump’s. Jack Dorsey was interrogated by Ted Cruz on CNN for taking down tweets about a dubious New York Post story about Hunter Biden days before the election.
In October, Facebook cracked down on QAnon groups, admitting earlier efforts hadn’t gone far enough, and during the election played whack-a-mole, deleting countless “Stop the Steal” groups. All of these steps led up to Trump and Parler being kicked offline, which brings us to a point where the entire online far-right is burrowing going underground.
Can Big Tech control fringe tech?
Parler’s shutdown showed how reliant small tech platforms are on big ones. But, Gab has proven that fringe apps can build on an unmoderated platform out of big tech's reach.
Parler is now trying to launch a comeback similar to Gab’s after the Tree of Life shooting. On Tuesday, Parler registered its domain with Gab’s savior, Epik, which has denied it’s hosting the app but hinted it could be open to it. Parler is also suing Amazon for violating antitrust law by coordinating with other tech companies.
Parler isn’t special. No one site or app is. The wide array of right-wing media companies has created a hydra situation, where a crackdown on any one platform will mean users flock to a dozen others. “We are really seeing people scatter across different sites as they look for a home,” extremist researcher Marc-André Argentino told the New York Times. “Different groups have settled in different places.”
Business leaders are less concerned. Mark Shmulik, an analyst at investment bank AB Bernstein, told Fortune he doesn’t expect the latest rise in popularity of MeWe and Gab to last. “It’s a fad,” he said. “There will be a little niche, but it won’t disrupt what we’re seeing on Twitter… at some point you have to reach the masses.”
Far-right figures will have a much smaller platform on alt-tech apps than they would on mainstream platforms. However, those platforms, which can potentially be more potent in the echo-chambers of alt-tech, are growing rapidly.