A question that I have often asked myself in recent years is if the rise of a large-scale conservative social network – a Fox News from Facebook – is inevitable. Last year, when Parler was ramping up, we finally got a good test case.
Here’s an app backed by the Mercer family, who previously championed Breitbart News, Donald Trump, and Cambridge Analytica, among other conservative causes. He has been relentlessly promoted by top conservative media figures including Sean Hannity, Mark Levin and Dan Bongino.
And it came in the midst of a controversial election in which responsible moderation of content on mainstream platforms – labeling and removing disinformation; promoting reliable information on how to vote – has been lambasted by many conservatives as outrageous censorship and / or interference in the democratic process.
Then came the attack on the Capitol on January 6. Speak had been plagued by calls for violence before and during the insurgency, and in keeping with the platform’s “free speech” ethic, most had been allowed to stand up. Apple responded by removing it from the App Store; Google followed later.
In May, Parler fired its CEO, stepped up its content moderation practices and returned to app stores. But as Sara Fischer reported in Axes Last week, the thrill seems to have disappeared. According to Sensor Tower data, Parler’s downloads fell from 517,000 in December to 11,000 in June. It’s part of an overall decline in the popularity of alternative platforms – and in conservative media in general – since former President Trump stepped down.
At the height of election fever, Parler did indeed have a moment. But the moment seems to have passed.
Parler’s withering hasn’t deterred other conservatives from trying to build something similar. Thursday, Politics reported that former Trump team members were behind Gettr, an app whose declared mission is to “fight the culture of cancellation, promote common sense, defend freedom of expression, challenge social media monopolies and create a real market for ideas”.
This is more or less what Parler set out to do. (Like Speak, Gettr is also essentially a Twitter clone.) But Gettr, by virtue of not being used to help coordinate a violent insurgency against the government, has started with a clean slate.
The slate stayed clean for… a few minutes. It quickly became apparent that despite the involvement of former Trump spokesman Jason Miller, Trump himself had no intention to join Gettr. Meanwhile, several hashtags with racist and anti-Semitic slurs hit the app’s trending section, according to Recode, and several reports found a torrent of porn. (Sonic the hedgehog porn, in particular.)
A growing number of accounts on Jason Miller’s new right-wing “Gettr” site displaying “Sonic the Hedgehog furry porn” are banned from the platform – and now users on the left are pushing to claim that “furry porn is protected. by the First Amendment. “
– Zachary Petrizzo (@ZTPetrizzo) July 6, 2021
Then the Daily beast reported that it was all funded by a fugitive Chinese billionaire. Then Gettr’s source code uncovered. Then Living room reported that a bug allowed hackers to easily download personal information from anyone who has created an account on the site.
I’m also starting to wonder if all of these apps are somehow their own scam. Loudly launch a site no one will ever use, pretend it’s a free speech sanctuary for Republicans, shop all right-wing media, and wait for it to fill up with the worst people on Earth , refuse to moderate it, wait for Apple to ban it from the App Store, then go back to the right-wing media and shout about the liberal cancellation culture impacting your ability to share hentai with people. white nationalists of the flat earth or whatever.
When I first read this paragraph, I assumed Ryan was exaggerating to make a point. Given the extremely predictable turmoil that has emerged from Gettr’s content policies, I wonder if there isn’t something to this: a false flag social network, set up only to watch it burn in the sky. ground.
But let’s say that the whole is not a stake. What do we take away from the Gettr debacle and the Speaking debacle before that?
Many questions on social media are difficult. This one is not. If you create a place where people can upload text and images, you need to moderate it – and moderate it aggressively. You have to draw hard lines; you have to move these lines as society evolves and your opponents adapt; difficult compromises have to be made between the well-being of users and their right to express themselves.
Apps like Parler and Gettr offered their conservative users an enticing mirage: a free speech paradise where they could say what they couldn’t say elsewhere. It didn’t seem to anyone that such a move would select only the worst social media clients on earth, quickly turning the founders’ dreams to ashes.
In a sane world, next-generation conservative founders would take it for granted that they should control their apps for racism, dangerous misinformation, and other prejudices. In turn, they could use their editorial discretion to promote their favorite cultural warriors, rig trending topics as they see fit, and maybe even attract enough advertisers to make it financially viable.
Admittedly, active moderation of content is a necessary but not sufficient condition to make a viable platform work. Even though Parler and Gettr had gotten rid of the coup talk and Sonic porn entirely, enthusiasm for them may have waned for a number of reasons.
But when you consider why these apps failed as quickly as they did, lax content moderation is surely one of the main reasons. Most people will only spend so long in a virtual space in which they are surrounded by the worst of humanity. If Parler or Gettr is remembered, it will be because they created networks for the Conservatives in which even the Conservatives could not find themselves.
This column was co-edited with Platform, a daily newsletter on Big Tech and democracy.