by Amy Affelt
For several years now, Twitter has been called “the new newswire.” For better or worse, Twitter often has the earliest mentions of breaking news or rumors about events in advance of when they happen. Ironically, in the late 2000s, Twitter usage was waning, and its future relevancy was in doubt. However, when Donald Trump was elected U.S. president in 2016, his tweets became the main method of communication from The White House, and usage skyrocketed —from 30 million monthly active users in Q1 2010 to more than 300 million in Q1 2017.1 Fast-forward to 2021, and Twitter’s future is once again uncertain, with a fake news twist that is deeply concerning for librarians and information professionals.
Twitter had long taken a hands-off, “we are a technology company, not a media company” approach. Indeed, in February 2018, Nick Pickles (Twitter’s senior director of public policy and development) declared, per The Washington Post, “We are not the arbiters of truth. … We are not going to remove content based on the fact that [something] is untrue.”2 In early 2020, a perfect two-front storm approached: Concern over possible manipulation in the 2020 U.S. presidential election was coupled with serious COVID-19 disinformation on social media (that, per the BBC’s coverage of a journal study, led to 800-plus deaths and more than 5,800 hospitalizations globally between January and March 2020).3 In March 2020, Twitter launched a policy on synthetic and media manipulation that involves subjecting tweets to fact-checking and analysis that can lead to labeling and removal.4
Twitter’s policy continued to evolve and become more stringent. In May 2020, the company began flagging disputed and misleading tweets, The Associated Press reported,5 and in October 2020, Twitter began exploring changes to the labeling system to make misinformation and disinformation more obvious. It also began discussing flagging users who repeatedly post false and misleading tweets, per Reuters.6 Ultimately, on Jan. 8, 2021, in a move that had the potential to be a final, fatal blow, Twitter permanently suspended the account of its highest-profile user, then-President Trump, stating that allowing his account to continue to tweet ran too great a risk of “further incitement of violence,” CNN reported.7
A ‘NEUTRAL PLATFORM’?
Obviously, these policies are great news for librarians and information professionals. Cultivation and curation of factual information from high-quality sources is part and parcel of our work, and it is easier for us to shepherd others through the content-evaluation process if there is a general consensus regarding individual pieces of fake news. Unfortunately, not everyone shares these values. As Twitter’s policies became more stringent, conservative journalists, politicians, and others turned to an alternative platform and asked their followers to meet them “in the Parler.”
Since its founding in 2018, Parler capitalized on allegations of censorship on Twitter and, in the first week of November 2020, became the most-downloaded app on both Android and Apple devices. COO Jeffrey Wernick described Parler as a “neutral platform.” Whereas Twitter collects user data regarding content engagement and uses algorithms to provide users with newsfeed tweets that they seem likely to engage with, Parler shows users every post from every user that they follow, with the latest posts appearing first, reports The Wall Street Journal.8 Users claim to prefer Parler because of its minimal rules; “they’re claiming that they didn’t get to say what they wanted to say without repercussion on Twitter or Facebook,” Libby Hemphill from the University of Michigan School of Information told the CBC.9 Criminal behavior and threats of violence are adjudicated and removed by Parler’s volunteer “community jurors,” but, according to Hemphill, rather than moderating content, Parler will leave it “up to the courts to decide what is defamatory.” Newsweek shared on Nov. 11, “Some Republicans urged their followers to join them on Parler, including Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and Mark Levin, a right-wing radio personality.”10
Parler’s ubiquity adds an additional challenge to the overloaded task list for reference librarians trying to help patrons identify and avoid fake news. Now, in addition to teaching information literacy regarding how to identify fake tweets, we need to walk the fine line of helping users avoid not only misinformation and disinformation, but also biased and agenda-ridden information that they read on sites such as Parler, which might have a kernel of truth to it, but should not be taken as fact. These tasks should include the following:
- Adding Parler to lists of suspect websites that are agenda-driven, biased, or contain outright falsehoods, conspiracies, and junk science
- Reinforcing the idea that social media should never be an endpoint for research, but rather, a starting point for learning about events and then researching them further
- Continuing to encourage use of established, well-researched, authoritative news sources while reiterating that social media sites are not news sites, but rather entertainment sites
HOW CONCERNED SHOULD WE BE?
The attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, had serious ramifications for the future of Parler. On Jan. 7, the day after the deadly melee, Parler was downloaded twice as many times as the previous day; by the following morning, it found itself fighting for its life. The New York Times reported that Parler’s alleged role in the planning and organizing of the riot prompted Apple to give Parler 24 hours to meet Apple App Store requirements or be taken down from the store, stating that Parler was not “removing content that encourages illegal activity and poses a serious risk to the health and safety of users.” Google went a step further and immediately suspended Parler from its store, stating that Parler was not adhering to its own moderation policies.11 Perhaps most detrimental was the action taken by Amazon Web Services (a division of Amazon), which shut down Parler’s access to its servers on Jan. 11 after finding that Parler was “unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others,” leaving it temporarily without an online home.12 Parler’s then-CEO John Matze Jr. tried to brush off this concern, stating that he had anticipated the issue and had backup hosts in place. (On Jan. 29, Parler’s board of directors fired Matze, effective immediately.13)
According to The Washington Post, Parler sued Amazon on Jan. 11, stating that the service broke a provision of Amazon’s service contract, which stipulates that 30 days’ notice had to be given before termination, with the suit reading that the move by Amazon “will kill Parler’s business—at the very time it is set to skyrocket.” It also accused Amazon of antitrust violations and anti-competitive behavior, stating that it was singled out from Twitter, while Amazon allowed Twitter to continue operating despite sharing violent content. Given the differences in content moderation policy between Twitter and Parler, it is difficult to see how those charges will hold water. Charlotte Slaiman, antitrust attorney and competition policy director at Public Knowledge, said, “Amazon is a powerful player in cloud services, but it’s not clear to me whether they care from a competitive standpoint about social media companies.”14
A MURKY FUTURE
Even if Parler finds a new host home and resumes service, its accessibility remains cumbersome. Although the app is currently unavailable for download on iPhones, even users who already have it installed will be stuck with an obsolete version after performing a software update; those users will have to access it via a web browser. Android users will still be able to download it, but will have to find a source other than Google Play.
Although Parler is unique in that it is similar to Twitter but with a distinct agenda, nefarious news sites in the same vein are nothing new. 4chan, Revolver News, and other dubious resources have been around for a long time. Through the guidance that we provide to our patrons, we’ve been largely successful in helping them understand the purposes and agendas of these organizations. This will remain true whether they are using Parler or any other questionable website or app.
Additionally, Parler’s primary selling point was that it attracted like-minded individuals, but absent diversity in viewpoints, an echo chamber is created. Without opponents to spar with, users left, according to BBC News disinformation reporter Shayan Sardarizadeh via the CBC. Oftentimes, they then tried to go back to Twitter, only to run the risk of being banned again if they continued to behave as bad actors.15 Also, many pundits who claimed to decamp to Parler were still posting on Twitter. According to The Washington Post, “much of Parler’s newfound attention has come from its boosters promoting it on Facebook and Twitter, and many users said they have no plans to give up on those sites.”16
Finally, and possibly most detrimental to Parler, is the fact that Parler’s revenue stream is unclear. Without user data and demographics, it is hard to sell targeted advertising. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of Twitter due to Parler are greatly exaggerated.
Considering these circumstances and Parler’s murky future, you may wonder why I would write an article about something that may no longer exist when this magazine is printed. For librarians and information professionals, Parler is just one player in a growing movement of alt-right apps and social media platforms that will continue to be a concern in our struggle over misinformation and disinformation. Consider this New York Times headline from Jan. 14: “Millions Flock to Telegram and Signal as Fears Grow Over Big Tech.” Indeed, Bloomberg Businessweek reports that Telegram has a channel called Parler Refugees,17 although Telegram is a messaging app, not a social media platform like Parler. We are in the information business, and we need to understand where our patrons are consuming information so that we can help them to find reputable sources. Many of us think Parler’s content is abhorrent and possibly criminal, but some of our constituents may view that same content as news and information.
Where do Parler and similar sources fit in the research landscape? It is critical that we 1) are aware of how they work and 2) understand that we do need to take them seriously. For example, in a corporate library setting, social media posts, regardless of their credibility, can cause everything from stock market shifts (Hello, GameStop!) to serious corporate upheaval. If someone comes to us with a question about something that was posted on Parler or a similar platform, we definitely need to research the ramifications of that post and its effect on our particular research question or project. “What Parler will look like a month from now, I can’t tell you,” COO Wernick said via The New York Times. “But Parler will not be gone.”18 The same can be said of Parler alternatives.