Conservative social media darling Parler discovers that free speech is messy

July 1, 2020, 7:00 PM UTC

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John Matze, CEO of Parler, a buzzy Twitter clone for conservatives, has a message for users trying to test the boundaries of the service’s free speech ethos: Free speech has its limits.

Posting pictures of fecal matter is prohibited, he wrote this week after seeing far too much fecal matter. He also reminded users that they can’t post pornography, like a digitally altered picture that went viral, showing a naked President Trump getting a spray tan. And obscene usernames are forbidden—free speech be damned.

Over the past few months, a growing number of conservatives who feel unfairly censored by Twitter and Facebook have flocked to the friendlier pixels of Parler. President Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz, and Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, along with conservative media organizations like Breitbart News and the Washington Examiner, have all joined recently. 

But as the number of users climbs above 1 million, Parler is coming to terms with just how complicated policing the service can be. Despite the supposed hands-off philosophy, Matze is increasingly hands-on—much like Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and, to a lesser extent, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who steps in reluctantly. “As soon as the press started picking up, we had a ton of violations,” says Matze. “We had a queue of over 7,000 violations, and we only had three people” to police the entire site.

These days, the focus at Parler is squarely on adding more moderators. Last week, the company recruited 100 volunteers, who Matze says are longtime users who understand Parler’s rules. The goal is to have 1,000 of them by the end of next week.

Matze, a 27-year-old software developer, and his fellow software developer partner, Jared Thomson, created Parler in 2018 as a safe space for speech, no matter how unpopular. Too many social media companies suppressed conservatives, in their opinion, and lacked transparency about how they used personal data.

The breakthrough for Parler, based in Henderson, Nev., came in recent months after Twitter began cracking down on hate speech and misinformation. Twitter added warnings to President Trump’s tweets about mail-in voting and for saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” about the recent protests for racial justice.

In contrast, Facebook left Trump’s comments untouched, setting off a firestorm of criticism and prompting hundreds of companies to pause advertising on Facebook. Under pressure, Facebook last week tightened some of its rules and promised to start flagging posts by politicians who violate them.

As for Parler, Matze makes clear that Trump’s recent inflammatory comments would be welcome. In his view, they don’t cross the line into “fighting words,” which are prohibited on the service, or “symbolically mean someone should be attacked or killed”—another red line. “It has to have a clear and immediate threat of violence, and it has to be a provocation to violence,” Matze says. “I don’t think people are actively going to listen to what he said and go out into the street and start shooting up people. That clearly didn’t happen and wasn’t his intent.”

Additionally, Parler wants nothing to do with determining whether user posts are true or not. That means leaving people who read them to figure it out, whether about vaccines, Islam, or voting: “From our standpoint, we believe that no one should have the power or authority to tell anybody else what they can and cannot say based off their definition of their version of the truth.”

Matze’s rules for Parler are based merely on what he says is required by law. But he also lumps in rules set by the Federal Communications Commission that ban obscenity, even though they apply only to broadcasters and not websites. Additionally, he says the company kicks off users who spam others (technically, their spam isn’t illegal).

As a result, Parler has limits. In fact, a number of Parler users recently complained on Twitter that they had been booted from the service. Some of those users, Matze acknowledged, had been banned accidentally, in many cases because the company mistakenly decided they were using the names and photos of others (verified users must go by their real identities, just like on Twitter). Conservative conspiracy theorist Mark Dice was among those who were accidentally banned. To make amends, Matze personally apologized by phone to those impacted.

However, Parler kicked off others for misusing the service and posting profanity ad nauseam, Matze says, or repeatedly using the “N-word.” White supremacists are frequently ejected, not because of their hate-filled posts but rather because they have violated rules prohibiting spamming, indecency, and obscenity. “People assume when they hear ‘free speech’ that you can go on and post nasty, disgusting, obscene stuff in the comments,” Matze says. “That’s just false.”

Matze says he’s looking into cracking down on white supremacists more comprehensively, a tricky move considering that President Trump and other Republicans sometimes echo their messaging. But for now, absent spamming and the like, they’re tolerated. Matze says any rules the company uses to address this would be solely driven by existing laws. “We’ve thought about banning the group under antiterrorism laws, but we haven’t done research on how legally enforceable that is,” Matze says.

Although growing quickly, Parler isn’t much of a business. It survives mostly on the undisclosed amount of money it raised from private investors including conservative commentator Dan Bongino. Recently, the company started testing ads on its service, but it doesn’t make much cash from them. 

In the meantime, Matze says he plans to tweak some of his site’s rules that some critics have said are anti–free speech. For example, he promised to adjust language in the site’s terms of service that puts users on the hook for any legal costs that Parler incurs because of their posts.

Ultimately, Matze hopes that Parler will grow and diversify by attracting—gasp—liberals. If successful, it would be quite an accomplishment for a service known as a MAGA haven. “Conservatives like our rules right now because they’re comfortable,” Matze says. “But as we get more left-leaning people on there, the right will go, ‘We thought this was a home for us’…but they have free speech, too.”

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