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Conservative social network Parler casts its reboot as fight for free speech

March 17, 2021, 11:00 AM UTC

Conservative donor Rebekah Mercer has been writing checks to finance the social media platform Parler’s reboot, while the company’s leaders have attempted to rally employees by saying they’re engaged in an existential battle against threats to the U.S. and free speech, according to internal recordings of company meetings held in recent months.

“Love it or not, you’re warriors,” interim CEO Mark Meckler said in a meeting on Feb. 8. “This is a war, and you’re in the war, and we’re all going to link arms.”

Mercer herself joined one of the calls on Feb. 15, on the day Parler relaunched. “Shutting down free speech is the first step toward tyranny and despotism, and we can’t let it happen,” she told employees. “And so we will do everything we can to fight back against that and we are so proud and thrilled that you guys have all stood by us during this whole time.’’

While Mercer’s early financial backing of Parler is widely known, the recordings provide new insight into her involvement in the platform since it was forced offline in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The recordings also detail the ways Parler’s leadership has tweaked its content moderation policies to avoid a potential future shutdown and attempted to get employees excited about its renewed mission.

The leaked tapes, which include recordings of three Parler all-hands meetings in February, were provided to Bloomberg by an anonymous source. A former employee who listened to the calls confirmed the voices of the participants.

Parler didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did Mercer, who was a major backer of Donald Trump’s 2016 successful presidential campaign.

Parler, which went online in 2018, became popular with Trump supporters after Facebook and Twitter cracked down on false claims about the election and other misinformation. Amazon Web Services pulled its web-hosting service for Parler in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, saying it had violated its terms of service and citing posts that encouraged and incited violence. Apple and Google also suspended the Parler app from their app stores.

In a meeting that took place after co-founder John Matze was fired as CEO on Feb. 3, Jeffrey Wernick, a Parler investor and management committee member, said Mercer was crucial in providing money for the relaunch.

“We’ve written big checks these last couple of days to various parties with respect to the fact that we have now two data centers,” Wernick said. “So far who’s writing the checks for all this stuff is Rebekah Mercer. So that’s the support she has for Parler.”

Meckler, the interim CEO, said he has known Mercer “for a long time” and that he was brought in to Parler “to represent the largest investor, NDM and Bekah Mercer,” according to the recordings. According to Nevada state business records, NDMASCENDANT LLC is listed as a manager of Parler. NDMASCENDANT is owned by Rebekah Mercer, according to a person familiar with the matter.

In one of the recordings, Wernick defended Parler against accusations it played a role in the Capitol riot, saying other social-media platforms had a bigger influence. He also told employees that he believed Amazon, Google and Apple took down Parler in order to deny Trump a platform after the then-president was banned from Twitter.

In response to a request for comment, Wernick sent a link to an article that alleged the Capitol riot was almost exclusively planned on other social-media platforms.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab who has extensively reviewed social-media posts and court filings related to the Capitol riot, disagreed with Wernick’s assessment.

“Parler built a moderation-free platform and courted the far right just as the language and ideology was becoming increasingly extreme,” Scott-Railton said. “Anyone with experience of platforms would have known what kind of dangerous language this would attract. Sure enough, it did.”

The recordings include discussions about Parler’s new approach to content moderation, created by Wernick and Chief Policy Officer Amy Peikoff. Content that incites violence would be removed by an automated system while material that targets people based on characteristics such race, ethnicity or sexual orientation wouldn’t be removed but placed behind a filter, Wernick and Peikoff said on the recordings.

Peikoff said the new filter was tested on more than 91,000 comments and about 300 were flagged. “It’s going to be like what you see on Twitter, I’m sorry to compare,” she said. “It’s like a little box where you can click if you want to see behind the box.” The vendor for the filter is Hive, according to a person familiar with the matter. Hive also works with Reddit to moderate content, according to its website.

Hive didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Peikoff also said Parler had no plans to take down misinformation. “We are not going after misinformation in any way,” she said, on one of the recordings. “We are not being the arbiters of truth.” Peikoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.