Last week’s presidential election spurred a mass exodus of social media users from Facebook and Twitter to a platform called Parler, making it the current most-downloaded mobile app in the Apple iOS and Android stores.
Marking what may be the start of a sea change in the global social media market, the Nevada-based social media site grew from 4.5 million users to more than 8 million last week. On the day of the election, Parler was receiving 50 new users a second, the company reported.
“It was getting a little crazy,” Parler founder and CEO John Matze, 27, told KUSI-TV during a Nov. 5 interview. “If it keeps continuing like this, we’re going to see a major shake-up in social media in the next two years. Huge.”
Parler’s rapid rise in popularity has caught the attention of some cybersecurity experts, who warn that the site’s members may be vulnerable to information warfare attacks by America’s adversaries — namely Russia and China.
“Foreign intelligence services know their targets and will follow them wherever they go,” said Kenneth Geers, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a former ambassador of NATO’s cybersecurity center.
“Information and psychological operations take advantage of existing cleavages in society, so they’re notoriously hard to stop,” Geers told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Multiple news outlets have projected that former Vice President Joe Biden won last week’s presidential election. President Donald Trump, however, has refused to concede, claiming the election was marred by corruption. Amid accusations from some quarters that Facebook and Twitter were censoring content helpful to Trump’s reelection bid, scores of the president’s supporters migrated to Parler last week.
For his part, Matze has touted the social media site as an unbiased platform that does not fact-check the posts of its members. A message on the site’s landing page reads: “Speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”
In its design and functionality, Parler is similar to Twitter — instead of a “retweet,” you can “echo” another user’s post. Developed in 2018 and based in Henderson, Nevada, Parler has not yet faced congressional scrutiny and oversight equal to that of the twin American social media giants, Twitter and Facebook.
“You don’t really get trust with people when you fact check them and you kick them off your platform,” Matze said Nov. 5. “So it’s not really a good business model if you’re trying to earn trust.”
“On the other hand, Parler has a great business model for trust,” Matze added, “because we just believe that people should be able to say what anyone wants. Right? You should be able to say what you’re legally entitled to.”
Parler has also become a social media refuge of sorts for controversial figures, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who was banned from Twitter in July. Saudi Arabian free-speech activists, as well, have found a home on the upstart social media platform. A surge of some 200,000 new members from Saudi Arabia in June 2019 temporarily crashed some of Parler’s functions, Reuters reported.
“The nationalist movement of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made it known that big tech is censoring them at rates we have never experienced in the United States,” Parler posted on its own account on the site. “Let us welcome them as we all fight for our rights together.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, in which America’s adversaries — Russia, above all — exploited social media sites to discredit and disrupt the American electoral process, Congress levied legislative pressure on Twitter and Facebook, spurring the social media platforms to ramp up their defenses against exploitation by ill-intentioned foreign actors wishing to spread disinformation.
Today, Twitter and Facebook are tasked with the unenviable duty of providing a platform for free speech, while simultaneously serving as gatekeepers to limit the dissemination of inaccurate information — a societal responsibility traditionally shouldered by journalistic institutions.
“Cyberspace is surprisingly democratic, and censorship is always a challenge,” Geers said.
After the 2016 presidential election, the Department of Defense took more responsibility for the defense of America’s elections against foreign attacks. Working alongside law enforcement agencies, the Pentagon has since adopted a more aggressive election defense posture, involving what are known as “hunt forward” operations in which US cybersecurity teams travel abroad and provide forward observations from the global cyber front lines to anticipate how the US may be attacked in the future.
However, the effectiveness of that combined effort to defend America’s elections may be diminished if the country’s social media users migrate en masse to new platforms that have not been hardened against foreign influence.
“It can take time for law enforcement and intelligence to catch up with the rapid evolution of information technology,” Geers told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Some critics of Facebook and Twitter claim that political bias within the social media companies has spurred their fact checkers to unfairly crack down on users who support Trump, shaping a social media information ecosphere that benefited Biden.
Since the Nov. 3 presidential election, Twitter has tagged about 50 of Trump’s tweets with labels, warning users about potential disinformation. Facebook, too, has tagged some posts related to the election with disinformation disclaimers. As a result, some prominent conservative media personalities, such as Fox News’ Sean Hannity, have called for their followers to jump ship from Twitter and follow them to Parler.
“Can we now move everybody from Twitter to Parler? Can we just, like, make the shift together, like, just say goodbye Twitter, see ya Jack, nice try,” Hannity said on Fox News’ program The Ingraham Angle, referring to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Critics of the president, however, say the social media sites are simply living up to their social contract, and that the blame lies on the president for sharing inaccurate and misleading information. For his part, Parler’s Matze pushed back against the notion that Parler is an echo chamber for far-right personalities.
“I’m seeing a lot more people — very diverse opinions, showing up to Parler,” Matze said. “And it’s going to continue, as well, because this just doesn’t affect conservatives, this censorship, it affects everybody. A lot of people are unhappy that they’re not seeing enough debate and discourse on Twitter anymore, it’s just kind of like a big Biden rally.”
Industry reports estimate that about half of Parler’s 8 million members are “active users” — up from 500,000 last month. As a point of comparison, Facebook counts some 1.8 billion active users, and Twitter has about 187 million.
Clearly, Parler’s overall share of the social market still lags behind those other platforms. Yet, the meteoric rise in its membership since last week suggests that a broader rebalancing of social media affiliations could be in the works, reflecting widespread discontent with current fact-checking policies. Parler’s Matze said that, in practice, it is impossible for any social media company to remain unbiased if it wades into the business of fact-checking its users’ posts.
“Once you start curating content and once you start trying to decide who’s true or false, your bias, and your ability to be unbiased goes out the window,” Matze said in the Nov. 5 interview. “So you’re just completely a biased platform at that point. So what we’ve decided to do is — let’s just not do any curation, no fact checking, let people do that on their own … and we’ll remain neutral.”
Russia and China have weaponized information by deploying their state-run media organizations and de facto cyber-influence armies to undermine American society and its democratic institutions. This information war is precision-targeted on the American people through the internet and social media to manipulate and inflame societal divisions — often turning Americans against one another.
Russia’s cyberwarfare strategy draws on Soviet tradecraft. The USSR conducted clandestine operations around the world to extend Soviet influence and undermine the legitimacy of, and sow chaos within, Western democracies. These tactics included leaking false information to foreign media outlets.
The advent of the internet, and social media in particular, has given the Kremlin direct access to the populations of its adversaries — bypassing the gatekeeper role America’s media institutions used to play. Meanwhile, Americans’ distrust in their media institutions has hit historic levels. And both Russia and China have stealthily taken advantage of that distrust to permeate the US news cycle with disinformation.
“Call it hybrid, irregular, or political warfare. What is important is that it is warfare,” John Spencer, chair of Urban Warfare Studies with the Modern War Institute at the US Military Academy at West Point, told Coffee or Die Magazine in an earlier interview.
“An armed adversary employing multiple means to cause damage to another nation is war, warfare, and an attack,” Spencer said.