SALT LAKE CITY — Prominent conservative voices such as Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are urging like-minded Americans to leave Twitter for a new social media platform named Parler.
But in an increasingly fractured nation, is it wrong for conservatives or liberals to sequester themselves in the public square, expanding what some analysts have called an echo chamber of political thought?
To some political analysts, it’s a question worth considering as “Twexit” gathers steam in conservative circles.
Launched by Colorado software developer John Matze, Parler has been around since 2018. The name comes from the French word meaning “to speak,” which is pronounced “par-lay,” although Matze has said it’s evolved into “par-ler.” (But the posts that users make are pronounced “par-lays.”)
Regardless of how you pronounce it, more people are using the app. Matze said last year that the service had 100,000 users; now he says it has nearly 2 million, although Politico reported Thursday that some accounts that appear to represent Congress members are fake.
The venture owes its surge in popularity to two factors: endorsements by popular conservatives, including Lee, who has asked President Donald Trump to join the platform; and recent crackdowns by other platforms on what they consider hate speech and misinformation, which some Republicans see as an effort to silence conservatives.
Trump, who has long used Twitter to communicate directly with his base and mock his critics, is at the center of the action.
Twitter’s decision in May to flag some of Trump’s posts as misleading led the president to order a broad investigation of social media’s legal protections. The executive order was swiftly challenged in court by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. Meanwhile, other platforms, including Twitch and Reddit, have moved to restrict posts by Trump supporters, leading Wired magazine to declare “Social media drops the hammer on Team Trump.”
And big advertisers, such as Coca-Cola and Starbucks, have recently said they will stop advertising on social media, as a boycott against Facebook began Wednesday.
The uproar has created an opportunity for Parler, which bills itself in the Apple app store as “unbiased social media” focused on protecting user’s rights. Matze has said he wants the app to be a blend of Twitter and Facebook-owned Instagram, and that any opinion that is genuine should be welcome in the public square, even if it’s controversial.
“If somebody says something that’s unpopular or that you think is fake, if that’s a genuine person and that’s their genuine belief, then they should be able to do that,” Matze said on the radio show of The Federalist.
The room where it happens
Lee, who remained active on Twitter as of Tuesday, recently told Dennis Romboy of the Deseret News why he hopes the president will embrace Parler. “The American people need more choices in online platforms and President Trump could help establish a Parler community with his significant following,” Lee said.
So far, the president hasn’t taken that advice, although many of his associates and family members have, including the president’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump.
And a Parler account with the name @Realdonaldtrumptweets is a replica of the president’s Twitter account, including his tweets, headshot and background photo.
Twitter is not the largest social-media platform — Facebook is — but its influence is outsized, which presents a quandary for anyone in the public eye, said David French, senior editor of the conservative online journal The Dispatch and author of the forthcoming book “Divided We Fall.”
“Twitter punches above its weight in influence because that’s where the influence makers focus their time. It’s the chat room of the American elite right now. That’s why there’s such anger and outrage when somebody is kicked off that platform. It’s like you’re no longer in the room where it happened,” French said.
For all its influence, Twitter is used by a minority of Americans. According to Pew Research Center, about 22% of people in the U.S. have a Twitter account, compared to the 73% who use YouTube and the 69% who have a Facebook account.
Twitter users also tend to be Democrat, or Democrat-leaning, according to Pew. On a scale ranging from very conservative to very liberal, just 14% ranked themselves as the most conservative. (Nationwide, 1 in 4 Americans do.)
A well-known conservative and former senior writer for National Review, French said he signed up for a Parler account to claim his user name before someone else could. He said he doesn’t foresee using it and describes the platform as Twitter technology applied to the far right Breitbart News comment section.
He understands the impulse to depart from a platform if people feel they’re being silenced. “One of the answers to speech you don’t like is more speech. If you don’t like Twitter’s policies, and you have no way of becoming CEO of Twitter, starting your own social media platform is a time-honored way of trying to offer a better product,” he said. “If they can offer a better product than Twitter, more power to them.” But, French said, in appealing primarily to conservatives, and Trump supporters in particular, Parler risks undermining its own potential.
“The reason so many people on the right use Twitter isn’t so much to speak to each other, but to engage with the left. I don’t see (conservatives) retreating to Parler if, say, they’re owning (NBC “Meet the Press” moderator) Chuck Todd and Chuck Todd doesn’t know he’s being owned.”
Parler itself has a presence on Twitter, with more than 128,000 followers. (Twitter has not yet reciprocated.)
‘The two sides never meet’
Jason Altmire, a three-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, wrote a book on political polarization after he left office in 2013. In “Dead Center,” Altmire argues that most Americans dwell in the “unrepresented center,” their moderate positions eclipsed or ignored by the noisy extremes.
Similarly, Twitter is made up of extremes, he says. “It’s all about voicing your opinion and engaging in debate or, I would say, engaging in argument more often than not.”
Altmire, now a consultant living in Florida, said he is not on Parler, and doesn’t plan to join. He expects the platform will remain primarily for conservatives, adding to the polarization that he believes is dangerous for America.
“I knew Parler was out there, and it has become exactly what I feared, and what I wrote about: People surrounding themselves with people who think exactly as they do. And what we’re evolving into now is having two different streams of social media, one for Republicans, one for Democrats. And the two sides never meet, never engage.”
The polarization enabled by Parler and other forms of social media may seem ironic, given Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s stated mission for his platform is to “bring people closer together.”
But Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication Journalism at the University of Southern California, and an expert on social media, notes that these platforms are essentially “private clubs” that bring like-minded people together.
“They are not set up to unify people across divisions. If anything, they amplify differences,” she said.
In his forthcoming book, French explores scenarios in which America might literally fracture; the subtitle is “America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.”
“There is no single political, cultural or religious trend right now that is pulling America together more than it is pushing it apart,” he said. “We’re in the midst of a fragmentation of our culture where people are able to wall off into like-minded entertainments and like-minded communities, and our nation is both growing increasingly secular while maintaining a huge number of people who are deeply religious.
“We cannot assume that our nation is immune to those kinds of historical forces that have pulled other nations apart before.”
But, French said, there is no great threat in Parler further dividing the nation more than in any other social-media community. “It’s just as fine to be on Parler as it to be on Reddit or a sub-Reddit. But no one should pretend that Parler is Twitter.”
And Altmire, while troubled that some of his former colleagues in Congress are switching to Parler, said he is also concerned about the decision of major advertisers to pull out of social media because they don’t like the opinions expressed there. “In this case, they want censorship; they want voices to be turned off,” he said. “I have an issue with that.”