BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. Last weekend, three far right media apps - Parler, MeWe, and Newsmax snagged the top three spots for free apps on the iPhone App Store. With a bit of marketing blitz and launched a buzz, just about any new tech company could see a momentary burst of traffic. This was different. These apps aren't new, just newly in vogue. Their sudden surge is part of a larger phenomenon, a growing rejection of traditional conservative watering holes like Facebook and Fox News in favor of even more extreme echo chambers. Casey Newton is a tech journalist and the creator of the Platformer newsletter. Casey, welcome to the show.
CASEY NEWTON Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Some people say par-ler, some say par-lay, because it's French derivation for speaking. Do you know for sure what this platform is called?
CASEY NEWTON As best as I can tell, the creators call it par-ler. And I do find it very difficult that a network for American conservatives would brand itself with a French language pronunciation, so I'm sticking with Parler.
BOB GARFIELD Like freedom fries.
CASEY NEWTON Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD Tell me about its history and where it's at right this moment.
CASEY NEWTON So Parler was founded about two years ago by a couple of guys in Nevada after increasing concern that mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter were taking too heavy a hand in moderating content. So if you remember, after the 2016 election, Facebook and Twitter got a lot of grief about all of the misinformation and election interference that they had enabled on their platform. And they started to take really strong measures to get it off. But as a result of that, many conservatives felt like they could no longer express their views. And so Parler stepped into that void and said: we promise if you join us, we will moderate as little content as humanly possible.
BOB GARFIELD Facebook has two or three billion users worldwide. What about Parler?
CASEY NEWTON Parler, If I had to guess, has a monthly active usership somewhere around a million or so. A really small fraction of a Twitter like user base, but it has been growing very quickly since the election.
BOB GARFIELD And the growth seems to come, if not entirely - predominantly from the political right, no?
CASEY NEWTON That's right. If you are to join Parler, you're presented with a screen of suggested people to follow, and it's all conservative pundits and elected officials. You know, it's Ted Cruz and it's Sean Hannity.
BOB GARFIELD Among the most prominent investors in Parler is Dan Bongino, a conservative pundit and Fox News contributor who consistently produced Facebook's daily top 10 most popular posts over the waning days of the campaign this summer. Which is to say, big tech is treating him just fine. Why would someone like him want to invest in such a relatively tiny platform?
CASEY NEWTON You know, I would say it's two things. One is the winners on Facebook refused to acknowledge that they have won. All of the big top 10 on Facebook that you mention are among the loudest proponents of the idea that they are being censored on Facebook. And that's because no matter how many people they may be reaching, there are cases where their posts may be removed or they'll face some other sort of discipline. But I think the bigger issue is that if you're an influencer on any platform, eventually you become nervous about the amount of control that that platform has over your life, right. The rules can change at any time. Facebook could just decide one day that they don't want him around and could snap their fingers and he would have no recourse.
BOB GARFIELD All right. Number two in the App Store was Newsmax. Certainly a part of the great right wing media sphere. And number three was another little known social media app called MeWe. What's the story of MeWe?
CASEY NEWTON MeWe was created by this entrepreneur named Mark Weinstein, and he's basically been in the social networking space for a really long time. He created a very early social network prototype called Supergroups in nineteen ninety eight. And MeWe is maybe a little bit more Facebook-like if Parler's is a little bit more Twitter-like. But like Parler. It's also promising to do very little content moderation. Weinstein wrote a post promising no ads, no targeting, no political bias, no news feed manipulation and no B.S..
BOB GARFIELD Hmm. Well, it's unclear if that's the rubric, how the hell he intends to make any money. But putting that aside for a moment - he didn't found it explicitly as a safe haven for right wing extremism, but it has turned out that way.
CASEY NEWTON Yeah, what these folks have seen is just a market opportunity. If 10 years ago I pitched you on a social network that wasn't doing that much content moderation, that would have just been Facebook and Twitter, right. There wouldn't have been much way to differentiate. But now that there is this, you know, healthy group of millions of folks that feel really aggrieved by what is becoming of Facebook and Twitter, they're looking for alternatives. And if you're MeWe, which has been floating around with no real juice for a while now, that can be really attractive.
BOB GARFIELD And they have major support from very prominent right wing demagogue like Sean Hannity. Here he is introducing parler to his audience.
SEAN HANNITY Can we now move everybody from Twitter to Parler? Can we make the shift together? Like, just say goodbye, Twitter. See you at Jack. Nice try. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Overall, how do you think Twitter and Facebook did perform this time around compared to 2016 when they were obviously asleep at the switch?
CASEY NEWTON They did really well. They spent 2020 fighting the last war. And the war in 2016 was prevent foreign actors from getting onto the platform using fake accounts, sowing division, spreading misinformation, because President Trump had given away his entire plan from the start, he sort of acknowledged he was not going to accept a losing result in the election. It enabled them to make policy preparations and say if any candidate happens to say that they won the election when it's been decided the other way, we are going to label that. And I think all that's been good. The change, though, is that you now have the most dangerous misinformation coming from the top elected officials in the country, not just Trump, but also the Republican Senate, you know, declining to to congratulate the president elect or even acknowledge that he's projected to be the winner. The platforms are just in this really tough place because they are built as homes for conversation, much of which is political. And when the entire political infrastructure of the right is now devoting itself to this idea that the election may have been stolen, it just becomes incredibly difficult for them to root all of that out. Now, where I would hold them accountable is the post that whip up the most fear and outrage, get the most engagement on Facebook and Twitter. That's just a function of how the platforms work. So on that front, it does sort of feel like between 2016 and 2020, we didn't make all that much progress.
BOB GARFIELD So should we be happy that the craziest and dumbest and most extreme voices are self-segregating and decreasingly polluting mainstream social media?
CASEY NEWTON I used to think that if we could just move the worst actors on social networks to smaller spaces, we would be OK, but then QAnon happened. And QAnon is a conspiracy theory that bubbled up on a tiny message board that no one took seriously or thought mattered. And now it's essentially a mainstream conspiracy movement. And so while I don't think Parler or MeWe, we are going to overtake Facebook and Twitter, I do think that they bear watching. And if there are new conspiracy movements that arise there and gain some traction, then we all need to be paying attention because they're going to find a way to move to Facebook and Twitter eventually. And from Facebook and Twitter, they can pretty easily move into the real world and real world violence.
BOB GARFIELD You believe that this notion of voter fraud, which has so enraged and fooled Trump's supporters, is going to be the basis of an ongoing movement that is simply erected against the legitimately established government? You point to an essay by Ezra Klein, which used the term autocracy-in-exile. Will Parler and MeWe be the official house organs of the autocracy-in-exile?
CASEY NEWTON I do think that they could become part of that ecosystem. I sort of just envision this world where Trump leaves office but sets up shop at some mass media perch. Maybe it's OANN, maybe it's Fox News and spends four years talking about how the election was stolen from him and he's the rightful president of the United States. 70 million Americans voted for this man. I think that's going to be an extremely powerful narrative, however false it may be. And it could be a vehicle for him to stage a comeback in 2024. And where it gets really tricky for the tech platforms that I write about is that if this becomes a mainstream political movement and your Facebook or Twitter, how do you tell, you know, 50 percent of the country that they're not allowed to discuss their belief that the election was stolen? I believe that democracy is both precious and fragile, and that if there was ever a time to be overly alarmed about what is happening in this country, it's now.
BOB GARFIELD Casey, thank you.
CASEY NEWTON Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD Casey Newton is a tech journalist and creator of the newsletter platformer, or maybe it's platform-ay.
BOB GARFIELD The mood is we're all doomed and then a stupid little callback joke, but -.
CASEY NEWTON No, it's good! You know, you can terrify people continuously, you know, for the whole show.