This piece was originally published on July 7, 2020.
Many conservatives have long accused popular social media platforms of discriminating against their ideas, but that feeling reached a new urgency in late May when Twitter flagged several of President Donald Trump’s tweets for touting unsubstantiated claims and glorifying violence.
The move sparked outrage from some on the right. Some Republican users said that Twitter had treated other similarly controversial posts differently.
Shortly after, Trump called for the revocation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Put simply, the law protects online platforms from liability for the content their users post. In the event of an immediate threat or other illegal event on the website, the only person that can be held responsible for the crime is the individual user.
Shortly after he called for the statute’s repeal, Trump signed an executive order that attempted to restrict Section 230’s protections by potentially withholding federal funds from tech companies that engage in “viewpoint discrimination, deception to consumers, or other bad practices.”
The order was met with skepticism from many digital policy experts.
Michael Petricone, senior vice president of government affairs for the Consumer Technology Association, said it was “not only ill-considered, it is unconstitutional.”
“For the past few months, people… have relied on online platforms to connect and communicate,” he said. “It was Section 230 and the free speech protections enjoyed by online platforms that enabled their success and subsequently, their ability to support struggling Americans during the pandemic.”
The legal footing on which the order stands is unclear, but frustration at alleged incidents of bias have continued to grow.
Parler’s ‘free speech’ community standards
Several conservative commentators called for a conservative exodus from Twitter.
In its stead, some have migrated to platforms like Parler, which claims to offer users an escape from alleged anti-conservative bias.
Public figures like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Fox News anchor Sean Hannity made Parler accounts that garnered hundreds of thousands of followers in mere days. Some, like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, had previously made accounts but only recently resumed use of them.
Big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter “have an unparalleled ability to shape what Americans see and hear and ultimately think,” Cruz wrote in a post to the site. “And they use that power to silence conservatives and to promote their radical leftwing agenda.”
Parler aims to be “a non-biased free speech driven entity,” and provides examples of Supreme Court outcomes and Federal Communications Commission media regulations to justify much of what they deem off-limits.
However, the platform still removes posts and even users that run afoul of content moderation policies, including legally-protected content like crass speech, pornography and spam — all behaviors that are permitted on Twitter, provided that pornography is tagged as “sensitive”.
In a post last week, Parler CEO John Matze warned users that such actions would not be tolerated on the website, and that if a user were in doubt about what is acceptable to post, he should “ask [himself] if [he] would say it on the streets of New York or national television.”
Further, the platform’s level of unacceptable content has caused the company to ask members of its userbase to sift through the potentially violent, pornographic, incestuous, bestial or otherwise undesirable content two hours a day without compensation, promising future payment of an unspecified amount.
One such post claims that Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-M.N., called for “all white men [to] be put in chains” in a post on Twitter. No such tweet exists.
One can find myriad examples of harmful behavior on mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well. But ultimately, both their and Parler’s ability to decide which legal content to leave untouched is protected by the very piece of legislation that the president, whom many of Parler’s users and investors support, is trying to repeal.
Gab’s looser guidelines on content
Other alternative social media networks, like Gab, allow far more content on their platforms than Parler. On Gab, users follow loose content guidelines that permit almost anything that is not copyright infringement, impersonation, unlawful threatening, and obscene or pornographic, although nudity for “protest or for educational/medical reasons” is permitted.
Because of the lax restrictions, CEO Andrew Torba said, “Gab is an online refuge for anyone who wishes to speak freely and securely away from the tyranny of Silicon Valley.”
However, such a refuge has led to communities centered around ethnic hatred that are generally banned on Parler, as well as the more “mainstream” and popular social networks Twitter and Facebook. In 2018, Gab user Robert Bowers sparked notoriety for the online forum when he posted on Gab that he was “going in,” before entering a synagogue to murder 11 people and leave several others injured.
Before the shooting, Bowers’ account was replete with anti-Semitic content. He railed against “Zionist Operated Governments” and the Hebrews Immigrant Aid Society, which assists refugees, and warned of a “kike infestation.” The posts and Bowers’ account were removed following the shooting.
Torba claimed that journalists who accuse Gab of being a safe haven for white supremacists and radicals are “Marxist propagandists and proven liars,” and that there are numerous healthy groups on the site.
He also said that in the wake of Twitter’s response to Trump’s tweets, the platform has seen a spike in membership to over four million users.
“We saw an increase of 100,000 new daily active users join the Gab community in the past week alone,” he said. “In June, we brought on 200,000 new and returning users after the President’s tweets started getting ‘fact-checked’ by Twitter.”
Despite Gab’s history, its community guidelines are closer to reflecting its stated vision and seemingly less arbitrarily enforced than Parler’s. Torba said that because Parler is available in Apple’s App Store and Google Play (both of which have barred Gab), they are required to enforce not only their own community guidelines but also the guidelines of their providers.
“[This] is likely why Parler is already mass banning users,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, Twitter has more free speech than Parler does.”
In an interview with Pastor Rick Wiles of TruNews (who has warned of a “brown invasion” of the United States and referred to the impeachment of President Donald Trump as a “Jew coup”), Torba said he refuses to “bend the knee” to those who wish to see Gab fail, and that he sees his work as eternally important.
“Hey, if Christ can get up on that cross,” he said, “I can pick up the cross and do what I do. That’s the way I see it.”
Gab CEO supports Section 230
Torba is vocally pro-Section 230. In a Gab News post, he championed the right of private companies to “moderate their platform as they see fit.”
“They can ban anyone for any reason,” he continued. “They can have a rule that says no one can post videos of their cat anymore if they so choose and they can certainly decide to.”
However, Torba also contended that Section 230’s protections do not extend to Twitter or Facebook’s fact-checking practices.
“When Big Tech platforms “fact-check” posts or “editorialize” content, Section 230 does not apply to that speech,” he said. “That speech is them speaking, not a user. Section 230 does not prevent them from being held liable for their own speech.”
Other right-leaning figures, like David Harsanyi of the National Review, have argued that while Twitter’s decision to mark Trump’s tweets as false or glorifying violence will only fuel accusations of bias, it is within the platform’s legal right to do so.
“No American, not even the president, has an inherent right to a social media account,” he said. “Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter are free to ban any user they see fit. They’re free to accuse Donald Trump — and only Trump, if they see fit — of being a liar, even if they shouldn’t.”
Parler’s Matze has expressed a contrasting view.
In an interview with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Matze said that while he does not like the idea of being perceived as a Twitter alternative, he believes that Parler’s practices are in better keeping with free speech and that Twitter is “acting more like publications rather than a community forum” — the same reasoning Trump used in arguing for the repeal of Section 230.
The future of Parler, Gab and other critics of Silicon Valley social networks
Torba said that Gab’s community guidelines will not change in the future, something that he claimed distinguished the site from its competition.
“This is where Gab stands out,” he said. “For years we have taken the principled position of defending speech that Apple, Google and other Big Tech companies wish to see censored. When Apple and Google demanded that Gab ban [First Amendment] protected speech, we refused to bend the knee and were banned from both app stores as punishment.”
Torba said that Gab’s users were committed to the company’s ideals, and that they did not need the help of “impotent members of Congress.”
“We have a loud majority of truth seekers speaking very freely who are infinitely more important and influential,” he said.
In the future, Matze said to Ingraham, Parler will focus on so-called “influencer marketing,”
“That’s really important right now — the influencers can convey the message better than individuals or the page as a whole,” he said.
In June, Matze offered $10,000 to a left-leaning pundit with at least 50.000 followers on Facebook or Twitter willing to join Parler. Finding no one, he raised the “progressive bounty” to $20,000.
To date, no one has accepted.
This piece was originally published by Broadband Breakfast, titled “Parler, Gab, and Section 230: Right-Leaning Social Networks Push Alternative to Twitter and Facebook.”