If you want to understand the state of social media, take a look at a Twitter account called @FacebooksTop10. Maintained by New York Times journalist Kevin Roose, the account tweets a daily list of the top-performing posts on Facebook. Using data from Crowdtangle, a Facebook-owned analytics firm, each day’s list is almost invariably filled with the names of conservative personalities and media networks: Ben Shapiro, Kayleigh McEnany, Steven Crowder, Fox News, Franklin Graham, Breitbart, and so on. The list is an antidote to conservatives’ unfounded claim that their content is “shadowbanned” or intentionally suppressed by large social networks. (It is also a reminder that Facebook’s American user base skews conservative.)
In recent months, one name has dominated Roose’s list: Dan Bongino, a former secret service agent and thrice-failed congressional candidate who has ascended the digital commentariat to become one of the most popular political personalities in the country. His podcast regularly tops the charts, and he has 6.6 million followers between Twitter and Facebook. Having leveraged his way to fame on Silicon Valley’s monopolist products, he now, like many conservatives, claims he is being targeted by them for ideological censorship. (He has claimed his Facebook account may soon be taken down.) Not coincidentally, he’s also become an investor in alternative social networks, including a video site called Rumble and a Twitter clone known as Parler, both of which emphasize their commitment to free speech, minimal content moderation, and independence from Big Tech.
You may have heard of the latter company already, for one of two reasons: Over the weekend, Parler became the most downloaded app in the country, a position it was still holding as of Tuesday morning. It’s also the app in which Lang Holland, the police chief of Marshall, Arkansas, on Friday called for his fellow users to join him in traveling to Washington, D.C., to “fight our way into the Congress and arrest every Democrat who has participated in this coup? We may have to shoot and kill many of the Communist B.L.M. and ANTIFA Democrat foot soldiers to accomplish this!!!” Holland added, “Death to all Marxist Democrats. Take no prisoners leave no survivors!!” He has since resigned.
Founded in 2018 and surging since this summer, when it at one point gained a million users in a week, Parler has been adopted by practically every media personality and politician of note on the right, including some you might have forgotten. (Milo Yiannopoulos, banned from Twitter and polite society for his pedophilia apologetics, uses Parler to promote his paid video appearances on the service Cameo.) Some of them are racking up huge follower counts: 1.8 million for Bongino, 2.9 million for Ted Cruz, 1.3 million for Dinesh D’Souza. Posting many times per day (often by simply syndicating their tweets), they attract thousands of “echos,” the site’s equivalent of a retweet, “upvotes,” and comments.
Promising a boisterous public square, Parler’s appeal is based on a myth: that conservatives are uniquely targeted for “censorship” by major tech platforms and that some freer digital pasture needs to be cultivated. That such censorship can only be done by governments, and not by corporations implementing terms of service agreements, never enters into the discussion; the point is rather to emphasize the supposed liberal intolerance that has long been a key part of the conservative movement’s victim narrative. The truth is otherwise: Several revealing articles, including by The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have reported that Facebook often goes out of its way to please conservative celebrity users—holding off-the-record meetings with pundits like Ben Shapiro, withholding warnings for influential conservatives who post disinformation, arranging dinner between Mark Zuckerberg and President Trump. The notion, then, that Facebook plans to ban someone like Bongino seems improbable. He is, after all, one of the most powerful draws on a site that values engagement above all else.
How Bongino became so popular on Facebook is an unsettled mystery. He’s told The New York Times that he barely looks at analytics and has no idea why his material is so popular. In any case, now he’s sprinkling his viral magic over Parler, whose servers have been overwhelmed in the last week, causing the app to crash repeatedly. Whether Parler can solve its technical issues—the app itself is slow, buggy, and a little clunky in its design—will go a long way to determine whether it can scale up and become something other than the next Gab (a little-used Twitter alternative with a strong ideological bent, whose user base could be politely characterized as bigoted and violent).
With some rules regarding pornography, gore, and illegal material, Parler is a tamer culture than Gab. But Parler is disturbing in its own way, particularly as Republican voters and politicians refuse to acknowledge the results of the presidential election. Parler’s Trump-obsessed user base lives in its own epistemic bubble, where every unfounded accusation of voter fraud, every claim of Democratic perfidy, and every fantastical Trump boast is axiomatically true. Forsaking most mainstream news outlets, the app offers links to obscure, fly-by-night news sites or cultish propagandists like The Epoch Times. With no fact-checking and minimal algorithmic curation, Parler ostensibly empowers users to decide for themselves what to believe, and its user base has decided that Joe Biden stole the presidential election and that they have all been wronged.
In short, what Parler lacks is any truth quotient at all. You can scroll for hours and barely confront anything approaching a verifiable fact. It is a cauldron into which conservative personalities like Mark Levin, Sheriff David Clarke, and the QAnon-supporting Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene can pour a bitter stream of rhetoric about a stolen election, a hoax virus, and the many ways they have been betrayed by their political enemies. After just a day with Parler, I came away stunned and depressed and grateful for its occasional outages, when I would return to Twitter—a flawed, addictive platform that at least aspires, however ham-fistedly, to create a consensus reality based on truth. What I learned from my brief time on Parler, though, is that this consensus reality is gossamer-thin, a hallucination we agree to share. Plug yourself into another feed, another timeline, and your view of the world may become as warped as those on Parler.
The millions of people flocking to Parler in recent weeks have come as they are. Years of lies and disinformation by right-wing politicians and personalities have predisposed these users to believe that Twitter and Facebook censor conservatives and that nothing the Democrats or the establishment media says is true. Parler is their safe space from all that. And those politicians and personalities are meeting them there. Some, like Senator Cruz, see an opportunity to target the Republican Party’s Trumpian base. Others, like D’Souza, see an opportunity to grow another social media tentacle with which to grift that base. And there’s Bongino, whose investments are paying off. While his hot app rakes in users in the wake of the election, he’s still posting away on the platform that so oppresses him—reaping the benefits of the latter to promote the former. “It’s happening,” he wrote on Facebook on Tuesday. “The social media revolution is going down, right now, before your eyes. My company, Parler (the free speech alternative to Twitter), blew past Twitter and the tech tyrants in the App Store and is currently the most downloaded app in the world.” As of Tuesday morning, the post had 74,000 likes.