Twitter alternative Parler has garnered headlines in recent days as leading conservatives have flocked to the platform as a less-moderated bastion of “free speech.” Yet a closer look suggests that the same economic and legislative pressures that have come to reign over its predecessors are likely to gradually turn Parler into another censorship-governed social media app.
In centering its identity on free speech, Parler is merely following in the well-trodden footsteps of similar sites. Twitter once touted itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and pushed back on Congress’ calls to rein in terrorists on its platform, arguing “the ability of users to share freely their views — including views that many people may disagree with or find abhorrent” — was at the center of the company’s mission. Medium was launched to “creat[e] a level playing field that encourages ideas that come from anywhere.” Sites like MySpace, Friendster and Facebook all launched as democratic self-publishing platforms allowing anyone to say anything.
Something happened along the way.
Motherboard traces how Twitter gradually added layer after layer of “acceptable speech” rules to its terms of service over the years in response to economic forces and legislative and public scrutiny. As Motherboard put it, “The old Twitter fetishized anti-censorship; the new Twitter puts user safety first.”
Indeed, Twitter has gradually redefined the very concept of free speech. In the company’s current view, “freedom of expression means little as our underlying philosophy if we allow voices to be silenced because they are afraid to speak up.” In short, dissent sometimes counts not as free speech but as prohibited speech that deters others from speaking.
Today every major social platform enforces rules of acceptable speech. From having once defended the right of terrorists to use its platform, Twitter now proudly touts its efforts to remove objectionable voices. Facebook went from claiming it wouldn’t remove most hate speech in Germany to prominently featuring its moderation efforts in that country.
How did social media companies devolve from purpose-built free speech platforms that refused to censor their users into publishing houses that enforce ever more restrictive speech guidelines?
In the case of terrorism and hate speech, legislative threats in the U.S. and Europe caused almost overnight changes in the company’s stances.
Advertisers have been an even greater force.
Facebook faced a growing advertiser crisis in 2013 when it refused to remove posts encouraging violence against women. After major advertisers began pulling their campaigns from the platform, the company abruptly reversed itself and adopted wide-ranging new content policies.
On the other hand, a short-lived 2016 advertiser boycott over data privacy led to little change, and Facebook’s immense reach means the ads typically return after public attention has faded.
Indeed, the current Facebook advertiser boycott might be more cynically seen not as a moral stand by businesses genuinely fed up with the company’s policy, but rather as a way for them to extend their pandemic reduction in ad spending as states slow their reopenings.
In short, as social platforms grew from small venture-funded start-ups into ad-supported enterprises, advertisers came to play an outsized role in setting acceptable speech rules, much as they did a generation ago with the press. By dictating what kinds of content they would advertise beside, advertisers defined what constituted monetizable speech and thus the kind of speech platforms would permit.
Where does this leave Parler?
The company’s image as a bastion of free speech mirrors that of its predecessors when they launched. It has even copied the “community guidelines” of its peers, banning concepts such as “any direct and very personal insult with the intention of stirring and upsetting the recipient” and “a threat or advocation of violation against an individual or group.” Such rules leave much to interpretation, and their equivalents were cited by Facebook and Twitter in recent weeks in the actions they took against President Trump’s accounts.
As Parler matures and becomes dependent on advertising dollars and more visible to policymakers, it is almost certain to follow in Twitter’s footsteps, rapidly narrowing its acceptable speech guidelines until, in the end, it becomes just another censored platform, but with a fraction of the reach.