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What’s Going On With Parler?

On Wednesday, John Matze, the CEO and founder of the “free speech” app Parler, which went dark last month, announced in an internal memo that he had been fired by the company’s board of directors, headed by right-wing donor Rebekah Mercer.

“On January 29, 2021, the Parler board controlled by Rebekah Mercer decided to immediately terminate my position as CEO of Parler. I did not participate in this decision,” Matze wrote in the memo, which was first published by Fox Business.

Matze claimed that he was terminated as a result of a dispute over the app’s content moderation policies. “Over the past few months, I’ve met constant resistance to my product vision, my strong belief in free speech and my view of how the Parler site should be managed,” Matze wrote, specifying that he advocated for, among other things, “what I believed was a more effective approach to content moderation.”

In an interview with NPR, Matze claimed that he started advocating for more aggressive content moderation after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, only for board members like conservative donor Rebekah Mercer to ignore him. “To me, it was a clear indication of what could have happen if we didn’t change the ways were being done,” he said.

In the past, however, Matze has made comments that underscore just how deeply rooted his anti-moderation stance is. “We’re trying to build this thing so we don’t have to get people banned. That’s the goal…the goal is to not censor anybody,” Matze said last July on a popular right-wing podcast which has previously hosted white supremacists and far-right extremists and was deplatformed from the streaming site Dlive last month.

“My sense is he broke, he caved,” says Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters for America, about Matze’s about-face. “He made a legitimate business calculation, which is that there was no plausible pathway for him to get his business restored without having at minimum some veneer of more aggressive moderation policy to get back on the app store.” And this stance, Carusone says, ran counter to that of others in leadership roles at Parler, who share the view that “the second you start to moderate and crack down, any kind of response to external stimuli is weakness and your death knell.”

In a Facebook Live on Wednesday, Parler cofounder Dan Bongino, a far-right commentator with an immense Facebook following, disputed Matze’s version of events, doubling down on Parler’s anti-moderation stance. “We were the ones in fact fighting to get Parler back up. There were some really bad decisions made by people on the inside. This isn’t airing dirty laundry, this is protecting a company that is absolutely committed to free speech,” he says. He claimed “the vision of the company as a free speech platform was mine and the two other owners.”

Parler has experienced a dizzying rise and fall over the past few months. After Facebook and Twitter deplatformed President Trump, the app, which markets itself as a forum for uncensored speech, became the most downloaded on the app store, skyrocketing to a 353 percent increase in downloads, according to data shared with Rolling Stone (though it had been “diminishing in influence, in use and in growth” in the weeks prior to it being taken down, says Carusone).

Following the events of the Capitol insurrection, however, many anti-extremism experts have blamed Parler for serving as a platform to help foment the attacks. As a result, Apple and Google removed Parler from its app stores, and its host Amazon Web Services decided to suspend service to the app, leading to it going dark. (It is currently back online as a website, though most of its posts are in response to press coverage of Matze or status updates about when the app will be back up.)

Matze has claimed that Apple, Google, and Amazon singled out Parler for its role in helping to organize the insurrection, designating it as a scapegoat. “Amazon, Google, and Apple purposefully did this as a coordinated effort, knowing our options would be limited and knowing this would inflict the most damage right as President Trump was banned from the tech companies,” he wrote last month after Parler was taken offline.

In response to a preliminary injunction lawsuit Parler filed against Amazon in Seattle, Amazon claimed Parler had failed to act on 26,000 abuse reports filed by the app’s users. Its app relaunch, which was initially slated for last month, has since been delayed.

In his Facebook Live, Bongino claims that the app could’ve been relaunched if they had “bent the knee” to Apple and Google and adopted heavier content moderation guidelines, which would have led, he said, to Parler becoming “to the left of Twitter.” “That’s not what we’re gonna do. We don’t want garbage on our site, either, and we took the proper steps to do that. But we’re a free speech site and will remain as such,” Bongino said.

The steadfast refusal to adopt any semblance of content moderation does not bode well for the future of the right-wing media ecosystem, says Carusone. “Parler fancied itself as a real tech player. If there was ever gonna be a shot of creating a sense of acceptance among parts of the right around moderation and policies around disinformation and violence, Parler was the best shot to do that,” he says. “What we’ve seen with the absence of Parler,” and users on the right being driven to platforms with even more lax content moderation guidelines like Telegram, “is there’s no chance of making it a normal and acceptable thing that there are rules. And what that means with the right is it’s going to get worse. You’re going to have an environment where there’s no acceptable limit or line.” 

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