Story on the Washington Examiner website here: Parler attempts to rebrand itself as nonpartisan and mainstream
Social media platform Parler is trying to change its core appeal and branding as it tries to gain popularity and mainstream acceptance, a tough task given its perception as a vehicle for the Capitol riot and its right-leaning user base.
Some tech industry insiders say it will be difficult to shake this image, but the platform says it will soon be embarking on a campaign to highlight recent changes it's made to its technology and content moderation standards, as well as what differentiates it from larger competitors such as Facebook and Twitter.
Parler was founded in 2018 and billed itself as a platform that protects free speech. It has been popular with conservatives and jumped to the most downloaded app on Apple’s app store in November after the presidential election and again in January after the Capitol riot.
A handful of Big Tech companies, including Amazon, Apple, and Google, moved to take down Parler in early January, citing its role in enabling the Capitol attack. Parler announced in February that its website has resumed operations on a new platform but that its phone app is not available on iPhone or Android devices yet.
Although the platform is trying to stay true to its free speech roots, it has made significant changes in the past few months to improve its technology, put users in greater control of the content they see, and make the platform more palatable to a larger, more mainstream audience, said Amy Peikoff, head of public policy at Parler, during an interview with the Washington Examiner.
Parler has hired a third-party vendor to remove violence-inducing content using algorithmic flagging and human review and already has a "troll feature" that will filter out objectionable or hate speech if users choose.
Peikoff added that the new third-party vendor that Parler has hired to moderate content better has “a lot of experience with hate speech,” which it will be helping the platform with as well.
Social media executives say it will not be easy for Parler to change the perception among many that it is a right-wing platform that sympathizes with MAGA supporters.
"There was an appearance that Parler extended an olive branch to those who stormed the capitol,” said Adam Sharp, Twitter's former head of news, government, and elections. “As a result, they've communicated to the market that they are the platform for viewpoints too extreme for anywhere else."
Sharp added that although Parler was capable of being an effective platform for organizing and political debate, changing the perceptions of everyday users will be an uphill challenge.
“What’s in Parler’s box is getting lost because of the wrapping paper,” said Sharp, Twitter’s first Washington, D.C., employee, who helped grow the platform into a political media powerhouse.
Parler pushes back against the notion that it is a platform primarily for conservative voices.
The platform receives a large number of complaints from users who want posts that are critical of former President Donald Trump to be removed from the website, but Parler has not done so, even at the cost of potentially upsetting some of its core users, said Peikoff.
However, Peikoff also said that the First Amendment not only grants individuals the right to freedom of expression but also freedom of association, or the ability to decide whom to associate with and what kind of speech they want to engage with.
“Being a free speech platform doesn’t mean not giving users tools for seeing certain content or not,” said Peikoff.
Parler's chief of public policy said that although she believes the best way to deal with hate speech online is to have more speech, not all users should be obligated to engage with objectionable content.
“Suppose you don’t want to deal with pro-Nazi or racist content today, you can filter it out on Parler. You shouldn’t have to deal with it if you don’t want to,” said Peikoff.
Libertarians, who have historically been strongly in favor of free speech and have much alignment with conservatives on public policy, say Parler needs to do more to police objectionable content if it is to survive and grow.
“Parler is struggling because they don’t have an advertising base, because no serious brand wants to put content on a site with child porn and racist content,“ said Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a libertarian-leaning technology policy think tank.
Parler has said in the past it "will not knowingly allow itself to be used as a tool for unlawful acts," such as "child sexual abuse material" or content posted by terrorist organizations.
Peikoff also said that Parler's algorithmic flagging tool and human review team, orchestrated by a new third-party vendor, will help it to respond more quickly to illegal content and hate speech.
However, Szoka said that Parler’s recent content moderation changes are not meaningful and are merely minimal "face-saving" measures.
“Having aggressive, proactive content moderation would change their perception, like every other social media platform does. That’s what Americans really want,” said Szoka.
Conservatives say that Parler’s decision to allow more types of content to live on its platform and putting users in the driver’s seat in terms of what they want to see or not is what makes the platform unique and attractive.
”As Parler regains its footing to better moderate violent and hateful content, I hope they don’t get taken down the same path of labeling all objectionable content as other platforms have,” said Lora Ries, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“I’m in favor of their free speech, more laissez-faire approach to content moderation, to allow content that doesn’t exist on other platforms to exist on Parler,” said Ries, who is the director of the Center for Technology Policy at Heritage.
Peikoff said she plans to soon embark on a rebranding tour to encourage more people “across the aisle” to join the platform to have discussions that are not driven by algorithms and are protected by Parler’s distinctive data privacy standards, she said.
“When you can come on to Parlor and actually subscribe or follow the people you want to see in your feed, then you will get that. You'll get exactly what you're asking for,” said Peikoff.
“If you are tired of being told what you should think or what other information you should look up every time that you want to talk about a particular controversial subject, maybe, maybe, you're somebody who wants to try our platform,” said Peikoff.