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What is Parler and Why Should Intelligence Teams Care?

Updated January 12, 2021: On January 9, 2021, Parler was dropped by Google, Amazon, and Apple. As a result, Parler is no longer a viable real-time data source within the Echosec Systems Platform. However, the following information is still valuable to those interested in the impact of alt-tech platforms and their value for threat intelligence professionals.

As the 2020 US presidential election hung in limbo, a 2-year old social media platform, Parler, was gaining serious traction online—reaching #1 on Google Play and Apple’s App Store on November 9th.

While its growth has since relaxed, Parler is the latest alternative social platform to take off after months of promotion by right-wing pundits as a Twitter alternative. But the site’s rapid growth and penchant for misleading, hateful, and radical content also make it a timely and valuable source for threat intelligence teams.

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Assessing Parler activity and its relationship to other online spaces can help analysts track online threats such as misinformation and radicalization pathways that have led to national security risks on similar platforms.

What is Parler, and why is it a valuable source in your intelligence team’s toolkit?

parler logo.

What Is Parler?

Parler is a Twitter-like microblogging platform founded on “free speech” principles—a term that, in the social mediaverse, marks lax moderation and content that would likely be flagged or removed from Twitter and Facebook.

The platform bears some key differences from Twitter. Posts (known as “parleys”) have generous 1000-character limits. Users, which are largely US-based, can verify their identity by submitting a government ID with a selfie to obtain “citizen status.” Feeds are populated chronologically rather than optimized by an algorithm—a feature that supposedly empowers users to curate their own content.

The site also has lenient community guidelines (which were further muddied by John Matze, Parler’s founder) prohibiting bots, porn, illegalism, and terrorism. The site’s ambiguous rules are loosely moderated by outsourced volunteers. And according to WIRED’s Arielle Pardes, Parler’s UI steers you to high-profile accounts, making it harder to engage with everyday users.

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The platform was first launched in 2018, funded by conservative figureheads like Rebekah Mercer. Parler’s accounts multiplied in June when a number of right-wing politicians and influencers, from Ted Cruz to Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, called for Twitter users to migrate to the “unbiased” alternative.

Its users, which have grown to ~10 million, spiked again following election day as “Stop the Steal and related misinformation sought refuge from Twitter and Facebook fact-checking.

Screenshot of Parler user interface.Parler’s UI

Beyond political content, Parler is host to other far-right media including (but not limited to) white supremacism, anti-semitism, conspiracies, and hate speech. The site has also been flooded with pornography in spite of its anti-porn guideline, and hosts alleged Russian disinformation campaigns.

Why Does This Matter?

typing on laptop.If you follow “free speech” platforms in the news, you probably know that Parler’s rise is not exactly unique. It’s just the most recent iteration of a right-wing tendency to migrate from conventional media to alternative, more permissible outlets. 

We’ve seen a similar pattern with 8kun (formerly 8chan) and Gab over the last couple of years. This is exactly why Parler is relevant from an intelligence and national security angle: historically, these kinds of platforms are linked to hateful ideologies and radicalizing users who have gone on to commit terrorist attacks.

Perhaps as concerning as Parler’s more extreme user base is its influence on suggestible non-extremists—citizens who may be attracted to the site by its continued promotion and appeal to emerging political grievances. Monitoring radicalization patterns can help inform de-escalation strategies and in some cases, predict or investigate public safety threats.

Parler’s content also makes the platform valuable for tracking misinformation, whether it originates domestically or from a foreign nation-state like Russia.

But Is Parler Actually Here to Stay?

Smaller, alternative sites like Parler are often associated with clunky UX, poor security, and infrastructure unfit for handling considerable traffic. But these may not be reasons to dismiss Parler’s influence.

For one, some commentators suggest that Parler could scale after President Trump leaves office. Between Parler’s attempts to woo Trump (according to the Wall Street Journal) and the President’s apparent plans to enter the media business, there’s a chance the platform could still grow.

Secondly, the site is not visited in isolation by its users. Whether or not Parler has staying power, alternative social sites still matter because they are valuable in concert with mainstream social media and other web spaces for tracking misinformation and online extremism.

For example, while Twitter and Facebook are used for audience reach and cross-promotion, more radical or misleading content couldn’t exist on the social web without sites like Parler.

screenshot of keyword search for parter in Echosec Systems Platform.A Parler keyword search in the Echosec Systems Platform. Platform users can search Parler content alongside a range of other social, deep, and dark web sources with no need to visit the source directly.

In a year—or even a few months—it’s possible that Parler could be eclipsed by the next free speech platform du jour. After all, alternative platforms seem to be popping up all the time. Intelligence teams investigating misinformation, extremism, and physical security threats online must keep pace as these networks emerge and interact.

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Understanding connections between alternative platforms and other online spaces is far more valuable than platforms like Parler alone—at least from a threat intelligence perspective. Tracking alt-tech within the landscape of other social, deep, and dark websites is crucial for national security and counter-terrorism initiatives, especially as new platforms emerge.

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