Screengrab via Parley site
Here’s a screengrab of a page from the Parler social network (Screengrab via Parley site)
TERRY COWGILL

The year 2020 looks like 1918, 1932, and 1968 all rolled into one. Not only are we confronted with a pandemic, an economy in crisis, and civil unrest, but also a presidential election that could be the most important of our lifetime. To make matters worse, things seem to be changing at breakneck speed.

The times are not only unprecedented because of the unique confluence of events, but they’re amplified by social media. The platforms themselves – and I’m thinking specifically of Twitter and Facebook – haven’t changed a whole lot in the last few years. But I think it’s safe to say they’re about to.

A frustrated President Trump signed an executive order at the end of May that seeks to limit legal protections enjoyed by social media companies. The presidential order came only two days after Twitter fact-checked a pair of Trump’s tweets that, without evidence, claimed that mail-in ballots are inherently fraudulent.

The move was a naked attempt by Trump and his followers to claim further victimhood in the culture wars. Some of them are crying censorship. They’re convinced that the titans of social media are a bunch of liberals who want nothing more to stifle conservative voices.

They might be on firmer ground if all they argued was that there was a double standard, but even then, what business is it of theirs? Legal experts don’t think the order will actually change the law (that would have to be done by Congress anyway), and Trump’s directive has already drawn lawsuits.

First of all, let us not miss the irony of small-government conservatives calling for the heavy hand of a big government to tell denizens of the private sector how to run their companies. This is an act of petty retribution and political theater, pure and simple.

Coming from Trump himself, the move is downright preposterous. For at least the last decade, the former reality-TV host has used Twitter to position himself to run for office. On the platform, he has posited delusional and racist conspiracy theories, most notably the idea that America’s first African American president was actually born in Kenya, and therefore constitutionally unfit for office. And now he’s upset because Twitter has finally decided to hold him accountable some 10 years later?

My conservative friends have long complained about the bias of social media companies and the tech sector in general. I’ve asked them if they still believe in the free market and, if so, why don’t aggrieved conservatives start their own social media platforms? Little did I know that someone had already done that. Almost exactly two years ago, Parler was founded.

“Parler” is the French infinitive for “speak.” Presumably the name stands for the free speech conservatives think they are denied by Twitter and Facebook, and not for the language of France, which isn’t exactly the kind of country they’d want to emulate. Parler is a knock-off of Twitter that allows posts of up to 1,000 words, so you could also say it’s a microblogging service. Instead of tweets, Parler calls the posts of its users “Parleys.” Parley-vous conservative? Retweets are called “echoes.” Not surprisingly, red is the dominant color of Parler’s design.

In recent weeks, at least 32 GOP lawmakers have established accounts on the site, including Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, and Reps. Matt Gaetz and Devin Nunes. Former New York City Mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani has also joined in the fun.

Closer to home, Connecticut Republican Party Chairman and Trump supporter J.R. Romano jumped into the fray only 10 days ago, quickly accumulated 500 followers, and banged out 15 parleys, including one condemning “the violent and racist history of the Democratic Party” and, in a dig at the so-called cancel culture, demanding “they drop their name.”

Other Connecticut-based individuals and organizations who have joined Parler include New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart, former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, and the Naugatuck Republican Town Committee.

Like most social media sites, Parler has been battling fake accounts – some of them posing as high-profile elected officials – and has its share of bizarre conspiracy theorists. One of the most popular hashtags appears to be #QAnon and its variations. For the uninitiated, QAnon, popular among some Trump supporters, posits that not only is the so-called Deep State trying to destroy the president, but that dozens of famous Hollywood actors and Democratic officials are members of an international child sex-trafficking ring, once run out of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria.

Despite its flaws, I for one, applaud the development of Parler and its increasing popularity. As of late last month, the site had 1.5 million users, up from 1 million the week before. That’s a fraction of Twitter’s estimated 320 million active users, and a fraction of Facebook’s 1 billion-plus, but of course you have to start somewhere.

Rather than continuing to whine and complain about how nobody in social media likes them, conservatives picked up their toys and left the sandbox for greener pastures. Good for them. Now maybe they’ll stop complaining about the liberal media and compete in the marketplace of ideas by starting more high-quality newspapers and television networks. For obvious reasons, I’m not holding my breath.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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