Apple, Google deplatform Parler over lack of moderation; app has been drawing Trump supporters after Twitter crackdown

Parler, a social network that pitches itself as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter and Facebook, is suffering from whiplash.

Over the past several months, Parler has become one of the fastest-growing apps in the United States. Millions of President Donald Trump’s supporters have flocked to it as Facebook and Twitter increasingly cracked down on posts that spread misinformation and incited violence, including muzzling Trump by removing his accounts this past week. By Saturday morning, Apple listed Parler as the No. 1 free app for its iPhones.

But hours later, Apple said it had removed Parler from its app store. Google had made a similar move a day earlier. The companies both said that Parler had not sufficiently policed the conversation on its app, allowing too many posts that encouraged violence and crime.

“We have always supported diverse points of view being represented on the App Store, but there is no place on our platform for threats of violence and illegal activity,” Apple said in a statement late Saturday. “Parler has not taken adequate measures to address the proliferation of these threats to people’s safety.”

The dual removals were a major blow to Parler, sharply limiting its ability to find new users and throwing its future into question, just as it appeared poised to capitalise on growing anger at Silicon Valley in conservative circles. With Trump now banned on Twitter and Facebook, Parler had been a logical choice to become his next megaphone.

“This is very huge,” Amy Peikoff, Parler’s policy chief, told Fox News on Friday, when Apple first threatened to remove the app. Without access to the app store, she said, “we’re toast.”

John Matze, Parler’s CEO, said in a text message early Saturday that Twitter had recently promoted the phrase “Hang Mike Pence” as a trending topic. (The majority of the discussion on Twitter was about rioters chanting the phrase about the vice president Wednesday.) “I have seen no evidence Apple is going after them,” Matze said. “This would appear to be an unfair double standard as every other social media site has the same issues, arguably on a worse scale.” He added, “But we are taking this very seriously.”

As to Google’s action, Matze said in a statement that Parler had first heard of it “in the press.”

The moves by Apple and Google against Parler were part of a wider crackdown by tech companies on Trump and some of his most extreme supporters after Wednesday’s deadly riot in Washington. But unlike Twitter and Facebook, which make decisions about the content that appears on their own sites, Apple and Google weighed in on how other companies are operating.

Apple and Google make the operating systems that back nearly all of the world’s smartphones. Now that the two companies have made it clear that they will take action against apps that don’t sufficiently police what their users post, it could have significant side effects.

Several upstarts have courted Trump’s supporters with promises of “unbiased” and “free speech” social networks, which have proved to be, in effect, free-for-all digital town squares where users hardly have to worry about getting banned for spreading conspiracy theories, making threats or posting hate speech. Apple and Google’s tougher enforcement could preclude such apps from becoming realistic alternatives to the mainstream social networks. They now face the choice of either stepping up their policing of posts — undercutting their main feature in the process — or losing their ability to reach a wide audience.

That may reinforce the primacy of the social media incumbents, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It also gives those companies’ decisions more teeth. If they ban a pundit for violating their rules, that person will lack a strong alternative.

Apple and Google’s moves could also spur other apps to strengthen their enforcement.

DLive, a livestreaming site that rioters storming the Capitol used to broadcast the moment, said Friday that it had indefinitely suspended seven channels and permanently removed over 100 previous broadcasts of the mob. It added that the “lemons,” a DLive currency that can be converted into real money, sent to the suspended channels would be refunded to donors in the next few days.

Other platforms that host posts by right-wing influencers, including CloutHub and MyMilitia — a forum for militia groups — adjusted their terms of service recently to ban threats of violence.

DLive was also pressured by Tipalti, a payment company that helps it operate. Tipalti said in a statement that it had suspended its service until DLive removed the accounts that had broadcast the riots Wednesday.

Such third-party companies that help apps and websites function, from payment processors to cloud-technology providers to cybersecurity firms, have also used their positions to influence how their customers handle extremist or criminal activity. In 2019, Cloudflare, a company that protects sites from cyberattacks, effectively delivered the death knell to 8chan, an anonymous online message board that hosted the manifesto of a mass shooter, by halting its protections for the site.

Amazon helps Parler operate by hosting its web traffic on its servers, according to a group of Amazon employees. Those employees and at least one member of Congress have called on Amazon to cut Parler off from that service, which could threaten its ability to survive. Amazon didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Apple’s action is more of a problem for Parler than Google’s because Apple requires all iPhone apps to go through its app store. Google cut Parler out of its flagship Android app store, but it also allows apps to be downloaded from elsewhere, meaning Android users can still find the Parler app, just with a bit more work. Parler is also still available via web browsers on phones and computers.

Before blocking Parler on Saturday, Apple had given the company 24 hours to improve its moderation to avoid removal from the app store. Over that period, it appeared that Parler had tried to remove some posts that seemed to call for violence.

For instance, L Lin Wood, a lawyer who had sued to overturn Trump’s election loss, posted on Parler on Thursday morning: “Get the firing squad ready. Pence goes FIRST.” The post was viewed at least 788,000 times, according to a screenshot on the Internet Archive. By Saturday morning, the post had been removed.

In a text message, Matze said the post had been removed “in compliance with Parler’s terms of service and rules against incitement of violence.” He said he wasn’t sure if Apple knew that Parler had removed the post.

In a notice to Parler on Saturday, Apple said that it had “continued to find direct threats of violence and calls to incite lawless action” on the app. Apple told the company its app would not be allowed on the app store until “you have demonstrated your ability to effectively moderate and filter the dangerous and harmful content on your service.”

In an interview, Jeffrey Wernick, Parler’s chief operating officer, blamed “a cancel culture at Apple” for his company’s dimming prospects. He said he would advise other platforms not to try to compete on Apple’s app store. “Because if you raise money and get investors and end up like Parler, what’s the point?” he said.

Jack Nicas and Davey Alba c.2021 The New York Times Company