Parler / WIRED
In the days before Parler went offline, its members raged. The number of posts using terms such as civil war, insurrection and rebellion soared while mentions of the Proud Boys – a far-right, neo-fascist, male-only extremist group, also increased dramatically. Parler data analysed by WIRED reveals that the mentions of such terms rose from just 858 instances on January 1 to 3,261 at their peak on January 9 – an increase of 280 per cent.
The data, pulled from Parler in the hours before it went offline by Junkipedia, a disinformation analysis tool, reveals a surge in activity on the site in the days surrounding the storming of the US Capitol. Between January 1 and January 10, the day that Parler went offline, posts mentioning terms such as civil war and insurrection received more than 212,500 total interactions (likes, comments and shares) and were seen by an audience of more than four million people. At its peak on January 6 such posts on Parler were viewed by more than half a million people. This represents just a snapshot of the content posted on Parler at this time – albeit a snapshot focused on some of the most extreme, violent topics.
And it all started and ended with Sean Hannity. “I saw that the president joined it,” the Fox News host said on January 8 following Twitter’s decision to permanently ban US president Donald Trump for inciting violence. “It’s like Twitter – it’s called Parler,” he continued. What followed was chaos. Trump never did end up joining Parler – he barely had time. But scores of his supporters did in anticipation of his arrival, propelling the alt-tech platform to the top of Apple’s App Store. At the time, Parler had 15 million users and was adding around one million more each day. On January 9, Apple and Google banned Parler from their respective app stores, pointing to its repeated failures to moderate violent hate speech on its platform. Later that day, Amazon announced that it would suspend Parler from Amazon Web Services, removing it from the web at the push of a button – but not until 23:59 Pacific Standard Time on January 10.
Parler was granted a stay of execution – 24 hours in which the extremists and conspiracy theorists who had made it their home could continue shouting at one another in the void. Or plan their next move. Some encouraged their followers to sign up to mailing lists. Others shared the details of Telegram channels or told their followers to join them on Gab or MeWe, two other alt-tech social networks riddled with far-right extremists. Some just kept on shouting.
Many of these posts were, as with so much of Parler, nonsense. But amongst the sludge of hashtag spam were calls to arms. “Time to stand and give the left the Civil War they want,” wrote one Parler user on January 5. “Boot’s on the ground mother fucker….! Total Commitment,” wrote another. Others shared posts baselessly claiming that Joe Biden is a pedophile or attacking antifa and Black Lives Matter “scum”.
Similar threats of violence are contained in posts from late 2020 and early 2021 detailed in court filings from Amazon, made in response to an emergency motion by Parler to restore its hosting services. “After the firing squads are done with the politicians the teachers are next,” one Parler user wrote. “We are going to fight in a civil War on Jan.20th, Form MILITIAS now and acquire targets,” wrote another, referring to president-elect Biden’s inauguration on January 20. In court, Parler has argued that there is no evidence its platform was used to incite last week’s storming of the Capitol.
These posts give a snapshot of the radicalised, conspiracy-theory filled pot that almost all Parler users stewed in. At his Save America rally on January 6, Trump encouraged the crowd, scores of whom, GPS data has since revealed, were using Parler at the time, to march on Congress. “We won this election, and we won it by a landslide,” Trump said, adding that he and his followers would never concede. “If you don’t fight like hell you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump has since become the first president in US history to be impeached twice after being charged with inciting an insurrection.
As the riots played out on TV screens and social media feeds across the world, a group of hackers and archivists raced to download the entirety of Parler’s vast database. At the time, aware that much of the content posted to Parler could be deleted by skittish rioters, it was an attempt to capture a record of the day. Then, when Amazon announced it was taking Parler offline, the archiving effort morphed into a desperate scramble. One of the leaders of the archiving project, a pseudonymous Twitter user known as @donk_enby, described the process as akin to “a bunch of people running into a burning building trying to grab as many things as we can”.
That they were able to do so is testament to both Parler’s lax security protocols and the remarkable efforts of the open source intelligence community. Since its launch in August 2018, Parler has pitched itself as a place where free speech and, weirdly, user privacy reign supreme. “We will never sell or share your data!” the company claimed in a February 2020 tweet encouraging people to sign up. It might not have intended to, but Parler left anyone who had ever posted on its platform ruthlessly exposed. Unlike Twitter, for example, which uses random strings of letters and numbers to create unique identification codes for each new post, Parler creates all such IDs sequentially. The practice is common across social media sites. Increase the value on any Parler post or account by one and you get the next post or account.
Crucially, Parler also didn’t limit the rate at which someone could access posts on its site. This allowed archivists to write a simple script that told Parler’s web server to gather up and download every piece of public content ever uploaded to the platform. The archive totals 56.7 terabytes and is made up of 412 million files, including 150 million photos and one million videos.
What’s more, all of those photos and videos still have their metadata attached, including the exact time and location where they were captured. Within hours of the data being posted online, technology news site Gizmodo revealed that a number of Parler users were amongst the horde of rioters that forced their way deep inside the Capitol. It also appears as though deleted posts were retained in Parler’s database and even flagged as deleted, potentially giving law enforcement and researchers access to posts that Parler users wanted to erase from history.
Parler’s future remains uncertain. It has never received any venture capital funding and didn’t make any money from advertising. “It’s hard to keep track of how many people are telling us that we can no longer do business with them,” John Matza, the platform’s CEO, told Reuters. In comments made since Parler went offline, Matza has oscillated from pessimistic to optimistic. Asked when Parler might return, he said, bluntly, “it could be never”. Later, he promised that – even if it takes a long time, Parler would return. “And when we do we will be stronger,” Matze said.
Even if it does find a company willing to host it, being back online might not be enough to save Parler. (On January 11 Parler registered its domain with Epik, a company known for hosting other far-right websites, including Gab. Epik says Parler has not made contact regarding hosting). In recent days Parler has become the subject of the same baseless conspiracy theories that previously ran riot on its platform. On Gab, MeWe and Telegram, the three main beneficiaries of Parler’s demise, people now claim Parler is not safe. Analysis carried out by Logically, a startup working to tackle misinformation, found several popular posts on alt-tech platforms claiming Parler was controlled by the US government. One post on Telegram includes antisemetic comments about Parler’s CEO.
With no place to go and a user base that is already turning against it, Parler’s days might be numbered. Its sole purpose right now is to show, terabyte by terabyte, the true cost of online radicalisation. More than 1,200 videos were uploaded to Parler in the Washington DC area on January 6, the day the Capitol was breached. According to reports, the FBI has already sought access to this data. But it likely has other ways to access its own, more reliable copy of Parler’s database. All of Parler’s data has been retained by Amazon Web Services, a spokesperson for the company confirms. If a judge were to limit the scope of a search warrant and only release parts of the Parler data held by Amazon to law enforcement then the near-complete dataset circulating online could become invaluable.
“The Parler data acquired by archivists can be very useful from a law enforcement perspective,” says Alexander Urbelis, a partner at Blackstone Law Group. Urbelis explains that the publicly available Parler data will likely act as an “investigatory complement” to the official data held by Amazon. This could allow the FBI, for example, to pursue leads more quickly and with more information to hand before issuing further warrants for access to email accounts, servers and other communications linked to the Parler data and the insurrectionists. In short, the publicly available Parler data is 56.7 terabytes worth of leads, none of which require a search warrant.
But the messy nature of this dataset – and its availability to anyone with an internet connection – could also prove problematic. “It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that this information will be exploited by other extremists for recruitment,” Urbelis says. Such a large, detailed dataset could even be used by advertisers and data miners to gather valuable new information. But, crucially, in a court of law the public dataset is unlikely to stand up under pressure. While it could prove useful for attacking the accuracy of witness testimony, Urbelis explains, it would likely need to be matched with official data held by Amazon to be admitted as evidence in court.
Parler’s legacy is both a blessing and a curse. Though its membership was small – 15 million to Facebook’s 2.7 billion – Parler was, above all else, a radicalisation engine in which extreme views were made evermore dangerous. But it was also a poorly-coded radicalisation engine, which, with its dying breath, inadvertently outed the extremists who had made it their home. These two things in combination have created a vast and potentially incriminating archive of evidence that can now be accessed by anyone. That, in itself, is problematic. As one technologist with access to the Parler data – and powerful tools to analyse it – told Vice, it would be a mistake for anyone to enable widespread data misuse. The Parler data is just as much a privacy scandal as it is a goldmine for law enforcement.
And now the world is left to pick through Parler’s remains. “This was a platform that served for casual conversation, amplification and radicalisation,” says Cameron Hickey, director of algorithmic transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship, a non-partisan non-profit. But Parler wasn’t, Hickey argues, a platform where organisation took place. While it was filled with chatter about the Trump rally in Washington D.C. on January 6, Hickey, who has closely monitored extremist groups on the platform for some time, has found little evidence of people making concrete plans to, say, gain access to the Capitol through a certain side entrance. That’s hardly surprising – much of that chatter will have likely taken place in private messages. Understanding how that leap was made is urgent but challenging work.
So what might the Parler data reveal? Beyond the potentially incriminating evidence, it is also a warning. Take Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer and conspiracy theorist, as an example. On January 7, the same day he was permanently suspended from Twitter, Wood turned to Parler. “Get the firing squads ready,” he wrote. “Pence goes FIRST.”
In a bizarre final act, Wood’s post was removed from Parler for breaking its community guidelines on encouraging violence. As the walls fell down around it and its users called for further unspeakable acts of violence, Parler finally found its limit. “Almost everything on Parler was bad,” says Hickey. “Probably 80 per cent of the content was either spam, or false, misleading or problematic content. What it demonstrates, possibly more than anything else, is what happened when you deplatform all these people from Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram. They all went to Parler. What happened then? Did that create some really nasty radicalisation soup?”
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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