To Parler or Not to Parler: It’s About the Money, Stupid

When I first learned about Parler, my immediate, half-joking, comment was that it would make the FBI’s job easier. To the extent that could be true, some might say this is one rationale to keep the site online. But separate from the efficiency of having putative domestic terrorists gather in a single chat space, many parties have asked whether AWS rescinding its deal to host the far-right social platform—followed by Apple and Google dropping the app—is an example of cancel culture. Personally, I think it’s just cancel cult, and the so-called broader implications are mostly handwringing bullshit for one simple reason:  this is all about money.

The complaint brief in the lawsuit filed by Parler against AWS alleges breach of contract (which may be valid), and it alleges violation of anti-trust law on the grounds that, for instance, Twitter has also hosted divisive and incendiary content without losing its multi-year deal with same host provider. The brief highlights the fact that, especially after Twitter dropped Donald Trump’s account, AWS cut Parler off at the moment of its greatest growth opportunity as a competing social venue. The court may even grant Parler’s request for a temporary restraining order and instruct AWS to restore the site pending further proceedings. We’ll see what AWS presents in its response.*

But the premise of the anti-trust complaint, while it may prove legally tenable, most instructively emphasizes the fact that Parler was not designed as a “conservative” social site—a venture that many real conservatives would probably tell you is a losing proposition today. Parler was designed to capitalize on the seething, conspiracy theory insanity that boiled over on January 6th and is still boiling, and which may yet tear this nation and western civilization apart. It doesn’t even matter whether Parler’s founders are ideologues. The bottom line, as any terrorism expert will tell you, is that extremism is a money-maker.

Look at the scenes of all those dupes in Washington, and what do we see as a backdrop to the violence and vandalism? We see merchandise. It’s a goddamn football riot without the game. These idiots believe they’re “taking their country back” while profiteers, led by Trump himself, are simply using them as life-size action figures in the apotheosis of American capitalism gone astray:  Outrage Incorporated. “It’s 1776!” Ted Cruz tells them. Really? The patriots of ’76 didn’t even have uniforms, let alone flags, hats, tees, and sippy cups declaring their loyalty to a single man. Those patriots froze, starved, and bled barefoot to defeat the very idea of rule by a single man.

Amre Metwally, writing for Slate, says that we should all be “very concerned” about the implications of AWS et al dumping Parler. But why the hell should that be a concern? Parler is just more short-term opportunism profiting off the decline of democracy itself. What could possibly be the downside to its disappearance? It’s a business venture, and if violent extremism is finally a bad bet, that’s what conservatives traditionally call the “free market doing its job.” Major American corporations cut ties with Trump and certain members of the GOP—not out of altruism, but because existential threats to democracy are bad for business. It’s very hard to sell toasters in the middle of a civil war.

Metwally is correct to note the tech industry’s hypocrisy when he writes:

Last I checked, Google and Apple never chucked Facebook app downloads from their stores even though violence has most certainly been incited on Facebook time and time again. Tech platforms never rushed to block access to YouTube even after it was found that it helped radicalize the Christchurch shooter. Come to think of it—why wasn’t Twitter blocked from the Google Play Store or the App Store for allowing Trump to monopolize these radical sentiments for years until we reached this breaking point?

Fair enough, but also missing the point. It is true that for years the major internet players both practiced and advocated willful blindness to all manner of toxic content until we finally reached a breaking point. And they did this because it was profitable. Period. There was never anything principled about Google or Facebook or Twitter’s laissez-faire approach to site management. “Save the internet” was a bogus battle cry (like “Take our country back”) that was repeated across the political spectrum; and in that regard, we all have a little blood on our hands for believing it.

What we should be concerned about is the underlying fallacy (a mostly liberal one by the way) that suborns an enterprise like Parler due to a fundamentalist notion of the First Amendment—one as unconnected to constitutional principles as Ted Cruz invoking Bunker Hill to an angry, privileged, mob in 2021. Frank Pasquale writes in a must-read post:

There are at least two responses to the lies, racism, and violence at the core of the attack on the Capitol. One is to simply put faith in an unfettered marketplace of ideas, hoping that a critical mass of Trumpist Republicans will back away from the idea that elections are rigged for Democrats, that millions of false votes are cast, etc. But what the recent bans reflect is a dawning realization among technology firms that this marketplace of ideas is dysfunctional. It is not self-correcting—or at least it is not self-correcting enough to prevent a significant group of persons (with the guns and votes to cause real havoc) from acting on false beliefs that, say, the presidential election of 2020 was stolen, that COVID-19 is just a bad flu, that Democratic leaders are a cabal of child abusers, and so on.

A-freakin’-men, Mr. Pasquale. The difference between Parler and Facebook might be compared to the crisis in the Republican party right now. Parler, like Trumpism, intentionally aims to exploit civilization-destroying forces for profit (and power); while Facebook, like the meekest members of the GOP, naively allowed those forces into the tent assuming they would be modified by better angels. And this was also for profit.

Sure, we can have a discussion (if a forum for discussion exists in the near future) about the amount of market control held by Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google et al. But that should be a traditional, antitrust conversation that—unless we are truly suicidal—should reject the idea that somehow the speech right means that two plus two equals nine. Although it is no surprise that there is money to be made by launching, there is absolutely nothing wrong with letting ignorance fail or with starving extremism of oxygen. We have seen the results of the opposite view, and it is the end of everything. Fuck Parler. Better they lose their shirts than we lose a whole nation.

*UPDATE: AWS filed its response on 1/12. Having read it, I would now say the TRO seems doubtful.

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