Right-Wing Social Media Finalizes Its Divorce From Reality

When Fox News called Arizona for Democrat Joe Biden shortly after the polls closed there on Election Night, right-wing social media erupted in fury. Fox is the most conservative of the nation’s major news outlets, and its aggressive Arizona call—which most other national outlets did not follow for days—left true believers on the right feeling betrayed. On the social-media app Parler, which has been gaining popularity among supporters of President Donald Trump, posts alleging electoral irregularities mixed with assorted hashtags decrying Fox itself: #BOYCOTTFOXNEWS, #DUMPFOXNEWS, #FAKEFOXNEWS, #FOXNEWSISDEAD, and #FOXNEWSSUCKS. Throughout Election Day, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had been cracking down on a flurry of allegations about voter fraud in Arizona; the platforms quickly applied warning labels to new posts containing false or disputed information and reduced the distribution of groups spreading them. In response, pro-Trump influencers exhorted their followers to congregate on Parler, which tells users to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.”

In the hours following the Arizona call, a paranoid conspiracy theory spread rapidly on Parler and in other right-wing online forums: Voters in conservative counties had been given felt-tip pens that supposedly made vote-counting machines reject the ballots that they marked for Trump. The following night, Trump supporters protesting what came to be called #SharpieGate gathered outside the Maricopa County ballot-counting facility in Phoenix. In a development previously unthinkable to liberals who have long dismissed Fox as state media for the Trump administration, the Arizona protesters began chanting, “Fox News sucks!”

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Trump’s clear loss in the presidential election has precipitated a deep rift in the right-wing information ecosystem, as media outlets, tech platforms, and individual commentators have been forced to choose between upholding reality and indulging those who insist that the president actually won. On November 7, Fox News was among the major networks that called the election for Biden, its news stories now refer to him as “president-elect,” and even the pro-Trump Fox commentator Tucker Carlson has challenged absurd claims being made by the president’s lawyers. The major social-media platforms—which for years boosted sensational propaganda and Trump-friendly conspiracy theories such as QAnon—have been remarkably active and admirably transparent in preventing the spread of misinformation about the 2020 election. As the president continues to rail against his loss on Twitter, the mainstream social platforms have continued to label wild claims and false allegations and reduce their spread; Facebook has taken down some of the more extreme communities that have sprung up among its users.

Yet reducing the supply of misinformation doesn’t eliminate the demand. Powerful online influencers and the right-wing demi-media—intensely partisan outlets, such as One America News and Newsmax, that amplify ideas that bubble up from internet message boards—have steadfastly reassured Trump’s supporters that he will be reelected, and that the conspiracies against him will be exposed. No doubt seeing an opportunity to pull viewers from a more established rival, One America News Network ran a segment attacking Fox’s Arizona call and declaring the network a “Democrat Party hack.” The president himself, while tweeting about how the election was being stolen, amplified accounts that touted OANN and Newsmax as places to find accurate reporting on the truth about his election victory. And on Parler, the conspiracy-mongering has grown only more frenzied as Trump makes state-by-state fraud allegations: In addition to concerns about Sharpies, the social network abounds with rumors of CIA supercomputers with secret programs to change votes, allegations of massive numbers of dead people voting, claims of backdated ballots, and assorted other speculations that users attempt to coalesce into a grand unified theory of election theft.

How far these ideas spread depends in part on whether mainstream social-media outlets keep moderating content as closely as they did during this election season. For most of Trump’s term, Facebook and others had been loath to crack down on even baseless conspiracy theories, including those repeated by the president himself. Freedom of expression, the argument went, covers the right to think and say even floridly false things, which were best addressed through corrections and counter-speech. Yet the major platforms concluded that misleading theories about the election were a distinct class of misinformation because of their potential to cause significant harm to the body politic. As the split between reality-based information outlets and those catering to pro-Trump bitter-enders has widened, the distribution of their content is becoming significantly siloed. This could have two major effects: It may limit the spread of conspiracy theories and reduce the possibility that Facebook and YouTube recommendation algorithms will draw casual users into the world of QAnon. But the bifurcation also raises the possibility that, among those who gravitate to niche platforms like Parler, the discussion may grow even more extreme. People who sincerely believe that a CIA supercomputer changed votes for Biden in swing states will not do an about-face and accept him as the duly elected president on Inauguration Day. A persistent belief that the new president is illegitimate could cause political violence.

Parler, whose backers include the conservative donor Rebekah Mercer and the prominent pro-Trump activist Dan Bongino, was founded in 2018 and began marketing itself to a right-wing audience that felt victimized by supposed censorship on mainstream social platforms. The conspiratorial right-wing media outlet Epoch Times was an early adopter, but most prominent conservative media figures did not join until June 2020, when Twitter took the bold step of fact-checking the president’s tweets. That supposed injustice prompted a recruitment drive for Parler, where posts are neither fact-checked nor labeled, even when demonstrably false. Influential figures such as Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Representative Devin Nunes tweeted about the app. Senator Ted Cruz made a two-minute video declaring that he was joining Parler, and exhorting his followers to join him on the platform: “Let’s speak freely.” For some of American conservatism’s highest-profile figures to insinuate that they were being censored was patently absurd, but the publicity push still won Parler a few hundred thousand new users over a three-day span. By early July, the service claimed 2.8 million users. Parler attracted approximately 1 million downloads in the five days following November 3, and COO Jeffrey Wernick recently put the app’s user count at nearly 9 million. (By comparison, Twitter has 330 million active users globally; Facebook has 2.7 billion, and 255 million in the United States alone.)

In reality, Parler’s commitment to letting users speak freely hasn’t been absolute. Press coverage attracted trolls who posted pictures of poop—images that Parler chose to remove. Additionally, its most prominent converts instinctively understand that an app catering primarily to conservatives is intrinsically limited in its power. Cruz’s video extolling Parler was nominally true in that the Texas Republican did join up, but he, like most other influential conservatives, has posted only sporadically; the majority of their online speech continued apace on major social platforms.

A different type of influencer, however, was active on Parler: accounts that had been kicked off mainstream social communities because of assorted forms of bad behavior and terms-of-service violations. These included Roger Stone, Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and leading QAnon acolytes. In October 2020, dozens of dubious accounts tied to GTV, a new media venture backed by the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, mass-posted a large collection of videos, still photos, and text messages meant to embarrass or even incriminate Hunter Biden and bemoaned the mainstream media’s failure to cover these materials. Although people who don’t use Parler likely saw none of the raunchy images associated with “LaptopGate” on the app, they were the dominant topic of conversation there for days; conventional wisdom within the community was that they were a knockout punch to Biden’s candidacy. Parler, in other words, was less of a free-speech platform than a right-wing echo chamber in which the highest-engagement posts primarily came from hyper-partisan influencers and media outlets. Within this echo chamber, Trump remains the undisputed winner of the 2020 election. Only the “fake news media” says otherwise. And as the #SharpieGate protest showed, what happens on Parler doesn’t stay on Parler.

If successful, the app is likely to reinforce hyper-partisan, bespoke realities, in which people inside each bubble barely even encounter information that might challenge their preconceptions. An open question, though, is whether the most extreme and conspiratorial communities can expand their membership if Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube refuse to let them spread misinformation. The content that people see has profound real-world consequences. Many of the echo chambers and bespoke realities prevalent today, such as the spaces devoted to QAnon and political extremism, exist because the largest social-media companies designed their platforms to maximize user engagement and ignored the unintended consequences of algorithmic recommendations, rankings, and curation. After being misused for purposes of election manipulation, political violence, and even genocide, mainstream platforms are reckoning more and more with the implications of their power.

Events since the election underscore both the ability of major platforms to limit the spread of misinformation and the continuing appeal of reality-defying ideas. On Facebook the morning after the Arizona rally, a group named “Stop the Steal” popped up, and it attracted more than 300,000 members in less than 24 hours. Then Facebook shut it down because of concerns about the threat of violence. Two days later, another group appeared, called “Nationwide Recount 2020.” It amassed more than 1 million followers within a few days. Member posts primarily cast doubt on the presidential election result and contemplate whether the nation is in the midst of a deep-state revolution foretold on Carlson’s Fox show. Moderators stress that they want to minimize the sharing of content that will get the group banned, while also urging members to create accounts on Parler.

A feedback loop is now at work: Mainstream platforms have come to the conclusion that certain content or behavior has serious downstream implications, so they moderate it with a heavier hand. That moderation, particularly when sloppily executed, is perceived as censorship by those affected, and the content or accounts taken down are recast as forbidden knowledge. The claim of censorship is turned into a mass-aggrievement narrative, deployed as a cudgel by politicians who use it cynically to rally their base, and various demi-media outlets  and grifters attempt to leverage it for profit. Ordinary people, meanwhile, are pushed deeper into echo chambers.

Whether they will stay there is not yet clear. Parler is one of a suite of social-media spaces built for conservatives. Others include the YouTube-like sites Rumble and BitChute and the Twitter-like Gab. Their founding is hardly surprising. If there is an audience to monetize, someone will try. In practice, though, few of these niche social-media properties take hold. People are joining Parler today to find like-minded users to validate their own beliefs, but ultimately some percentage will get bored and move on. That subset will ultimately drift away from the app. It’s less user-friendly than Facebook, and it lacks one of the primary appeals that Twitter affords its core users: the ability to criticize people at the other end of the political spectrum. For some Trump supporters, the whole point of politics is to “own the libs,” but on Parler, there are no libs around to own.

Yet the immediate danger persists. Democracy is built on dialogue—on the belief that even when citizens argue about the merits of a politician or the specifics of a policy, they ultimately use the act of voting to decide on a shared direction. Democracy also assumes that people on the losing side will accept the loss, not retreat into an alternate reality in which their candidate won. No amount of content moderation by Facebook can make up for the president’s refusal to concede and his most die-hard supporters’ inability to see any reason why he should. The conspiracy theory that the president-elect is illegitimate and the election was stolen is being reframed as reality, and millions of Americans keep buying it.