[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” It’s January 6 — or it will be by the time you hear this. On this day last year, as a mob was attacking the U.S. Capitol, I was talking to John Matze, the co-founder and then-C.E.O. of Parler. The right-leaning social media network had long billed itself as a free-speech alternative to Facebook and Twitter. And on that day, many Parler users were using the platform to organize, share footage of the attack, and, worst of all, call for violence against elected officials. Matze seemed to think it wasn’t his problem.
- archived recording (john matze)
I don’t feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law.
But I disagreed. And so did others. In the days that followed, Apple kicked Parler off its App Store. Google booted it from its Play Store, and Amazon dropped Parler from its web hosting service. Apple and Amazon cited “Sway’s” interview in their decisions. Google didn’t. But honestly, they all should have been monitoring Parler, Facebook, and other sites better, well before it came to a head in the nation’s capital. Parler effectively went offline, and Matze lost his job. These days, Parler is back with a new web hosting service and with content moderation tweaks that allowed them back onto Apple’s App Store last May. Around the same time, the company also announced a new C.E.O., George Farmer, who joins me as my guest today. Farmer is not your conventional tech C.E.O. The Oxford grad cut his teeth in London finance. He was a pro-Brexit supporter and political candidate. And he’s married to controversial conservative pundit Candace Owens. So I wanted to know why Farmer took this gig, what he thinks of the power of big tech to deplatform presidents and Parlers alike, and what has changed, or hasn’t, since last January 6. George Farmer, welcome to Sway.
So, you weren’t running Parler on January 6 of last year, but I wanted to start there. Where were you on that day, and what did you make of the events at the Capitol?
Yeah, sure. I mean, I was actually, ironically enough, in D.C. on the day itself. I lived in D.C. at the time. And so we were probably about a mile away from the action as it was going on. On the day itself, you know, I have to admit, I wasn’t really sort of plugged in to, necessarily, what was going on. My wife was heavily pregnant. We were about five days away from birth day. And so we were pretty out of the political action at the time. Over the course of the next kind of week to two weeks, obviously, the kind of drama unfolded in terms of what then happened to Parler, what then happened to the national conversation at the time. And I think that definitely prompted some more interest from myself. I mean, I think the way Parler was deplatformed really kind of marked a turning point for Parler as a company. I think that that probably spurred an interest from myself.
What interested you about it? Was it the deplatforming or the way it was moderated?
Yeah, I think that Parler was kicked off into the digital wilderness. I think Niall Ferguson in “The Spectator” referenced it as a stunning demonstration of big tech’s power, which I thought was a very apt way of describing it because you’ve never seen a company quite so unceremoniously booted off into digital exile. It’s the kind of medieval equivalent of the church excommunicating someone. That made me very uncomfortable. I think that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable to know that, effectively, your right to free speech is controlled by the big tech corporations. And of course, that wasn’t just my opinion. That was the opinion of world leaders who reacted, for example, to Donald Trump being kicked off Twitter and all this kind of stuff. So on the back of that, there was a mass outcry. It wasn’t just from one side. I think it was from both sides.
Right. I agreed with taking Donald Trump off of Twitter and Facebook, but the fact it was made by two single people was problematic. And you know I’ve been talking about the power of big tech for a long time. Now, why would you pick Parler over Facebook or whatever? This is a very good question. Why not deplatform Facebook? Why not deplatform anybody else? Why pick this particular company versus any of the others? But were you already on Parler at the time? Were you using it?
Well, I have a confession, which is that I was using it but I actually found the old Parler site to be so buggy and glitchy that I deleted my account.
Oh, wow, OK.
Which I’m not afraid to say because I think that the old site was poorly put together and it wasn’t user-friendly. We’ve spent this entire year putting a much more user-friendly product together, which I believe we now have. And we’re working on improving it every day. But it was slow and it was kind of clunky. So, as a result, I was a Parler user and then I wasn’t a Parler user.
So a lot of videos were uploaded from the Capitol to Parler that day. I want to play a montage of some of those clips, because I want to talk about the moderation issues first.
- archived recording
Til America gets serious about taking back our country, they’re not going to take us serious. Amen. That’s TheRealJohnnyBravo on Parler. Let us in. Let us in. Where are the fucking traitors? Drag them out by their fucking hair! Can I speak to Pelosi? Yeah, we’re coming, bitch. Oh, Mike Pence? We’re coming for you too, fucking traitor. Took over The Capitol, overran the Capitol. We’re in the fucking Capitol, bro. You want that civil war, motherfucker? You’re inches away from it. [SHOUTING]
Whose house? Our house! Whose house? Our house! Whose house? Our house!
John Matze, at the time, told me, quote, “I don’t feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law.” Do you think the platform wasn’t responsible? Can you talk about the content moderation under John?
Well, I mean, there’s several kind of things I’d say here. The first is that Parler, in the run up to the rally that happened in Washington, reported over 50 instances of incitement and violence, which it considered to be problematic.
To the FBI.
Yeah, exactly. And so, we have a duty of care. We also — I’m sure you saw, the George Washington University program on extremism detailed over 270 charging documents. And 54% of those documents, if I recall correctly, were related to Facebook, 13% to Twitter, 13% to Instagram, and only 5% were referencing Parler. And also, Forbes, I think, did an analysis of 200 charging documents filed by the D.O.J. in connection with the Capitol riot. And Facebook was, of course, far the most utilized social platform. Now, were people using Parler? Of course they were. One of the issues that I think John mentioned in his interview with you last year was the concept of scale and the scale around moderation. Now, Parler went from being a platform of less than a million users to suddenly having 16 million users in a very short space of time. It was the most downloaded app in the App Store. That, in turn, of course, created issues of scale with regards to moderation. Now, of course, the moderation policies did exist. And what we’ve done subsequently to that is enhance moderation and add that element of scale to it. But scapegoating Parler as somehow a unique sort of medium through which people communicated in the run-up to January the 6th is both false and misleading. And then also to say that Parler was responsible, which a lot of people claimed at the time, is also false.
I want to make sure I get it correctly because all these platforms were used, Facebook primarily. But what you’re saying is that Parler got scapegoated more than them? Or that they didn’t deserve some of the worries.
Yeah I mean I’d definitely say that the scapegoating was particularly harsh on Parler. As I said, all of those documents that I just referenced, and the analysis which was conducted in the aftermath, of course, highlighted the fact that Parler was not a lone actor. It was not even a majority actor. It was a minority actor. There’s also another thing here to say, which I think is very important. You’re never going to catch everything that happens online. No platform out there is going to catch everything that happens online. Do you have a process to try and catch everything that happens online? Absolutely. And that’s what I would say about our previous manifestation. We had a process. It didn’t catch everything. No company ever catches everything.
When John Matze said that, I think he was sort of poking the bears in talking about, I don’t feel any responsibility for any of this. That, I think, is what attracted the attention, is him saying it’s not my responsibility to do it. I think that’s what he was clearly saying. And Amazon, Google, and Apple didn’t see it the way he did. They said the platform failed to take down violent content and quickly cut those ties. Unfairly or not, the others probably should have been treated in the same way. It was interesting, when you were on Maria Bartiromo, and you said there was collusion by Apple, Google, and Amazon to focus on Parler specifically.
Can you illuminate me on that?
Well, I mean, it just seems a remarkable coincidence. And things which appear to be coincidences often aren’t. That the deplatforming of Parler involved almost a dozen companies, three of which are the largest tech companies in the entire world. So I find that not to be coincidence, if I’m honest. I find that to be colluding behavior.
Colluding behavior meaning they called each other? I’d like for you to clarify what you mean by that.
Yeah, meaning that they were in discussion with each other about the fact that they were going to take down Parler at the time. To me, that’s obvious. In a 24-hour period, all three of them decided to deplatform the company. I don’t think they were just independently acting of their own accord. I think they were obviously probably saying, we don’t like this company. Let’s get rid of it.
Why right then though? I often find them to sort of copy each other. When they see one moving, the other does. Like, I think they’re mostly insecure and they just move. I don’t think they talk to each other to do it. I think one person does it, and it’s like, oh, look over here. This is getting a lot of attention. Why do you think they did it right at this time then? Why did they just pick out Parler over the others?
Growth. I mean, I think that’s probably the obvious answer. In the first 10 days of January, we were the most downloaded app in the App Store. You had 2.8 million accounts registered in those first 10 days. It threatened the narrative. I think the tech giants are desperate to control the narrative. And I think —
But wouldn’t that growth be good for Apple? Apple likes growth, right? They’re not competing with you. Neither Apple, nor Amazon, nor Google competes with you.
That’s a very, very good question. So I would say, yes, they should have been encouraging us because they should like the growth of their services. Now, what you’ve seen in the last five years, and this is rampant in the tech industry, of course, is companies acting not in economic self-interest. Why did they kick us off? Because they didn’t want to work with us. This is not just, for example, an Apple, Google question. Why did other companies, who we were paying fees to, decide not to work with us? It’s in their economic self-interest to do so. It should be independent. But there are a lot of companies out there right now which don’t have these economic self-interests at heart.
So all of them suddenly decided they didn’t want to make money? Here’s my problem with that is that —
Well, let’s also put it like this. I don’t think they were making a huge amount of money from us, right?
Right, no, absolutely not. But one of the things that’s interesting is all of them really dislike Facebook. So I don’t feel like they were like, let’s go for Parler because we want to help our friend Facebook. Because they are not — and you’re just going to have to trust me when I tell you this. They can’t stand Facebook. But one of the things that I wonder about is that John made these very problematic comments right at the height of an emotional time. And they didn’t want the stink of sedition on them.
I don’t think it was one unique reason. I said growth because I think that was probably a very, very hot topic in their head. I think there was many other reasons. I don’t think a lone actor reason is probably ever the reason for most decisions being made in history. But I do think that growth was one of them. I think that the aftermath of January the 6th was a hugely — I mean, as you mentioned there — emotionally charged time. It was. There’s no doubt about it.
Mm-hmm. You know, I think one of them said to me, we don’t want to be handmaidens to sedition. That’s what we look like. And so, that’s not collusion, to me. That’s, like, running in fear. They’re more than happy to take your business, as long as you don’t look like you’re helping whatever happened at the Capitol. And I would agree with you that they all moved quickly. But I think they all move quickly out of insecurity more than — collusion is a big word, George.
You’re a very educated Oxford person. It’s a big word.
It is. I mean —
You still stick by that, that idea of collusion, that they’re sitting in a room having kombucha and, you know, organically raised scones.
Yeah, they go out there in their hybrids and, you know, sitting there drinking kombucha in Palo Alto.
You obviously know that I went to Oxford. You probably know that I studied theology. And you know that I think that the power of the current tech oligopoly is similar to the medieval magisterium of the Catholic Church. The power to exile or to otherwise include is basically given unto the keepers of the keys. These guys hold the keys. They hold the power. Maybe that’s not a secret cabal room where they all get together, in the top of the Salesforce Tower. But it’s —
So you’ve been there.
No, I haven’t been there.
I’ve never been there.
It’s very dull.
I’m sure you have. But you know what I mean. The point being is that I don’t think there’s necessarily a room, but I do think there’s obviously an overlap between the corporates. I mean, there is an overlap between all the major institutions of this particular sector. That’s just an undeniable reality of business.
So, what did you think of those Matze comments then? You haven’t really answered my question on that. Did you think, oh, that’s really not a good thing to have said?
Well, give me the comments exactly.
“I don’t feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law.”
Well, the one area that I do agree with him on there is that we are trying to be a neutral town square. Do I think that that’s a relevant comment? Yes, I do. Do I think that the platform should feel responsibility for content posted online and its moderation of that content? I disagree with him there. I think we should — we do feel responsibility. We are responsible because we moderate. That’s the whole point. Tech companies, as a whole, are responsible.
So, in the aftermath of this, he got fired. But an interim C.E.O., Mark Meckler, got hired. And then you were brought in, in March, as operating chief. Who hooked you up with this job?
I went directly to Rebekah Mercer.
Yeah. She and I had a conversation at the time. And we discussed this, and I agreed to help. It was more by accident than by design, quite honestly. I said, I’d be happy to help in any way that I can, to see what could be done to fix the platform.
And why? What was your interest in it? Because it’s a bit of a hot mess, right? Like, oh god, like, I assume you have other choices.
Oh, I mean, gosh, I think it’s like drinking from the poisoned chalice of Indiana Jones, where a guy picks up what he thinks is the Holy Grail and he turns to ash. But I felt that what happened to the platform was so unfair. And that concerned me. You need a platform which doesn’t censor or which doesn’t shut down speech in the way that the main tech giants do. And so, as a result, I offered my services. Now, of course, at the time, there was no inclination that I’d be running the company. It was just more to try and help out fix the business.
But you saw this as a tech opportunity? Or more, I’m mad as hell and I’m going to do something about it?
Oh, I wasn’t mad as hell. I was just — I’m a capitalist. I think there’s a huge opportunity here. And I think, for example, Twitter’s decision to boot Donald Trump with 88.7 million followers at the time of his booting, you don’t get rewarded for making a decision where you shrink your own market size. And I think that if a platform comes along with a viewpoint-neutral position, which I think is what Parler is trying to offer, you actually stand to make a very good opportunity there. And I think you stand to make a very good run at being successful.
At the time you became C.E.O., Parler got back in business with Apple. I’m not necessarily giving you credit for this happening, but the timing looks good for you. Were you directly involved in the changes and negotiations?
Yeah, I mean, look, it was a team effort. Apple were very good themselves. They took a very proactive response here. They wanted us to be back on the App Store. We submitted iterations of what we wanted to put back up. And I think we reached a happy medium.
So what was different? What were the specific changes? Because Matze describe to me that Parler used to adjudicate content moderation via the jury system. Is that what you’re still using?
Well, we didn’t have any artificial intelligence at the time. You know, the jury system was still in early stages. So, I mean, now, first of all, our moderation system internally is artificially intelligent. And so we have an A.I. system which all content is fed into, posts, multimedia. That A.I. system then screens the content itself. If it can’t be decided by A.I., it gets referred to humans. Humans then flag it. If they then can’t decide, it then goes to our internal moderators. They then get to decide, with the ultimate decision, of course, resting with our chief policy officer, Amy, and myself. And disagreement is referred to a separate jury system, which is 30 jurors who effectively decide on content.
All right, and Amy was the head of policy under John Matze, too.
Yeah. We really don’t miss a trick nowadays. And the content which is flagged on our platform as a whole is minuscule, in terms of percentage of the millions of posts that we get. So there’s that element to it, which Apple were happy to see. The second element was that they wanted two filters, the not-safe-for-work filter and they wanted the trolling filter. So what we have done, of course, is put up this filter, which basically says this content is censored by Apple but not by Parler. If you want the full content go to the desktop site for full details. So you can bypass the Apple troll filter.
Yeah, so in this Parler iOS app, you flag the users, those posts that have been removed, and say Apple wanted them removed. And then you invite them to check out the web or the Android version. Was that your sort of screw you to Apple? Or just, this is the way we want to say what we’re doing?
No, I mean, I think it’s a happy compromise. It allows for maximum free speech on our platform. And it also keeps them happy, which is exactly where we want to end up. We do not want to censor content which does not require censorship. That’s the whole raison d’etre for Parler. It’s a free speech platform.
So talk about the idea of cleaning up in one place and not cleaning up elsewhere. My producers spent some time on Parler last week, and it’s not pretty. It’s also, by the way, not pretty on Twitter and Facebook, let me be clear. Here are some things they found. Racist language, including the n-word, usernames like The Ethnic Cleanser, others I won’t say out loud. Hashtags including #KillKamala, #KillBiden, #Treasoncrats, #TreasonIsPunishableByDeath, lots of vaccine misinformation. Talk to me about how you look at this when you’re talking about this idea of free speech, wherever it happens. These are fine? Because these would be pulled off of other sites. It’s just whatever the platform wants? How do you feel about it?
Well, I mean, there’s — you agglomerated there several different categories of moderation. So let me just break them out. So, for example, incitement and threats, you mentioned #KillKamala, for example. Well, I mean, that would be taken down because that’s an incitement to violence. That would fall under incitement and threats, which is a clear category that we have on our guidelines, which prohibits people from putting content like that up.
But it’s up right now. Meaning, some things get through, is what you’re saying.
Well, yeah, but it would be taken down. But Twitter allows for content to go up and then takes it down in the aftermath. I mean, we do the same. You can’t be “Minority Report.” You can’t be the system of pre-crime. You can’t tell people what not to put up before they put it up. So stuff goes up. It then gets flagged. It gets taken down. That’s the system.
It should be pulled down within an hour. It would be up there for less than an hour. In some cases, minutes, often in minutes. So it depends on the content itself. It would be incitement to violence, which should be taken down straightaway. As I say, the artificial intelligence system works very well. This gets flagged. It gets put through. It will get taken down. Comments get deleted, et cetera, et cetera.
Just if you want to fix it, the #KillKamala hashtag is still up, and it’s been there for nine months. So get on it.
OK, all right. I will make a note.
OK, so that’s incitement to violence. Next thing?
Yeah, but then, racism, for example. So racist content gets put behind a troll filter, which, of course, people can click through to see because, of course, free speech is naturally offensive. And, as a result, you cannot regulate all speech. And that’s the whole point. And that comes back to then also, for example, your discussion about vaccine misinformation. Well, of course, this then comes through to what is and what is not vaccine misinformation? The ability for people to speak freely always naturally offends other people. That’s the whole point. You cannot have a world in which speech is classified as safe because speech naturally offends. So, as a result, we put stuff behind a trolling filter, but people can say it if they wish to do so. It should be up to the user to decide, not for the platform to decide, what they can and cannot see.
And is there anything that’s racist or anti-vax that you do think should be taken down? How did you make those decisions? Do you make them yourself? Or do you say just the incitement to violence?
I mean, for example, defamatory content, sexualization of minors, nudity and pornography, indecency involving violence, fraud, IP theft, doxxing, incitement to violence, all of that stuff is removed because that’s against our guidelines. Most of it’s illegal. You can’t shout fire in a crowded room. Now, when it comes to other speech, do I think, personally — now, this is kind of the nexus for the whole debate. Do I think personally it should be taken down? Well, the reality is, is that, at any point that I am making a judgment as to what should and shouldn’t be allowed in terms of speech, you’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s where the whole free speech element rests, and kind of rises and falls, if you like. I don’t think that I have the power. I don’t think that any human being has the power to decide what another human being should think. I think that it’s up to other people to decide what they want to think. And I think the only way you defeat a bad idea is by showing it a good idea. Obviously, in societies where they do try and censor speech, the opposite viewpoint is normally exactly what then takes root and grows like wildfire. Because, of course, as soon as you try to shut down something, people are naturally drawn to it. It’s a bit like — not to get too theological, but “The Da Vinci Code” was on the Catholic Church’s list of banned books. Well, of course, that did nothing more for it than sell millions of books because suddenly everyone wants to read about it. As soon as you start to shut down conversations, people get interested.
So you’re saying it’s the under the darkness — you put them down into the ground and they’ll come up anyway kind of argument, correct?
100%. I mean, I don’t need to think that. It’s true.
Except, do you find that people don’t have an ability to dissent all over the place? Some of the people that are loudest about censorship never shut up, and have plenty of platforms and outlets to do so. What I’m sort of interested in for you is that, as a private company, you don’t want to make these decisions.
Do I want to make a decision about the ability of an individual to say and not to say? No, I don’t want to make that decision. I mean, that’s not my job. And actually, I mean, I think that then feeds into the conversation — you’ve mentioned this before in your previous podcasts — about Section 230 and, to do with private companies making decisions.
230 is a long-time law that gives them broad immunity against liability.
Correct. I would argue, when a subjective line of reasoning is taken by a private company, it’s not necessarily that one decision, but a course of action over many years which subjectively decides the platform’s viewpoint, does take away that shield of Section 230. And I believe that that then opens the discussion as to saying, well, are you a publisher or are you a platform? And now we are a platform, and we take pride in that label. I don’t want to have the publisher label applied to me. The easiest way to do that is to not make subjective decisions about what people can and cannot say.
We’re already making decisions about lots of things, constantly. One of the things that Mark Zuckerberg argues is that he doesn’t want to — he has pretty much the same argument. When he makes editorial decisions all the time, even though he says he doesn’t, they do. So does Twitter. Now, Twitter is more of a publisher, essentially. But using that shield of “I’m a platform, not a publisher” is a pretty thin one.
But I completely agree with what you just said. The irony being is that you have all these platforms saying we’re not publishers. And they’re making decisions which do take that viewpoint. My decision-making about editorial content is very, very limited. We have our guidelines. We have what we don’t allow on the platform. And then everything else is fair game. You’ve got Facebook. You’ve got Twitter. You’ve got these other massive tech companies saying, we’re not publishers. We’re not making subjective decisions. When they clearly do. And they would even admit it, right? For example, talk about vaccines. Before the vaccine arrived, you had that kind of April 2020 period to sort of January 2021 period. And you had conversations around this, that, the other to do with Covid. Now, at pretty much every turn, you had Facebook making decisions about what was and wasn’t relevant to Covid. Well, what are they now? HCA healthcare? Why is Facebook making decisions about what is and isn’t relevant health care information? It shouldn’t be made by them. As soon as you start to make these subjective decisions, you’re in the court of human opinion. And that’s a very dangerous place to be because opinion changes consistently.
You’re talking about them as if they’re public utilities or perhaps a public square, when they’re, in fact, private companies. Shouldn’t they be able to do this?
I completely agree with you on this, which is that they are private companies. They can make their own decisions. But the big differentiator is the public shield they get. You’ve got a shield protecting them from public prosecution, effectively, or at least claiming to be a publisher because you have this Section 230 differentiator, whereas no other company does. But somehow, with companies that are now making subjective decisions as to what content is put up on their platform, they can now have this broad-based immunity. And that, for me, is — you know, you can’t have your cake and eat it. And they want their cake and eat it. So you have to have one or the other. You can’t have both. You have to choose.
Why would you have to choose? There are laws in place. They’re incentivized to be a platform, just like you do. And, at some point, you might want to avail yourself to that, correct? Or not?
No, I don’t want to be in that decision where we have to make subjective opinion, because I don’t believe that the law currently allows for that.
So do you yourself, though worry about servicing this clientele that says these things? How do you feel about it, as a C.E.O. of a company, letting this stuff run all over your platform?
I mean, it’s not all over our platform, just to be clear. As I said earlier, we have —
Yes, it’s all kittens on your platform.
No. Well, our moderation is low, in terms of an absolute percentage of content that we moderate, because there is not that much content to moderate. How do I feel about it? Well, A, my feelings are kind of irrelevant. And B, I believe, as I said earlier, people have a right to free speech. People have the right to say what they want to say. As soon as I start deciding what they can and cannot say, that becomes very dangerous. It starts to put me into the position of god. We then end up with exactly the situation we have, which is, of course, where Zuckerberg sits in his Silicon Valley ivory tower and gets to decide what the world can and cannot see. And that’s an incredibly dangerous perspective because, whilst I may not like it personally, I don’t have the right to stop it. And that’s the whole point. We shouldn’t have the right to stop it. We shouldn’t have the right to say this is good, this is bad. Because you’re adding that element of subjective —
Except that is precisely what he says too. He says exactly what you say.
I know, but he’s not doing it. It’s all very well, saying what I say. Walk the walk, but talk the talk. You have to do both. [MUSIC PLAYING]
Will be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with GETTR CEO Jason Miller. And you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with George Farmer after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
All right, so what did all these content moderation changes cost you? Users, it seems. I know your numbers are down. And you’re saying you don’t want to be irrelevant, but does that make you more irrelevant because you put these content moderation changes in place?
No, not at all. Parler, to be clear, has never had as consistent user flow as it has right now. One of the things about the previous manifestation of Parler — if you like, Parler One — was that you had massive spikes of sign-ups, and then you had very low user accounts a few days later. And that was because— that comes back to why I was not a Parler user was because it was very difficult to use. It was very clunky. It was very —
It was a shitty experience.
Yeah, exactly. So it was not fun. And, as a result, nobody enjoyed using that platform. What we now have is a platform which is usable, which is accessible, and, as a result, our daily active user accounts go up. They tick up month on month. We have a lot of people using it every day. We’ve never had that before. We’ve never had as consistent user numbers as we do now. We’re making slow and steady progress. Apart from anything else, there’s no point in marketing ourselves until, of course, we have a good product, right? So I now believe the product is kind of ready, so I’m now happy to sort of start moving in that direction.
And talking about it. So, right as you’re doing that, of course, there’s a lot of other social media competitors in your area. Donald Trump has started his own social network. There’s GETTR. There’s Rumble. There’s all kinds of places people can go. Joe Rogan said he’d signed up for GETTR, for example, which apparently spiked sign-ups. Can you — let’s start first with Trump. Can any of you be relevant without Trump on there?
Yeah. I don’t think Trump makes or breaks Parler.
Why is that?
Because what we’re appealing to is free speech, and free speech is bigger than just one man.
Mm-hmm. You don’t think he makes the platform, necessarily, his presence.
No. I think that Donald Trump, obviously, is one of the most talked about names, when it comes to tech censorship because of what happened to him, and his, I would argue, unique experience. I think that free speech should be appealing. So I don’t think people look at a platform and say, hey, this platform is all about free speech because it’s got Donald Trump. I think they look at the platform and say, this platform is about free speech because of what decisions they make to censor or not, as we just talked about.
All right, so this idea of Parler as a viewpoint-neutral non-partisan platform, you’ve got your politics. You’re a pro-Brexit guy. You got married to your wife, Candace Owens, at a Trump winery, actually. I’m imagining maybe you’re possibly on the right side of the political — I don’t know. I don’t know. But when you’re trying to create these viewpoint-neutral non-partisan platforms, how do you say that you’re non-partisan when it feels a little partisan?
Because I think that, at the moment, the right side of the aisle feels excluded from the conversation. As a result, the majority of people talking about free speech and free speech censorship are on the conservative side. Now, the vaccine thing is a really interesting topic because you’ve seen people on both sides of the aisle being shut down and taken off social media. Now, that also means that, at some point, they’re saying, well, we’re deciding it’s not just about left or right anymore. It’s about other viewpoints. It’s about other independent areas that we think merit censorship. An advisor to Bill Clinton was kicked off Twitter. Robert Malone. I don’t think he’s either left or right. I mean, I think he’s just a doctor. So he was kicked off. So you’re seeing people being kicked off for non-partisan opinions now.
But one thing you did say earlier was that people on the right don’t have places to go. You said they feel that way. But feelings aren’t facts. Like I said to John Matze, an N.Y.U. study from last year, for example, and many, many, many of them found that, on Facebook, for example, far-right news drew more engagement than any non-partisan news. And I think one of your investors, Dan Bongino, is the most popular person on Facebook at this point, along with Joe Rogan and many others.
Again, it depends on what you’re looking at. There are many instances of conservatives who have been censored. James Woods, for example. I mean, of course, Donald Trump has been completely. But there are many conservatives who have been completely excluded from having a voice.
Let me read you another list. Al Jazeera Arabic, Splinter News, Ed Krassenstein, Raul Castro, Talib Kweli, twice, The Chaser, twice. Those are all on the left.
Yeah, or course. I mean, look, I’m not saying there’s not censorship on the left. I just mentioned two examples.
Almost all the studies around Facebook show that right-wing sites have more traffic.
OK, so, I mean, you know, let’s talk about Facebook then. I mean, one thing which was interesting from Frances Haugen is that, of course, Facebook directs traffic on the basis of what’s going to click the most, what’s going to do the best. Twitter, for example, has very different conversations. Most of these exclusions are on Twitter. There are some, of course, who are on Facebook. I know, for example, my wife ended up on a Facebook blacklist. How did she end up there? Well, who knows? But there is a discussion to be had around censorship, and particularly censorship when it comes to what you want to call microblogging, which is, of course, where we specialize. And Twitter is our main competitor here. So when you look at Twitter versus what we’re doing, of course, those are very direct comparisons. And Twitter does take a very strong viewpoint on a lot of conservative issues. Let’s call it like that.
All right. By the way, I feel like your wife has plenty to say and gets to say it everywhere. I feel like she gets out there pretty well. I seem to know what she’s thinking in every moment of the day, and avails herself to all the different platforms.
Well, she gets censored too. I mean, this is the whole point. You will have seen that we have a — Candace Owens L.L.C. has a lawsuit against Facebook’s fact checkers in the Supreme Court of Delaware, to be heard this year, in fact. So that’s relevant because that’s social media censorship. All these conversations tie into each other. And, of course, the majority of the lawsuits which are being filed right now against big tech come from conservative commentators. Of course, none the less than Donald Trump himself, who’s doing a class action.
So a couple more things I want to talk about. There’s Rebekah Mercer. She’s a major Republican and Trump donor, a founding investor in Parler. In February, it was reported she, quote, “increasingly pulls the strings at Parler.” How is she involved in the business? How do you interact with her?
Well, Rebekah is obviously involved in the business. She and I have a great working relationship. I’m the C.E.O. I have decision-making power. So the decisions that are made on a day-to-day basis are mine. They don’t come from anywhere else.
So did you say to her, it’s my train, I’ll be running it? Or can she say, I don’t like this? John Matze told NPR that Mercer forced him out after he proposed expanding content restrictions, including clampdowns on domestic terrorists and QAnon. What was your conversation with her? I understand people are pushing back on John’s characterizations.
Well, there’s a lawsuit involved. So, of course, I can’t really say too much. I can’t say anything at all. But the point being, Rebekah and I see the world, when it comes to free speech, from a very similar perspective. People should be allowed a platform. She has always been very keen on that. And that’s why Parler was founded.
Can you disagree with her and keep your job?
Have you had a disagreement?
Give me a disagreement you’ve had.
Well, we’ve had disagreements over plenty of different areas. We disagreed about personnel. And we’ve had arguments about money and all this kind of stuff. As with anybody who’s involved, shareholders and C.E.O.s always have necessary friction. That’s how the truth is found.
All right. Speaking of relationships, now, you signed Melania Trump for NFTs. They’re going to be sold on her platform, powered by Parler. Can you explain this? Why did she come to you to do this? This is decentralized technology. This is a non-fungible token.
So, yeah, Melania Trump is a future-facing first lady. She wants to be involved in NFTs. And I strongly commend her for that decision.
How did she come to Parler? How did that happen?
The exact discussion I’m not really allowed to kind of discuss, to be honest. But it’s —
Because it’s just something that she wants to keep private. We’ve built something which works. And she’s sold, I think it’s 3,000 NFTs, already, which is great.
So did you try to woo Trump himself to Parler? I know Jason Miller did over at GETTR.
Yeah, we had discussions with — I think I’ve said that in the past. We had discussions with Trump, absolutely. We had discussions with him about trying to get him on board the platform. He has his own ideas around what he wants to do in the tech space. His team have their own ideas around what they want to do in the tech space. You know, that’s cool. I don’t have a problem with that.
All right, that’s cool. What do you think of Trump Social?
Truth Social, do you mean?
Truth Social, I’m sorry.
Yeah. I don’t really have any opinions on it. I mean, I welcome —
Oh my god, that was so Freudian. But go ahead.
I welcome more competition. I don’t exactly know what it is yet, to be honest, if I’m quite frank. And I don’t think many people do. So, obviously, I saw that they announced a deal with Rumble for video distribution service. I know for a fact that there are many people on the right, including some in Trump’s circle, who think that video distribution, for example, a Netflix-style conservative model, would be hugely profitable and welcome. Again, there’s been a lot of noise and, as you mentioned yourself, you don’t exactly know what the offering is yet. And I kind of reserve judgment until I know what the offering is.
It’s called vaporware, George. I think you know that word, at this moment. But as a C.E.O. of a competitor and a tech investor and a political guy, what are you worried about? It could be a very significant competitor to you.
Yeah, I mean, look, I think Parler is differentiating itself quite clearly in a variety of different ways. I think the first is that we want to be international. What does free speech mean in Iran, versus what does free speech mean in Venezuela, versus what does free speech mean in America? I think the second area is the one that you touched upon just then, which is the NFT discussion. And I think Parler wants to move into that. Well, I don’t think, I know Parler wants to move into that space. We want to embrace the decentralized economy. That, for me, is very, very important.
Yeah. Speaking of making a big play in international, GETTR is trying to do that too, in Brazil. Speaking of GETTR, Joe Rogan just told all of his followers on Twitter to go follow him there. In his GETTR post, he said, “Just in case shit over at Twitter gets even dumber, I’m here now, as well. Rejoice.” I wasn’t particularly rejoiceful. But does that affect you? Because it’s also gotten VIPs like Larry the Cable Guy, the rapper Zuby, among others. Are you worried about that?
Not particularly. We have our own influencers. I mean, we have 650 gold badge accounts on Parler, of which, I think, almost 500 are active. We have people on the platform who are not on any other platform. We have, for example, many gold badge accounts who post exclusive content to Parler.
That’s, like, Brexit poster boy, Nigel Farage, correct?
There are influencers, yeah. Nigel is one of them, for example. Obviously, we have other people. Mark Levin, for example, is frequently on Parler. Sean Hannity is obviously very active on our platform. There are many commentators who do work with us and not with others. As I said earlier, I don’t think our success is defined by exclusive relationships with people. I think our success is defined by building a great product, by expanding into Web3, and I think, as a result, people will come and use us on the back end of that.
OK. And, now, what do you think about Twitter’s decision this past weekend — it’s hard not to talk about it — to permanently suspend Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account, not her congressional account, after she violated their five-strike rule on spreading vaccine misinformation?
Well, I don’t really have too many thoughts about it, if I’m honest. I mean, she’s welcome at Parler. She actually has a Parler account.
She does, indeed.
I don’t really have much more to say about it than that.
Did you think they should have done that?
No. I mean, they did it. They are who they are. They consistently censor. They are very consistent in their censorship. Congratulations to them. You know, consistency is key. I kind of welcome it when they do it, to be honest.
It’s great for us. Please, they should shut down as many accounts as they want.
I wouldn’t call it — it’s just their rules. Marjorie —
Yeah, well, keep doing it. Great. That’s wonderful. More people come to us.
What are you more offended by, I went you to stack rank this, the deplatforming of Parler or of Trump or of Marjorie Taylor Greene?
Offended, I mean —
Well, pick a word.
What am I more annoyed about? I’m obviously annoyed about Parler being deplatformed. That would rank as number one. I think Donald Trump, number two. And Marjorie Taylor Greene, number three.
So what can you offer, if free speech is happening in obscurity? Sort of, if an anti-vaxxer or insurrectionist falls in the forest, can you hear them? What is your offer to them, over these other platforms?
That’s a really interesting question. You know, like, does Parler have a role if free speech was just totally permissible on every other platform? So, kind of, what do we do differently? Many platforms say they’re viewpoint neutral. Not many are. We truly are. That’s one big differentiator. The second area is, do I think we’re now beginning to offer more products and suites to people who want to come and join us? Yes, I do. We are in this NFT space. There’s just no doubt about it. We have already done that first one. I think we’re going to be building that out. Do I want to see Parler move into that kind of — for example, what does a crypto social app look like? What would that look like? That hasn’t really been done before. But I think Parler has a good shot at making it into that world.
Now, one of the issues around that is security, also. You’ve had a problem with that. Internet sleuths exploited a bug in Parler to download nearly all the data in the platform last year. Have you fixed those problems? Because that’s going to be — data is going to be one of the most important things. So talk a little — I want to end up talking about data.
Well, data is what defines the modern tech experience because we are all just data now. We are all bought and traded on the open market, in terms of what data we choose to give these tech companies. Coming back to how Parler’s data is processed, well, we try and make our data as anonymous as possible. We don’t track our users. We do an awful lot of scrubbing of our data, in terms of making sure it’s kept anonymous. We don’t sell it. And, as a result, we therefore put ourselves at punitive disposition to the rest of the tech environment, such as Google, who obviously buy and freely trade your data. That’s why Gmail is free, because —
Well, they sell the market. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
But they sell access to the market.
That’s what I mean. There is a degree to which data is traded. But where does data end up when it comes to Parler? It ends up internally, just with us. We don’t sell it.
You’re good at look-over-there kind of stuff. But that’s fine. It’s whatever.
Why not? You’re a tech journalist. You’re allowed to do comparisons, you know?
I know, I know. Look, Facebook was worse.
Well, but the reason I do that, to be clear, is because nobody else does. This is the point. We are the eye of the storm, when it comes to people saying look how evil Parler is. It’s like, guys, have you seen the rest of the world? Have you seen what other companies are doing? And it’s a nonsense to me. It’s just like, why are we so unfairly targeted? Because we are just a viewpoint-neutral platform. We’re not doing all these horrible things. And yet, at the same time, somehow Twitter is held up as the Holy Grail. I’m like, guys, you seen this company? I mean, yeah, of course, Twitter, when it came out, the tech companies, when they came out, really were not dissimilar to where we are now. This is something that nobody gets. I remember when I was a teenager, Facebook was started. Twitter was started. When I was still at school, these companies came out. And they were the rebellious bad boys of the corporate world. They were there to break things — move fast, break things, chaos monkeys, all this kind of stuff. It was super exciting. Everyone wanted to be involved. My friends at uni were saying, we want to work in tech, all this kind of stuff. What have they become now? The unprecedented leviathans of the corporate world, the largest corporate institutions on the planet, bigger than Saudi Arabia’s Aramco. And yet, here we are, basically saying these guys are good guys.
Yeah, because that’s a bunch of nice guys over there.
Yeah, they’re good people. It’s just like, what is this nonsense? Who’s held this hoodwinking, you know?
OK. All right, do you think having a platform where these people are promoting these things, as they did on Parler — and I know they did on Facebook, but they absolutely did on Parler — should have happened? Are you willing to denounce what happened there?
I think that’s a little bit of a loaded question.
I know it is. It’s a loaded question. I just loaded it.
It’s fully loaded. I mean, the point being is that, do I —
Are you willing to denounce the January 6 rioters and Parler’s role in it, without adding on the others, which, I will acknowledge, were very responsible?
Well, hang on a sec. I’m going to go back to the first question. The first question was, do I think there should have been a platform to allow this to happen? Yes, I do because I think that you’re saying, should social media exist. And I think, yes, it should. Do I go out there and denounce people personally? My personal opinion has got absolutely nothing to do with it, so I withhold my judgment. I mean, again what was needed to be flagged was flagged. Do platforms get this kind of content cropping up the whole time? Yes, they do. And as a result, does it matter what I think? Not really, to be honest.
All right, let me try a different — it’s very simple. It’s not loaded in any way. Did Parler do a bad job of monitoring its platform a year ago?
OK. Thank you, George. I appreciate it.
No worries. Thanks, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe, and Wyatt Orme. Edited by Nayeema Raza, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Sonia Herrero and Isaac Jones, and fact checking by Kate Sinclair, Michelle Harris, and Kristin Lin. Special thanks to Shannon Busta and Kristina Samulewski. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts, so follow this one. If you’re listening on The Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, along with a pint of kombucha and a basket of organically raised scones, download any podcast app. Then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday and Thursday. Thanks for listening.