It’s been more than a month since the app stores of Google and Apple joined forces with Amazon Web Services to knee-cap an upstart competitor, Parler. The stated reasoning was Parler’s lack of content moderation policies, which Apple, in particular, claimed led to Parler’s use as a forum to “plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington DC on January 6, 2021.”
This reasoning was confidently repeated across the corporate press. “The Capitol mob began organizing . . . on platforms like Parler and Gab,” Vox asserted. Planning for the “mob violence that descended on the U.S. Capitol . . . took place openly on websites popular with far-right conspiracy theorists,” National Public Radio proclaimed. Facebook shut down Stop the Steal groups, said The New York Times, so planning moved to Parler and Gab.
“These events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” sniffed Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer.
Based on such confident allegations, and the swift, collective action of Amazon, Google, and Apple, one is left with the impression that Parler—a platform that last month boasted 15 million total users, compared to Twitter’s 187 million daily users and Facebook’s mammoth 1.8 billion users a day—facilitated the entirety of the Jan. 6events.
Indeed, within days, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., dashed off a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, demanding the agency undertake a “robust examination” of Parler’s role in “the assault, including as a potential facilitator of planning and incitement related to the violence, as a repository of key evidence posted by users on its site, and as a potential conduit for foreign governments who may be financing civil unrest in the United States.”
Arbiters of Truth Push More Fake News
The problem with all of this is that it turned out to be mostly wrong. Yes, Parler was used, in some form, to promote and discuss the violent aspects of Jan. 6. But so too were other major social media platforms—and in a much larger way than Parler.
The Department of Justice has now charged 223 people for their participation in the events of Jan. 6. A comprehensive analysis of those charging documents performed by Forbes demonstrate that Parler’s role was minimal, compared to that of Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.
Of the 223 charging documents, 73 reference posts on Facebook as evidence, 24 reference posts YouTube, 20 single out Instagram posts (owned by Facebook), and only eight highlight posts on Parler.
Was Parler involved? Yes. Was the platform the virtual Bat Cave of Incitement and Violence that Apple, Google, Amazon, and thoroughly un-critical press reporting made it out to be? Hardly. If any single platform can be fingered as the favorite of the rioters, it appears to be Facebook.
Yet Facebook remains unmolested by the respective app stores and is suffering no critiques from opportunistic politicians. Somehow, Facebook—which, in 2018, was used to facilitate a genocide in Myanmar, and still can’t manage to stop ISIS from circulating recruitment materials—is Teflon in the face of the same charges that take down competitors like Parler, one of the very few Big Tech alternatives that has managed to break through to mainstream status.
And that is because this issue is not really about content moderation policies. It’s about narrative control.
A Free Market Means Companies Control You?
Over the last two decades, Big Tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon have amassed unchallenged dominance over the global flow of information—so much that should a user be banned across multiple platforms, he is effectively shut off from speaking with ease into the public square, which is now largely digital.
Sure, he could go post in some obscure corner of the Internet with only a few hundred users, but that misses the point of how Americans have always understood free speech. It’s not merely about the opportunity to speak; it’s also about who hears.
By selling the argument that speaking on Bitchute or Diaspora is somehow exactly the same as reaching billions of people on Facebook or Twitter, Big Tech has successfully convinced conservatives to accept de-platforming as just another function of the free market. Instead of identifying that argument as specious (Big Tech companies benefit from government largess in a handful of ways and are predatory monopolies), conservatives have acquiesced, meekly shuffling off to cluster in dusty corners of the Internet.
Threatening the Speech Cartel
Meanwhile, by working together to silence viewpoints and dissent across multiple platforms, Big Tech can effectively remove the ability of entire groups of people to engage and persuade in the public square.
That is, until Parler. Parler was able to do what no other alternative to Big Tech has been: achieve mainstream status as a viable competitor. By operating its platform in a more First Amendment-friendly way, Parler threatened to upend the Big Tech speech cartel.
That was never supposed to happen. This was obvious in the way the Big Tech-financed “build your own” crowd responded to Parler: first by mercilessly mocking its entrance to the market, then by nodding approvingly at the pretext used for its demise. It was also obvious when Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, Parler’s most direct competitor, tweeted a heart emoji of thanks when Parler no longer appeared in Apple’s app store.
Big Tech doesn’t want market competition. But they also don’t want competition for information and narrative control. Conservatives reaching critical mass on another platform just cannot be allowed. Thus Jan. 6, for all of its horrible events, offered a convenient and successful excuse by which Big Tech could solve its Parler problem—even though the DOJ charging documents have now made clear that Parler’s role was minor.
No Banks For You
Perhaps even more disturbing, however, is that by colluding to axe Parler, Amazon, Apple, and Google didn’t just crush a speech platform, they killed a small business. That kind of power resonates far beyond an inability to access the public square.
Big Tech can shut down your speech, but also your ability to make money in America. They can ban you from the public square, as well as from the avenues and infrastructure of capitalism.
This type of collusive power was very much on display when every platform from the online retail service Shopify, to the credit card processing company Stripe, to email services, ad accounts, banks, and every major social media platform refused to work with President Trump or his campaign. The same was true with Parler, which was effectively rendered dead in the water when Google and Apple removed it from their app stores, choking the app from the oxygen it needs to survive, as well as the avenues it needs to access a mainstream audience.
Although Parler is clinging to life on a new web hosting service, the left is already protesting its limited resurrection, and it remains banned from any commercial reach in the app stores.
This Isn’t a Free Market At All
The lengths Big Tech will go to maintain both their market dominance and information control has unmasked how powerful they truly are, and how unafraid they are of any consequence. Far from being single private actors subject to the fierce winds of market competition, they are a dominant oligopoly that acts in concert to stamp out viewpoint diversity, dissent, and the free flow of information.
Equally as critically, they act together to rip the infrastructure of capitalism away from individuals and entitles when it suits them, or their masters in the Democratic Party. Mario Loyola, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, was correct when he characterized our present condition as a “dystopic market state” in which Big Tech acts as compliant pillars of one-party rule.
The contours of our democratic society are in a power struggle with corporate actors who are rivaling the state for control. There has never been a more urgent time for the people, acting through our self-government, to take back the power Big Tech has so eagerly usurped.