By Keach Hagey and Jeff Horwitz
Parler launched in 2018 as a freewheeling social-media site for
users fed up with the rules on Facebook and Twitter, and it quickly
won fans from supporters of President Trump. On Monday, it went
dark, felled by blowback over its more permissive approach.
Amazon.com Inc. abruptly ended web-hosting services to the
company, effectively halting its operations, prompting Parler to
sue Amazon in Seattle federal court. Other tech partners also
acted, crippling operations.
Driving the decision was the role of Parler in last week's mob
attack on the U.S. Capitol. On the afternoon of the riot, Amazon
warned executives from Parler it had received reports the
social-media platform was hosting "inappropriate" content, and that
Parler had 24 hours to address it.
"We have been appropriately addressing this type of content and
actively working with law enforcement for weeks now," Parler policy
chief Amy Peikoff told Amazon a few hours later in an email
reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Amazon wrote back Thursday: "Please consider it resolved." The
email gave Parler executives confidence that their moderation
system, however strained, was acceptable to its tech partner.
It wasn't. Within two days of that correspondence, Amazon
announced it was booting Parler from its cloud platform, joining
Alphabet Inc.'s Google and Apple Inc. in pulling the plug on the
service. Other vendors turned their backs, too: Twilio Inc. cut off
Parler's two-factor authentication system, preventing it from
weeding out fake new accounts, and Okta Inc. locked Parler out of
key enterprise software tools.
Parler had become a pariah for serving as a hub for people who
organized, participated in or celebrated the storming of the
Capitol that left five dead, as well as a forum for some who have
posted about future violent actions around the coming
In some Parler posts flagged by tech companies as examples of
inadequate moderation, users posted about "poisoning the water
supply" in minority neighborhoods and killing their alleged
Executives at Parler said posts inciting violence violate its
rules, although acknowledged they are aware such content was on the
platform and others in the run-up to the Capitol attack. Its team
of moderators -- mainly volunteers who receive training on what
content should be removed -- has been overwhelmed and often faced
large backlogs in handling offending posts as the service added
users by the thousands in recent months, they said.
Parler Chief Executive John Matze said the company had offered
to use algorithms to help moderators identify and weed out violent
content, tools employed by larger social networks that Parler
executives have previously resisted.
Parler is in a frenzied push to find new vendors to host its
services so that it can resume operations, a process executives
said could last at least a week. Backed by investors such as
Republican donor Rebekah Mercer, Parler has the resources to
restore service outside of Amazon and plenty of cash on hand, said
Mr. Matze. But he acknowledged that a sustained loss of service
could undermine the platform's future.
"We had regular conversations with them, and none of them gave
us any indications that there were deep problems in the
relationship," said Jeffrey Wernick, Parler's chief operating
The company's looser policies on content moderation have
attracted large groups of supporters of President Trump who use it
to push their claims that the 2020 election was stolen,
particularly as larger platforms like Twitter and Facebook have
cracked down on this kind of speech. The company says it has 15
Social-media companies of all stripes have struggled to strike
the right balance between free speech and content moderation.
Liberals have generally argued that the tech platforms should be
more aggressive in policing hate speech, while conservatives have
complained that Big Tech is biased against their point of view.
Parler's troubles show the power a small number of tech
companies have over online discourse. Moves made by platforms
including Twitter and Facebook to ban President Trump, citing rules
prohibiting content that incites violence, have the potential to
reshape their businesses.
Before Parler was shut down, users alerted followers to reach
them on other platforms, including those on Gab, or on messaging
apps such as Telegram. Monday morning, Parler's website,
parler.com, was down and users could no longer access news feeds or
make new posts.
Hours later, Parler filed its lawsuit, alleging it was kicked
off Amazon's cloud servers due to "political animus" and for
anticompetitive reasons. An Amazon spokesman said the lawsuit's
claims had no merit and that it respects Parler's right to
determine what content it will allow.
Amazon explained its decision to shut off services to Parler by
citing 98 instances of violent content on the platform that it said
violated its rules. Parler said it removed all 98 items, in some
instances before Amazon reported them.
Determining whether discourse on Parler or the platform's
moderation of it was fundamentally worse than on other forums is
"kind of an impossible question, empirically and philosophically,"
said Evelyn Douek, a Harvard Law School lecturer who studies
content moderation. While a case can be made for app stores and
other internet infrastructure providers taking action against
platforms that don't take moderation requirements seriously, Ms.
Douek said, the speed of tech companies' action against Parler
"If 98 is the threshold, has AWS looked at the rest of the
internet," she said. "Or at Amazon?"
Daniel J. Jones, president of nonprofit research group Advance
Democracy, said the organization found numerous Parler users
calling for violence on Jan. 6.
"Far-right extremists and conspiratorial groups, such as QAnon,
specifically flocked to Parler because of the lack of moderation
and guidelines," he said.
Parler relies on a volunteer community of jurors to moderate
content. After some experimentation with its initial rules, Parler
settled on generally allowing users to engage in any
constitutionally protected speech. There would be no fact-checking,
no restrictions on offensive language and no prohibition on gory or
adult content, so long as it was tagged "sensitive" by the creator,
executives said. Threats, spam and criminal activity weren't
allowed, they said.
The first big test of the system came in November, when
conservatives upset about the outcome of the presidential election
flocked to Parler, doubling the company's user base to more than 10
million within a few days. The new users brought a host of problems
such as spam and pornography, executives said, prompting complaints
from larger tech platforms. The volunteer jury system seemed to
work, they said.
To keep up, Parler tripled its volunteer moderator staff from
200 to 600 over the past two months and started paying them monthly
stipends. It also has been hiring full-time moderators in recent
The Journal viewed some comments flagged for review under
Parler's moderation system. The content included spam ads for Trump
commemorative coins, fake accounts and incitement to violence.
"Threatens to kill Pence," one user noted about a post. Another,
flagging a call to kill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter
CEO Jack Dorsey, said: "You can't allow this or we won't have a
Mr. Matze and other Parler executives noted that content calling
for the overthrow of the U.S. government remains on other
platforms. The Wall Street Journal has previously written about a
private Facebook group called "the 2020 Civil War," where users
discussed plans to march on the White House on Inauguration
Facebook said on Monday it was removing content from its
flagship platform and Instagram containing the phrase "stop the
steal" -- a reference to claims that Mr. Trump would have won the
2020 election if not for widespread election fraud.
On Saturday, "HangMikePence" was trending on Twitter, which
reflected chants from protesters at the Capitol who were
disappointed with the vice president's decision to proceed with
certifying election results. Twitter said Saturday evening that it
blocked the phrase and other similar ones from trending to promote
healthy discussions on the platform.
On Dec. 14, Amazon flagged four posts to Parler, saying the
content "clearly encourages or incites people to commit violence
against others, " which was a violation of its terms of service,
according to an email reviewed by the Journal. One of the posts
calling for violence was from Nov. 16. Another, from early
December, included comments such as: "My wishes for a racewar have
never been higher. I find myself thinking about killing n -- s and
jews more and more often."
Ms. Peikoff said Parler removed the content immediately and
believed Amazon was satisfied. One person familiar with Amazon's
thinking said that correspondence began a process of enforcement
that ended with Amazon cutting ties to the social network.
Parler executives said before the Capitol riot there was a
growing number of calls for violence on the platform, as well on
the rest of the internet.
Ms. Peikoff said she instructed moderators who had been hunting
for spam to also look for incitements of violence and report it to
law enforcement when appropriate. "I was concerned that there was
actually going to be some sort of violence on the 6th," she
The day of the riot, Parler was among the social-media networks,
including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, that Trump supporters
seeking to contest the election results used to organize the
protests and celebrate the attack, according to researchers and
analysts who study extremism and disinformation, as well as posts
reviewed by the Journal.
Unlike those services, Parler had actively courted users
disenchanted with the major platforms. Mr. Matze acknowledges that
Parler's moderators fell behind, given the surge of activity last
week Wednesday, by around 20,000 reports -- a roughly two-day
By the next day, advocates such as Sleeping Giants, a Twitter
account created to press advertisers to stop supporting what they
consider hate speech, and tech companies' employees were putting
pressure on Google, Apple, Amazon and others to sever ties with
In suspending Parler from the Play Store, Google said the
company needed to implement a robust moderation system to handle
Apple told Parler it received numerous complaints that the
platform had been used to organize the assault on the Capitol and
was being used to organize future violence. Its list of evidence
began with a link to Sleeping Giants' feed, which had screenshots
of posts from influencers such as pro-Trump lawyer L. Lin Wood
calling for firing squads to shoot Mr. Pence to an account with few
followers calling for people to bring their weapons to the nation's
capital on Jan 19.
Parler executives said in interviews Saturday that all the posts
flagged by Apple and most of these accounts had been taken down.
Mr. Wood told the Journal Sunday his post was meant as rhetorical
--Georgia Wells contributed to this article.
Write to Keach Hagey at firstname.lastname@example.org and Jeff Horwitz at
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 11, 2021 20:43 ET (01:43 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.