As horrifying as last Wednesday’s terrorist attack at the U.S. Capitol was, anyone who was tracking far-right social media platforms like Parler, 8kun, and TheDonald.Win could tell weeks in advance that these groups were calling for violence to stop the U.S. government’s transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden.
Today, we’re taking a disturbingly close look at the violent rhetoric that was openly available on Parler. No one can say that the warnings weren’t there, and no one can say this attack “came out of nowhere”.
WARNING: In light of outgoing President Donald Trump’s and his allies’ coup attempts, we’re once again tackling some very violent subject matters, and there will be some adult language below. Reader discretion is advised.
As we explained multiple times last week, last Wednesday’s attack on the U.S. Capitol absolutely did not “come out of nowhere”. Outgoing President Donald Trump has been attempting a coup d’etat since losing the election last November, and he had already begun to tear down the “norms and traditions of American democracy” before the 2020 election. And even before Trump, far-right “shitposters” had already been signaling their desire to attempt violent “revolution” by whatever means they deem acceptable.
Contrary to how this may sound sometimes, I hate being right about this. I hate that I’ve had to warn you on this very site about terrorism and coup attempts that our federal law enforcement agencies should have been doing more to confront and prevent long before last week. I hate that far too many warning signs had materialized, yet far too many of our elected “leaders” failed to lead.
No matter how much those elected officials and law enforcement “leaders” try to convince you otherwise, this did not “come out of nowhere”. Rather, we find an extensive digital “paper trail” across multiple far-right internet hubs that made it incredibly clear what was going to happen once Donald Trump encouraged these people to come to Washington, D.C., on January 6, even going as far as tweeting on December 19, 2020, “Be there, will be wild!”
Here’s where Parler enters the chat.
As everyone who regularly reads our “This Week in Corona Scams” series knows, I often scour through the wildest shit all over the internet in order to give you advance warning of “corona scams” before they burst into the mainstream. Yet even before COVID-19 hit, I was already getting into the habit of venturing down online “rabbit holes” to uncover formerly “fringe” conspiracy cults like QAnon that gradually gained more mainstream support and “red-pilled” more Americans into supporting violent extremism.
After this last election, I noticed the exodus of some Trump supporters from more mainstream social media platforms onto Parler. Fueled by endorsements from far-right celebrities like Ivanka Trump and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), and by what we “in the biz” call “earned media” of the telegenic Parler CEO John Matze waxing poetic about “free speech”, the Henderson (yes, Nevada) based Parler quickly gained new users who were promised “unbiased social media”, even as Parler utilized Amazon, Google, and Microsoft services (more on this later).
Initially, even I mistakenly believed Parler was mostly an army of “keyboard commandos” who were more dedicated to “shitposting” than those in the seemingly more extreme far-right internet hubs like 8kun and Gab. But as I dug deeper into the Parler-verse, it became more disturbingly clear that rather than Parler merely serving as a “gateway drug” to more severely extremist outlets, Parler delivered 8kun/Gab-style extremism to a much larger critical mass of Trump devotees.
Here are some real examples of the kind of “town square” that Parler runs.
On its website, Parler describes itself as “the world’s town square”. Yet unlike the Town Square near my house and Parler’s headquarters where people go to shop for stuff and pick up a very special date night dinner, Parler’s “town square” has been one where extremists openly boasted of doxxing, other forms of harassment, and plans to commit violent crimes.
Just after Apple and Google began to restrict access to Parler on their respective app stores, and just before Amazon suspended Parler from using its hosting service, I embarked on one more Parler lurking binge to not only see the “town square” for myself, but also to show you how low that “town square” goes: Calls for the execution of outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, calls for the execution of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and additional Democrats, calls to abduct Stacey Abrams, calls for Mad Max style warfare, false conspiracy theories about Trump’s (lame excuse for a) concession speech, false conspiracy theories about shadowy foreign agents importing “communism” to America, and false conspiracy theories surrounding the Capitol invading terrorists like the QAnon “Shaman”.
As I perused Parler, what frightened me the most was the page of one of the terrorists who died during the invasion. As you can see in the screenshot above, he made no attempt to hide his goals for the day of the Capitol invasion.
Don’t be fooled by the flowery “free speech” language. This is what actually happened at Parler’s online “town square”.
If you want more examples of the kinds of conversations that occurred in Parler’s “town square”, places like the Parler Watch and Insane Parler Reddit subs provide plenty of terrifying snapshots of what John Matze doesn’t like to talk about when he does TV interviews. Before January 6, there were ample posts throughout Parler encouraging violence. After the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, Parler continued to serve as an open forum to “discuss” violence. Following Amazon’s decision to cut off Parler, someone threatened to bomb Amazon data centers.
Just because Parler went down last night does not mean the threat has subsided. Rather, just as I had previously suspected, Parler users have gravitated to Gab, Telegram, TheDonald.Win, GreatAwakening.Win, and other extremist sites.
These people are angry at the Democrats. They're angry at the GOP for not suspending democracy. They hate the media, and many consider police to be the enemy even as they fly the "blue lives" flag instead of the Stars and Stripes. pic.twitter.com/30rHiBnv3s
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) December 21, 2020
None of this was unpredictable.
The people who should’ve know better were either profiting off the buildup to this crisis, lost in mythologies of American exceptionalism and unwarranted confidence in our institutions, or both.
It’s time to wake up.
— Jared Yates Sexton (@JYSexton) January 11, 2021
Typically, I’ve considered myself a near “free speech absolutist”. But as we can see above, this is far beyond “free speech”. These are calls to violence, and in the Supreme Court’s Brandenburg v. Ohio 1969 decision expanding free speech protections, most Justices warned that law enforcement authorities can still act on “speech” that’s “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” There is no Constitutional right for someone to mandate that Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, or any other private company amplify one’s call to violence.
Parler may be down, but threats remain up and running throughout the “web of hate” that was already recruiting people before Parler began to go mainstream last year. There’s likely no need to tear down any laws (such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) that actually safeguard free speech rights on the internet. Instead, law enforcement agencies and Congressional leaders can simply see these threats for themselves on the open internet and take action to protect themselves, their constituents, and our American democracy before it’s too late.