Parler Media swears it's changed. But can the app escape its problematic past?

The Parler app made headlines in 2021 for its alleged role in helping organize the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Illustrative image of human hand with mobile device showing logo for the social media platform Parler with American flag visible in background.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

As state governments try to restrict children’s access to social media and various courts debate what free speech looks like in the digital era, one social media platform is attempting its second rebrand. The Parler app, which was shut down in April 2023 after being sold to new ownership, has had a rocky history since launching in 2018. Before its shutdown, the app was initially banned from app stores in 2021 for its alleged role in helping organize the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Now, ahead of the 2024 election, the Parler app, which was sold again at the end of 2023, has been reinstated on Apple’s App Store as part of an invite-only rollout. Though it is not yet available to the general public, the timing of the app’s attempted rebrand raises questions for some extremism experts.

Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, spoke to Yahoo News about whether Parler can separate itself from its past now that it’s attempting to rebrand itself. Lewis said he doesn’t see a future in which Parler’s reputation won't precede it, likely making it difficult for the app to attract a new user base.

“My liberal Facebook parents are not dying to get onto Parler when they see it's available in the App Store again,” Lewis said. “[Parler’s] core membership will still remain the people who think that there will be election interference and an election will be stolen this year.”

Parler has always marketed itself as a social media platform that stands out from mainstream alternatives like X and Facebook, especially when it comes to content moderation — or lack thereof. But Parler’s content policies, which are what drew audiences in the first place, were ultimately its undoing after it was allegedly used to plan the storming of the Capitol. With this new rebrand, can the app escape its problematic past?

“Parler’s goal is to provide a platform where users can freely express themselves without fear of censorship or discrimination,” a Parler spokesperson told Yahoo News. “Parler 3.0 is focused on fostering constructive conversations and positive engagement among users.”

The Parler spokesperson did not give Yahoo News an exact date for when the app will be available to the public. The app is not back on the Google Play storefront yet. Neither Apple nor Google responded to Yahoo News’ request for comment.

Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the goal of launching Parler in 2018?

Parler was first launched in 2018 and promoted as a “free speech” social media platform where posts wouldn’t be moderated. Its promise of zero moderation attracted users who had been banned from other platforms, such as X, formerly known as Twitter, and Facebook.

Conservative figureheads such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul promoted Parler as “a platform [that] gets what free speech is all about.”

Rebekah Mercer, an early investor in the app and daughter of hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who was a major donor to former President Donald Trump and Breitbart News, said she joined original Parler CEO John Matze in his mission to “provide a neutral platform for free speech” away from “the ever-increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords.”

The app exploded in popularity in 2019 and 2020 as Republicans accused social media platforms like Facebook of “disproportionately suppress[ing] and censor[ing] conservative views online.”

A Wall Street Journal article reported that Parler’s user base had more than doubled to 10 million users in less than a week in 2020. Allegedly, one supportive tweet from conservative activist Candace Owens single-handedly encouraged 40,000 new users to sign up.

Why did Parler originally get banned from app stores?

In January 2021, days after the Capitol insurrection and after President Donald Trump was banned from multiple social media platforms, Parler was reportedly the most downloaded app from Apple’s App Store in the U.S.

On Jan. 9, 2021, Amazon, which hosted Parler on its Amazon Web Services, told the app it would be suspending services after receiving reports of a “steady increase in this violent content” across the platform.

Amazon was referring to the allegations that Parler had been used to help coordinate the insurrection at the Capitol building. In the wake of the attack, the app was now overrun with death threats, celebrations of violence and other posts that encouraged “patriots” to bring weapons to Washington, D.C. the day before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

CNN reported at the time that the app was dominated by “accounts with swastikas as their profile pictures and disgusting racist posts.” ProPublica found more than 500 videos that were uploaded to Parler during the attack, some even from inside the Capitol building.

While the second iteration of the Parler app was reinstated on the Google Play app store and Apple’s App Store in September 2022, the app has been offline since April 2023, after it was purchased from the original owners by the marketing firm Starboard for an undisclosed amount. Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, was also in talks to buy the company in late 2022.

Despite its similarities to Truth Social — Trump’s answer to being banned from Facebook and X following Jan. 6 — Starboard shut down Parler after buying it, with one representative saying, “No reasonable person believes that a Twitter clone just for conservatives is a viable business anymore.”

Instead, Starboard said it would leverage Parler’s assets, like its user base, to help its other existing businesses.

How will things be different this time around?

Today, the Parler app is owned by former Parler executive Elise Pierotti as well as Ryan Rhodes and Jaco Booyens, who bought the app for an undisclosed sum in December.

While the goal is to “uphold its values of free speech and open dialogue,” a Parler spokesperson told Yahoo News that there will now be “measures for reasonable content moderation and community guidelines to prevent misuse of the platform.”

“Certain types of content are strictly prohibited on our platform, including illegal activity, violence, harassment and threats,” the spokesperson told Yahoo News. “Any violations of these guidelines will be promptly addressed through appropriate moderation measures.”

Pierotti told NBC News in December that Parler would have its own servers in the U.S. to avoid relying on Amazon Web Services again.

Pierotti also noted that X, now owned by Elon Musk, is still available in app stores despite that platform’s own loosening of speech rules and moderation. In November 2023, multiple advertisers expressed concern over their ads appearing next to pro-Nazi content and hate speech on X.

“I’m one of the people who believe that hate speech is different for different people,” Pierotti told NBC. “I’m not an arbiter of truth.”

In response to Pierotti’s statement to NBC, Lewis, the extremism expert, told Yahoo News, “This right-wing ecosystem has no idea what free speech actually means.”

“They think that free speech means they have an unfettered, unmitigated right to post whatever they want on any platform and they cannot suffer consequences from it because we have the First Amendment,” Lewis said. “None of these platforms have any obligation to allow their spaces to be used to threaten, to dehumanize, to spread conspiracies. Many of them still are because most of these platforms either don’t care or want to do the bare minimum.”

Is there a place for Parler in the current social media landscape?

“Certainly the big question from my perspective is, do you even need Parler when you have X now?” Lewis asked. “I think the complete collapse of Twitter as a moderated social media platform has certainly allowed it to scoop up most of the disaffected, disenchanted Parler members who were looking for a new cesspool in which to swim.”

Lewis argues that the circumstances under which Parler was able to become popular in 2020 have changed dramatically.

“[Parler] is certainly going to try and return to this kind of former glory,” Lewis explained, elaborating that the “former glory” is about being the go-to platform for right-wing-leaning conspiracy theorists. “[But] today, [conspiracy theorists] see Twitter as the easiest and most mainstream place that will get them the most eyes and most reach.”

There’s also 4chan, an anonymous message board platform with an infamous “politically incorrect” section that counts Tucker Carlson as a fan, as well as former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social.

How the public holds social media platforms accountable has changed since 2020, too. On March 19, a New York judge made the historic decision that families of victims of the 2022 Buffalo, N.Y., mass shooting should be allowed to prove how social media sites can be held responsible.

The Parler representative told Yahoo News it has “a number of new features” that will be rolled out to “differentiate us from other platforms in the coming year.” If and how the new Parler plans to prevent its users from promoting hateful or violent content, however, remains to be seen.