Parler created a platform for conservatives by burning the Silicon Valley script. Inside the rapid, mysterious rise of the 'free speech' Twitter alternative.

  • Parler burst from obscurity this fall as conservatives fled mainstream social-media platforms in search of a free-speech oasis away from misinformation moderation on Facebook and Twitter. 
  • Parler, founded in 2018, is bankrolled by Rebekah Mercer, conservative commentator Dan Bongino, and the company's chief operating officer, Jeffrey Wernick. 
  • Wernick told Business Insider in an interview that Parler is not a right-wing platform. But a close look at the company's early days reveals connections to prominent conservatives.
  • As conservatives and extremists alike flood Parler with content, experts say the platform could pose a disinformation threat.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

If you want to know how many people work at Parler, the social network dedicated to free speech that's currently enjoying a surge in popularity, don't ask the company's chief operating officer.

Jeffrey Wernick, who is also an investor in the company, told Insider he didn't really know how many people the company employs, but guessed it was around 30 based on a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, which used aggregated LinkedIn data to make its estimate. 

"The exact head count, I don't know," Parler's COO insisted in a lengthy, and at times testy, phone conversation with Business Insider on Tuesday. Wernick opened the call by shouting a litany of recriminations: He was upset by reporters' efforts to learn more about Parler, and in particular, about its connection to the right wing of American politics. 

"You people at Business Insider are the worst," Wernick yelled. 

Wernick, who said he invested in Parler because of its free-speech mission, was frustrated that his company was being painted as a right-wing platform by media outlets, including Business Insider, which has reported on Parler's popularity with conservatives and extremists alike. "We're not a right-wing conservative site," he said. "We're a public square." 

Lately, that square has been crowded. Downloads of the Parler app have doubled in the last few weeks, with more than 3 million new downloads since Election Day, and on November 8, Parler claimed the top spot on Apple's App Store charts. Luminaries of the of the right-wing firmament, including Fox News' Sean Hannity and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, have urged their followers to escape the censorship of traditional platforms like Facebook and Twitter and to join them in the free speech utopia of Parler.

A hodgepodge of extremists and social media pariahs, including the far-right militant group Proud Boys, white supremacists, and believers in the QAnon conspiracy theories, have also found safe harbor on Parler.

Parler's founding principles of "constitutional free speech" mean it doesn't have to wrestle with the thorny issues of content moderation that have plagued the mainstream social networks. But as the company has discovered in recent weeks, its newfound popularity means it's not immune from some of the other problems and scrutiny that its larger rivals face. The influx of new users has strained the app's technical capabilities, leading to some outages and performance woes. More importantly, questions about the app's murky origins and financial backers have put the company on defense and no longer fully in control of setting its own agenda.

Until recently, said Wernick, "many people just didn't even know we existed."

Now, following a report that Parler was secretly bankrolled by conservative donor Rebekah Mercer, the story of how a startup with no Silicon Valley pedigree emerged as a fast-growing alternative to the internet giants has become a top question in the country's culture wars. Despite Wernick's assertions that Parler is not a home for the right wing, a close look at the company's early days shows numerous seminal connections to prominent conservatives.

A social network that came out of nowhere

Parler was founded in January 2018. At least that's what can be inferred from the LinkedIn profiles of the two founders, John Matze and Jared Thomson.

Neither founder responded to multiple requests for comment from Business Insider, but their profiles show several points of overlap that trace the path to Parler. The pair attended the University of Denver together, earning degrees in computer science, between 2011 and 2014. Both were members of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity and later worked at a small, North Carolina "virtual healthcare" startup called CarePics until 2018, when they founded Parler.

Matze's only experience with Big Tech was a three-month stint at Amazon Web Services in 2017. "Wrong location, Seattle," his LinkedIn profile says by way of explanation.

For a platform devoted to free speech and "ethical, transparent corporate policy," Parler divulges very little about itself. The company's website does not have the standard "Team" section listing its management, employees, or investors. And, in contrast to the rosy "origin stories" promoted by many startups, Parler says almost nothing about when, how or why it began, other than noting that the company is based in Henderson, Nevada.

Cached versions of the Parler website from mid-2018 are more revealing. Parler's beginnings were very much a family affair, with three members of the Matze family on staff in July 2018, according to an archived version of the site: John, the founder, and Ryan and Matthew Matze, both listed as "senior developers."

"Parler, pronounced [par-lay], is a French verb that means 'to speak'," reads a short mission statement on the 2018 site. "After being exhausted with a lack of transparency in big tech, ideological censorship and privacy abuse, our co-founders John Matze and Jared Thomson decided to create an alternative solution."

In addition to being a social news platform where "everyone can be their own media outlet and filter their own content," Parler said it also offered "enterprise tools" for blogs and websites to integrate social media features. 

Parler's first taste of public exposure came in December 2018, when Candace Owens, a right-wing commentator known for spreading right-wing misinformation related to COVID-19 and counting the Trump family among her fans, tweeted that she had joined the platform, calling it an "underground-railroad, word-of-mouth movement" for conservatives. 

The impact of Owens' tweet was immediate. Around 40,000 new users joined the site that day, causing Parler's servers to malfunction, Matze told Politico in 2019. 

That same week, right-wing figures who would become Parler's biggest stars joined the platform: Dan Bongino; Tucker Carlson; Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk; then-Trump 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale; and far-right activists Cassandra Fairbanks, Laura Loomer, Jack Posobiec, and Milo Yiannopoulos. Fairbanks, Yiannopoulos, and Posobiec are known for their ties to the white nationalism and alt-right extremist movements.

It was the first of several waves of new users that culminated with the app's post-election boom this month.

Bongino, the controversial and wildly popular host of the conservative talk show "Bongino Report," invested in Parler this summer, according to Wernick, the Parler COO. Wernick would not say how much Bongino invested, or how much he invested himself. A longtime advocate of cryptocurrencies, Wernick started working at Parler towards the end of 2019. Although he said that all of Parler's public relations efforts report to him, Wernick said he could not comment on anything about the company that preceded his arrival.

Early connections to an activist and an heiress

Before Bongino's investment, Parler had already caught the eye of another deep-pocketed conservative bigwig. Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, funded Parler at its inception. After the Wall Street Journal revealed Mercer's ties to Parler this month, Mercer published a post saying that she and Matze had "started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended." 

The Mercer family was one of the more prominent financiers behind Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. Robert and Rebekah Mercer were also key investors, along with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, of Cambridge Analytica, the data firm that vaulted Facebook into a massive controversy for mining users' highly personal information and using that data to target political ads.

"The ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords demands that someone lead the fight against data mining, and for the protection of free speech online," Mercer said in the post on Parler. "That someone is Parler, a beacon to all who value their liberty, free speech and personal privacy."

It's unclear how much money Mercer has invested in Parler, and the Mercer family did not respond to a request for comment. The hedge fund heiress, along with Bongino and Wernick, are the only three publicly known investors in the company. 

Another early supporter of the site was Laura Loomer, a far-right activist and former journalist for right-wing outlets who has been barred from most mainstream social-media platforms after violating hate speech guidelines. Loomer told Business Insider in an interview that she had personally been in touch with Matze as early as 2018. The Parler cofounder "was very supportive when I was banned everywhere because he believes in free speech," she said.

"Parler really gave me a voice," said Loomer, who has 748,000 followers on Parler. During Loomer's unsuccessful run for a Florida congressional seat in 2020, Parler was the only social media app she was able to use. 

Wernick said he could not comment on the company's relationship to conservatives who joined the platform in its early days, but said that he sees "diversity" in the platform's user base. 

In a June interview with CNBC, Matze said the company had actually offered a "progressive bounty" of $20,000 for liberal pundits to join the platform. "The whole company was never intended to be a pro-Trump thing," Matze told CNBC. "A lot of the audience is pro-Trump. I don't care. I'm not judging them either way."

'We're not a Twitter clone'

In June 2019, Parler enjoyed another growth burst when roughly 200,000 Saudi Arabian users joined after saying their pro-Saudi government tweets were censored by Twitter, Reuters reported at the time. Parler welcomed its new users, inviting them to join the company in the "fight for our rights together."

For most of Parler's short history however, many the biggest jumps in new users have come in the wake of platforms moderating Trump's content. At the end of May, Trump shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that appeared to threaten the "shooting" of Black Lives Matter protesters in Minneapolis, writing, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts." That day, Parler's user growth peaked at nearly 170,000 new downloads, according to Apptopia data.

For outspoken conservative figures, the attraction is obvious — Parler does not believe that social media platforms should moderate free speech. "We're not a Twitter clone," Wernick told Business Insider. "We're trying to engage in another way of intermediating trust on the internet." 

Wernick added that he does not believe Twitter and Facebook can even be considered social-media platforms anymore, given their enforcement of content moderation, and stressed that it's not Parler's responsibility to be an arbiter of truth. Wernick pointed to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects publishers like social-media companies from being liable for content posted by users. 

Still, Parler is not a complete free-for-all. The site has standard community guidelines that prohibit spam, terrorist organizations "officially recognized by the United States," unsolicited advertisements, defamation, blackmail, obscenity, and threats of harm, among other things.

"Our position as a company is to take the concept of constitutionally free speech seriously and be very clear about what is and is not allowed," reads a June 2018 blog post by Parler VP of Business Development Robertson Williams, in a cached version of the post found by Business Insider. 

"Our believe is that through free dialogue people of differing opinions we may attempt to understand positions on both sides of any argument," continued Williams, who no longer works at Parler according to LinkedIn (He now works at CarePics, where he had previously worked alongside founders Matze and Henderson). Strictly off-limits, Williams wrote in the post, was content deemed "obscene" according the definition of the US Federal Communications Commission.

Within these parameters, Parler has found an eager audience. 

Believers in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which alleges Trump is fighting a deep state cabal of pedophiles, have found a new home on Parler after clampdowns on Facebook. The FBI warned in a 2019 memo that the QAnon conspiracy theory could become a domestic terrorism threat, but the US Department of State does not consider QAnon a terrorist organization.

Parler's biggest boom came earlier this month, when Facebook and Twitter began moderating false claims about the presidential election. As Trump and his allies refused to accept President-elect Joe Biden's win, both platforms began labeling claims as false, disputed, or otherwise misleading. Conservatives, claiming that the moderation was "censorship," announced they were joining Parler. 

Facebook users who joined together with the rallying cry of "Stop the Steal," falsely accusing Democrats of having stolen the election, moved their organizing to Parler when Facebook banned groups that drew in hundreds of thousands.

Parler's growth has come along with the growth of other alternative "free speech" platforms like Gab and MeWe, but Parler has outpaced both sites in terms of site visits and app downloads, according to data analyzed by SimilarWeb for Business Insider. Parler's average daily visits first increased by more than 640% from May to June of this year, and then increased by another 461% from October to November, SimilarWeb found. Altogether the app is believed to have somewhere between 8 million and 10 million users. 

The Trump campaign joined Parler back in December 2018, though the president himself only joined last week. Trump in particular is not active on Parler and Twitter remains his favorite platform. 

Is Parler just another disinformation echo chamber?

While Parler is still tiny compared to platforms like Twitter (187 million daily users) and Facebook (1.82 billion daily users), the content on Parler is "usually more radical" than that of a mainstream platforms, said Jonas Kaiser, a faculty associate researching misinformation at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and an assistant professor at Suffolk University.

Without any moderation and fact-checking tools, Parler could become an echo chamber of disinformation, experts have warned. The ADL said in a November 12 report that mainstream conservative social-media users pivoting to Parler alongside these extremists creates "the potential for extensive and worrying commingling of extremists and non-extremists," which can lead to radicalization. 

There are non-extreme conservative politicians on Parler too, such as former Trump official Richard Grenell. "That lends some legitimacy to that platform that the more extreme platforms like Gab lack often," Kaiser said. 

That legitimacy is already being criticized by radical extremists. In October, white nationalist Michael "Enoch" Peinovich, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls "one of the most recognizable white nationalist voices," wrote in a public Telegram chat viewed by Insider that Parler "seems like an echo chamber for 'respectable' conservatives."

Parler's lack of data targeting also could help mitigate the potency of its most problematic content, since the platform says it does not use algorithms that can create the kinds of virality and dangerous feedback loops prevalent on Facebook and Twitter. 

When tracking radicalization, there are "several parts to a person's story," said Kaiser, pointing to a person's inherent interest and predisposition to extremist content. A person can be radicalized by social media when they find content that matches their interests, and a group of "like-minded people" to talk with.

"That can happen on Parler, that can happen on Telegram, that can happen on Discord," Kaiser said, "or that can happen on Facebook."

At Parler, the priority is to keep up with the user growth. Parler lists 14 job openings at the company, mostly for developers and web engineers. Wernick said he's encouraging Matze to hire "as many good people as he can find."

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