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Parler's return to Apple store poses new challenges

The Hill logo The Hill 5/17/2021 Rebecca Klar and Chris Mills Rodrigo
a screen shot of an open laptop computer sitting on top of a table: Parler's return to Apple store poses new challenges © Getty Images Parler's return to Apple store poses new challenges

Parler returned to the Apple App Store on Monday after getting kicked off more than four months ago in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The social media app popular with conservatives will look different on Apple devices now that the company has pledged to remove certain content labeled as "hate" that will still be available on other versions of the platform.

Parler, which presents itself as a free speech alternative to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, faces a battle on two fronts as it navigates a return to mainstream app marketplaces.

The platform risks losing its core set of conservative users as it toes the line with new content moderation policies, but those same policies have critics questioning whether the company will take a hard enough stance against hate speech.

"This current configuration is a half measure that really doesn't get at the root of the problem," said Carmen Scurato, senior policy counsel at Free Press Net. "Parler is this app that can be weaponized and manipulated."

Apple agreed to allow Parler back on its App Store last month after a review of changes made to the platform. The Silicon Valley giant did not respond to inquiries Monday about what changes Parler made to comply with app store policies.

Interim Parler CEO Mark Meckler suggested Monday that some content on Parler would be restricted in the iOS app but still available through the web and Android app.

With its new version for iPhones and iPads, Parler will use an artificial intelligence moderation system to filter posts labeled as "hate." Those posts won't be visible for users on the iOS devices. The update was first reported by The Washington Post, and confirmed by Parler.

"Parler has and will always be a place where people can engage in the free exchange of ideas in the full spirit of the First Amendment," Meckler said in a statement. "The entire Parler team has worked hard to address Apple's concerns without compromising our core mission."

But Parler is still looking to boost its image as pro-free speech and touting the update as just one option for its users while highlighting that the desktop version will not be impacted.

"With respect to legal content-including 'hate speech'-we believe the decision should be left to you, the individual user. So with the Web and Android versions of Parler, we place the tools in your hands, rather than deciding for you," Parler's chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff, said in a LinkedIn post. "If you would want to completely filter out this content anyway then our new iOS App might be perfect for you."

The company was kicked off numerous app marketplaces after the violent insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Apple determined at the time that Parler had not done enough to moderate content on the platform by users who were encouraging what became a deadly riot. The app was also blocked from Google's store and dropped from Amazon's web hosting service.


Video: Apple allows Parler back on App Store (FOX News)

Parler and conservative lawmakers have decried those removals, arguing they prove that Big Tech companies have an anti-conservative bias when it comes to content moderation, despite a lack of evidence to support those claims.

The platform has tried to thread the needle, telling lawmakers that it had alerted the FBI to some posts in the lead-up to Jan. 6.

But Parler may now find itself losing many of the users who made it popular in the first place. Competitors on the right are also seizing on the company's decision to make changes for Apple.

"Parler bent the knee and Big Tech has them under their thumb," CEO and founder of fringe social media platform Gab wrote in a blog post last month. He touted Gab's own ban from the major app stores as a "badge of honor."

Parler may be looking to assuage some of the concerns from users with Monday's announcement of new leadership at the company.

Prominent conservative George Farmer will be taking over as CEO, and he used his first statement to paint Parler's initial removal as Big Tech overreaching against conservatives.

"Parler began as a small, start-up company that differed from its Big Tech competitors in its commitment to the free market of ideas in the full spirit of the First Amendment," Farmer said.

"For the past two months I have worked with an incredible team of people, under the leadership of Mark Meckler, to bring Parler back online and return to Apple's App Store after we had been unfairly maligned by the media and its allies in Big Tech and Congress," he added.

But Parler's new approach to content moderation - and Apple's silence on it - is opening the door to further questions from liberal critics who pushed for Parler's removal even before the insurrection.

"I'm not entirely sure what Apple thinks it's solving for by this one measure," Scurato said, noting that the content that is removed from the App Store version would still be available for users to find through a desktop browser.

"It seems that if the content is so easily accessible through other means, that it just doesn't solve for the problem that we saw on Jan. 6," Scurato said.

Change the Terms, a coalition that includes Free Press Net, wrote to Apple in November urging it to remove Parler over violations of App Store policies as Parler surged in popularity after the presidential election.

Max Rizzuto, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, said the update announced on Monday is a "fairly large stride" in terms of content moderation but is a "confined effort."

"What it does do is it keeps harmful content out of the hands of some people, which is certainly a step in the right direction," he said.

But he also noted that moderating for harmful language "simplifies the issue" and doesn't account for how it spreads even on "well moderated" platforms.

"There are harmful agendas on all sorts of platforms that they can find by being extremely deliberate and how they share their messaging," Rizzuto said.

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