During Donald Trump’s presidency, the hardest-working journalists have been those who focus on fact-checking. Keeping up with a president who averaged almost 50 false or misleading statements a day during the final weeks of the 2020 campaign has been challenging.
But all lies are not the same. It’s one thing to lie about the size of a campaign rally and a different thing for the president to spread false information during a pandemic or undermine democracy with lies about a rigged election. That is why, back in June, Twitter started labeling Trump’s lies about mail-in ballots as misinformation. The president’s enablers’ response was to cry “censorship” and go in search of social media platforms that allowed the spread of disinformation without any warning labels.
Waiting in the wings was Parler, which had been built as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook in 2018 by John Matze and Jared Thompson. Financing for the venture came from Rebekah Mercer, who, along with her father, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, has been a major donor to conservative causes, including Breitbart News. In June, Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and author who made a name for himself trafficking in pro-Trump conspiracy theories, announced that he had taken an ownership stake in Parler, as has Jeffrey Wernick, bitcoin investor and advocate.
Following a spike in membership last June, Parler experienced a second wave of interest when Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election, and Twitter once again labeled the president’s obsessive tweets about voter fraud as misinformation. Almost immediately, the Parler app went from 200,000 downloads in October to 2 million on November 8th, according to Matze.
Some of Parler’s most active users include Fox News host Sean Hannity, radio personality and attorney Mark Levin, far-right activist Laura Loomer, Senator Ted Cruz, and Congressman Devin Nunes. Eric Trump and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign have accounts on the platform. According to an ADL report released Thursday, members of the Proud Boys, QAnoners, anti-government extremists, and white supremacists all openly promote their views on Parler. “Holocaust denial, antisemitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry are also easy to find,” the ADL said.
Describing himself as a devotee of libertarians like Thomas Sowell and Ayn Rand, Matze suggests that on his social media platform, “There are going to be no fact checkers. You’re not going to be told what to think and what to say. A police officer isn’t going to arrest you if you say the wrong opinion.” That statement gets to the heart of the issue by claiming that fact-checkers are policing opinions. Right-wing author Candace Owens, a Parler supporter, recently did the same thing during a rant she posted on YouTube announcing that she was suing Facebook over their fact-checkers decision to delete a post of hers that spread disinformation about coronavirus. She claimed that when the fact-checkers decide that they don’t want to hear your opinion, you’re censored.
The equation of facts and opinions is reminiscent of what Matthew Sheffield wrote about his exodus from right-wing news.
U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism. This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would somehow counteract perceived liberal bias…
I also discovered, as I rose through the right-wing media ranks, that most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side. I also saw so many people think that reporting of info negative to GOP politicians was biased, even if it was true.
Right-wing media’s goal is to deny the existence of facts and convince their readers/viewers that everything boils down to partisan differences. Therefore, when fact-checkers label something as false, Trump’s enablers assume it is an expression of liberal bias in an attempt to censor their opinions. Social media sites like Parler exist to allow disinformation to flow freely, protected within an epistemic bubble.
In that world, the truth is meaningless. As Peter Pomerantsev warned about Vladimir Putin’s propaganda efforts: “insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with the truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.” In this country, if nothing is true, the loser of a presidential election can claim that it was rigged and prevent a peaceful transition of power.
While we grapple with what that means for our democracy, one thing you can count on is the Washington Monthly. We will not be intimidated into ceding control of reality. Fact-checkers are always welcome on these pages as a means of determining what is true. While we share our opinions, we ground them in facts and are clear about the difference.
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