There’s an odd aspect to the announcement on Monday that Ye, the musician born Kanye West, plans to buy the social media platform Parler. It’s not just that the company’s current CEO is the husband of conservative commentator Candace Owens, a longtime friend of Ye’s. But the announcement was framed in a way that reveals an awful lot about why the political right is chafing at existing social media platforms.
The announcement includes a quote from Ye: “In a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves.” That’s followed by commentary from the company, arguing that the purchase “will assure Parler a future role in creating an uncancelable ecosystem where all voices are welcome.”
Ye wasn’t canceled by Instagram or Twitter, mind you. He simply shared explicitly antisemitic comments that the platforms decided to remove in keeping with their policies about hate speech. Owens tried to defend Ye’s original post about going “death con 3″ on “JEWISH PEOPLE” by suggesting, among other things, that the apparent reference to Defcon indicated Ye was going on defense, not offense. The days since have made clear that Ye wants to be seen as actively battling against perceived Jewish agents of control — a centuries-old staple of antisemitic rhetoric.
But he and Parler frame this as “conservative opinion” and simply a “voice” that should be made welcome. And that gets at the heart of the push in recent years to cast mainstream platforms as biased against the right: Restrictions on misinformation and hate speech are opportunistically conflated with “conservative speech” — by the right itself.
There was a time when Twitter, Facebook and other technology companies didn’t do much to police the content on their platforms. That came to a head in 2016, overlapping with the highly contentious presidential election. Donald Trump deployed social media in a far different way than had politicians in the past, using it as a tool for punishing his opponents and exciting his base. He helped an undercurrent of hate and aggression became mainstream on social media; he elevated racist, antisemitic and explicitly false content.
At the same time, Russia was trying to stir up political tensions in the United States using both paid ads on the networks and sock-puppet accounts. The effects were likely minor, but the effort highlighted how weak the control mechanisms were on Twitter’s and Facebook’s content.
In the years that followed, those platforms and others (such as YouTube, owned by Google, and Instagram, owned by Facebook parent Meta) created policies aimed at reducing toxicity and misinformation. Twitter, for example, implemented a system in which people who had been repeatedly muted or blocked by other users were less visible on the platform in an effort to reduce abuse. The companies began bolstering their content policies and enforcing them.
And then people started to notice. Right-wing users who had been subjected to Twitter’s restrictions began suggesting it was not because of their behavior but because of their beliefs — just as Ye argued in that Parler announcement. An idea that conservatives were being “shadow banned” took root, amplified by prominent allies of then-President Trump’s. Donald Trump Jr., for example, leaned into the idea that he was being unfairly targeted, both because his posts (like one comparing migrants to zoo animals) were removed and because he didn’t always know how the platforms worked. Always attuned to the utility of grievances within his base, the president elevated the idea, even inviting right-wing social media users to the White House for a “summit.”
“Never before have so many online journalist and influencers and that is exactly what you are, you are journalists and you are influencers come together in this building to discuss the future of social media,” he told them. “Each of you is fulfilling a vital role in our nation. You are challenging the media gatekeepers in the corporate sensors to bring the facts straight to the American people and that is what you are doing.”
That framing is appealing, certainly, but it’s hard to defend in the context of the voices facing repercussions. While there’s no question there are times when social media platforms are overly aggressive in policing content, there’s also no question there are times when it is less aggressive than might be warranted. Sometimes the content being hidden or removed is content that violates standards that conservatives consider unfair or overly political, like “deadnaming” trans people. Often, though, it’s for more traditional hateful behavior: threats, racism, antisemitism, other abuse. For those muffled for the latter reasons, it’s appealing to pretend it’s for the former one.
Over time, Trump and his allies cast social media companies in increasingly broad terms, recognizing them as a useful foil, an emblem of how the Liberal Elites wanted to silence Real Americans. The 2020 election only heightened his effort, both from the decision of Facebook and Twitter to reduce sharing of a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop — a reaction to concerns about Russian influence in 2016 — and because platforms were increasingly aggressive in labeling or hiding Trump’s rhetoric. After the election, Trump’s feeds were a ceaseless parade of falsehoods about fraud. And then the U.S. Capitol riot happened, and that was that.
At Trump’s social media summit, he presented examples of political speech being restricted on Twitter. Those examples, though, centered not on censorship but on monetization. Twitter was blocking ads that violated its terms of service, but still allowing the content to be shared on the site.
Which brings us to Alex Jones. Last week, a jury determined that the right-wing radio host should pay nearly $1 billion to the families of children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Jones had repeatedly insisted the mass shooting was a false flag, using his claims to bolster his audience and, in turn, sell them stuff. This was on top of a range of other bizarre and obviously false claims Jones made about politics and culture over the years, part of his strategy of building a business on top of heightening people’s fears and conspiratorial thinking.
The Jones verdict was hailed as a victory for accountability in many circles; this was a guy who lied about dead kids to make money, after all. But in some circles on the right, he was presented as a victim, as a conservative voice being targeted for his politics.
“In a polarized nation, angry voters are willing to believe almost anything about their political opponents,” David French wrote in the Atlantic in response to the backlash. “They’re hungry for ‘news’ that reinforces their convictions that their political enemies aren’t just wrong; they’re evil. The fabrication-industrial complex is lucrative.”
Lucrative in political terms, certainly; Trump has built a robust mechanism for turning lies into power. But French obviously also means financially lucrative, which it has been.
Jones, for example, was booted from those platforms several years ago, but his audience had been built, and he already had other vehicles for sharing his content. So he still had an audience to which he could sell useless nutritional supplements and survival gear, as Zeynep Tufekci wrote for the New York Times. And that’s a core challenge: How do you make it unprofitable to be relentlessly dishonest? How do you prevent what journalist Charlie Warzel describes as “walled off, subscription/store-driven ecosystems where they can lie and monetize it all with impunity”?
Here, too, the prospective value is not only in money but in power and attention. Truth Social exists in part as a moneymaking venture (see recent stories about jockeying for shares) but primarily as a walled-off ecosystem for Trump’s false political claims. Ye wants Parler as a place where he can keep agitating about Jewish people because he apparently sees value in the attention that generates. They, like Jones, want to sell something to people and don’t want anyone intervening to tell them its dangerous or irresponsible or unacceptable. It’s not clear that much of an audience will follow, but the impulse seems obvious.
Because nothing motivates as effectively as partisanship, when content is constrained by platforms — including antisemitic content or lies about the election or threats or abuse — it is cast not as a response to behavior but as a response to ideology. With the effect that it’s Trump and Ye and their allies who are using the word “conservative” to describe going “death con 3 on Jewish people” or elevating false claims about who won the presidential election.
Now they’re building their own communities to be able to say those things to their hearts’ content. Just like Alex Jones.