Just days ago, a Parler data dump resulted in 70 terabytes of posts, images, and videos being culled and posted publicly just before Amazon pulled the plug on the app’s hosting services. That effort, profiled in Vice, was led by a security researcher, who goes by the handle @donk_enby on Twitter. While the archived assets can be used to determine the GPS coordinates of rioters and synchronize with profiles and incendiary posts, that’s not even the most stunning insight to come from donk_enby.
One week prior to the dump, she also accessed screens and code reserved for Parler administrators and shared evidence of their paid influencer program.
“they have a flag to hide all of this functionality from regular users until they have proven themselves useful or naïve enough”- @donk_enby
Last week, Amazon and Twilio shuttered their doors to Parler while Google and Apple stripped them from their respective app stores. Parler supporters have cried foul, citing censorship of First Amendment “free speech,” which they believe applies even to private organizations. It doesn’t.
Though the debate on the street is focused on whether hate speech on platforms like Parler should be considered free speech, the influencer program unveiled by donk_enby begs another question: how much hate speech was actually paid speech? It’s possible that some users on Parler were compensated to influence and incite a social mob that stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on January 6.
Russian agents and paid shills
Earlier this year, John Matze, CEO of Parler, explained to Forbes that the company would earn revenue by matching advertisers with conservative influencers and then taking a commission the user might charge to “shill their products.” Or shill their rhetoric?
Influencers might be hiding in plain sight. One never really knows who’s behind an anonymous avatar. It could be a conservative, a troll, a paid influencer, or a Russian agent.
Last October, The Washington Post revealed that a Russian group accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. election was using an account on Parler, masquerading as a user named “Leo.” Leo’s account spread disinformation about mail-in voting, baseless fraud, and false claims about Joe Biden. When notified, Parler said that it “did not need to act” on the information.
In response, Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) charged that Parler was “built to provide a safe harbor for wild conspiracies, white supremacists, and vile hate speech. It’s of little surprise they would welcome the participation of foreigners cosplaying as Americans.”
Secret monetization features
Much was shrouded in secrecy on the platform, and it wasn’t just anonymous profiles. Most Parler users, for example, might not have even known of the influencer program. A programming function was revealed by @donk_enby that’s purpose was to toggle visibility of the monetization platform. She says in a tweet, “they have a flag to hide all of this functionality from regular users until they have proven themselves useful or naïve enough.”
Tips might be used to allow paid influencers to double-dip on their earnings. With one transaction, an organization might pay the user to post content. On the other end, Parler users reading the post might offer a tip, using a monetary Parler credit.
Unreported is how widespread the influencer program was on Parler. It is also unknown if users who were paid to publish content were required to include a disclaimer on their posts. But it would stand to reason that no sponsored messaging existed. After all, who would offer a tip on paid content? Getting users to pay for sponsored content is a business model I’ve never seen.
But users might tip for what appeared to be generic, organic messages. How many received a gratuity for coaxing storming of the Capitol?
Rudy Giuliani’s fees for the January 6 speech, when he called for “trial by combat” at the Capitol, amounted to about $2,222 per minute.
In a CNBC interview, Matze said the platform was like a town square for free speech. “People don’t want to be told what to think,” Matze said. “People want to address problems in society on their own.” But those comments fly in the face of an influencer model, developed to incentivize users with an extensive reach. What makes it more compelling is the laser-focused targeting capability on Parler. That’s because users had to upload a driver’s license or passport to verify their identity.
In the Forbes profile, Matze said that most of the conversation on Parler has leaned right-wing. According to him, the audience was almost entirely made up of Republican leaders and officials like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. Users also included the National Rifle Association, the Trump campaign, Eric Trump, Brad Parscale, and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani.
The concept of paid sponsorship is not uncommon, but it’s usually obvious, like Giuliani’s YouTube “rigged election” rants while hawking cigars and title insurance. And I sometimes still find it hard to believe that he was a true believer of Donald Trump’s baseless claims. Giuliani was the former Associate Attorney General and U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. One would have to reason that the man who took down the Five Families knows the difference between a credible legal argument and toilet paper.
But also consider that Giuliani’s fees to support the Trump cause are $20,000 per day, plus expenses. So it’s not hard to imagine that he might shill for a cause worth over one million dollars over the course of two months. And that per diem rate reveals that Giuliani’s fees for the January 6 speech, when he called for “trial by combat” at the Capitol, amounted to about $2,222 per minute. Although Trump put a freeze on payments to Giuliani and “demanded that he personally approve” expenses incurred while challenging election results.
Pay to hate?
No doubt there were “true believers” on Parler, while many others were impressionable. And this does not suggest that hate speech absent of cause or context is better or worse than outright vile hatred. But one has to wonder which influencers were salivating over engagement metrics with each incendiary post. How many were grifters aiming to manipulate with hateful speech just for the coin?
Dan Bongino, Fox News contributor and investor of Parler, says the site will be operational by the end of the week. As of today, it is still down.
If it does come back online, it remains to be seen if users will return to the service after being exposed by the ineptitude of the site’s programmers, who made it absurdly easy for people like donk_enby to gather the trove of data that will likely be used by law enforcement to identify people who participated in the D.C. riot. Amateur internet detectives are already scrubbing the data to identify suspected Capitol rioters’ locations using GPS data embedded in images.
And the influencer program casts additional doubt. Will users flock to the site if they feel they’ve been manipulated by people who profited by duping them with paid rhetoric inciting them to “storm the Capitol” masquerading as free speech?
Time will tell. Bongino says he “will go bankrupt and destitute” before he lets Parler die.
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