Why law enforcement shouldn’t be tempted by Parler (or any other echo chamber)
'Pro-police' forums may make us feel good, but they don’t serve the purpose of policing
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Power of video | Dangers of Parler | BWCs & memory, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions.
As frustration with social media discourse continues to grow, many people are announcing that they have found a new online home; a tech utopia where speech is as free as freedom gets, and you can say whatever you want without fear of being censored or canceled.
In recent weeks, Parler has become known as an alternative to existing social media channels, after many conservative and right-leaning commentators announced they are leaving Twitter and Facebook, citing censorship from the social media giants as the reason for the departure.
The mass exodus definitely had an impact. The Parler app soared to the top of the download charts, and its membership sky-rocketed from about 4.5 million to 10 million in the course of a week.
What is Parler?
Launched in 2018, Parler is a social media app created by University of Denver graduates Rebekah Matze and Jared Thomson reports CNET.
Parler works in a similar way to Twitter. Users follow accounts and content appears in a feed. Posts can be up to 1,000 characters and users can upload photos, GIFs and memes.
The app’s “echo" feature – which uses a megaphone icon – enables users to share information like Twitter’s retweet functionality.
"John and I started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended, and also to create a social media environment that would protect data privacy," Mercer said in a statement on the platform.
Why are social media users choosing Parler?
The criticism of social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, isn’t unjustified.
Over the last few months, especially leading up to the election, these sites have been inconsistent in fact-checking and non-transparent with content moderation, often taking editorial liberties to limit and remove user content. What seems at times like completely arbitrary guidelines could be either a result of growing pains or a top-down agenda, depending on who you ask.
In that sense, Parler may appear like a great replacement. The app's setup and user interface are very easy: People can follow, post and “echo” (share) information in an intuitive way, with little to no editorial restrictions. It’s like Twitter, but open to all content and with no one in Silicon Valley interfering. As a result, it’s also becoming increasingly more popular among free-speech conservatives, many of who view law enforcement positively.
Three considerations before switching social media platforms
It may be tempting to make the switch to a seemingly pro-police platform, one devoid of some of the harsh criticisms we can see in other places, but if you’re considering joining Parler, you should keep a few things in mind:
1. Where is your audience?
First of all, your most important factor in deciding which social media platform to use for your agency is where your audience is. Unless you have a decent-sized public information department with room to spread its wings, you should focus on the platforms where you will get the best access to your community, and Parler is far from topping that list.
It may be growing, but its 10 million users are still no match to the 2.7 billion (yes, billion) Facebook users or even the 340 million Twitter users (which just as a reference is not even in the top 10 of global social media channels). If you have the time and personnel you can venture into other channels, from Parler to Twitch, but since most agencies are spread thin to begin with, you are better off directing your energy where it will benefit you the most.
2. What is your goal?
“Pro-police” forums may make us feel good, but they don’t serve the purpose of policing. Just like you wouldn’t only police safe neighborhoods, similarly, you can’t only speak to those who support you. You may get a lot of “likes,” but that isn’t your goal, is it? Your goal is to communicate with residents and share important information in order to build trust and keep them and your officers safe, and that sadly is not always a popularity contest. If you hold a meeting and only invite your supporters you may be avoiding conflict, but you probably won’t achieve much when it comes to transparency, relationship-building and collaboration.
Additionally, echo chambers can quickly become an unhealthy environment if we are only exposed to one side of the story. Substituting one politically tinted platform with another ensures we will still be having one-sided conversations, even if some are more friendly than others. You could argue that negative attitudes toward law enforcement, particularly on Twitter, make it a minefield for conversation, but that’s exactly why your presence there is so important. In areas where there is misinformation about policing is where your voice is needed the most.
3. There is no safe space
Finally, if you think Parler (or anywhere) is a “safe space,” think again. As one chief in Arkansas found out, what happens on the internet never stays on the internet, and you should treat every online interaction as if it could be on the front page of the paper tomorrow. This is also true if you choose to use a pseudonym rather than your real name. As a law enforcement official, you are only a few short clicks away from your identity being revealed, as we see time and time again.
An online public space
Sure, Twitter, Facebook are selective, divisive and loud – but they’re the closest thing to an online public space that we have. The frequent spouts of ugliness and uneven content moderation may make it tempting to switch over to a new home, but we should not be substituting one flawed stage with another. As the country becomes more partisan and divided, law enforcement must constantly strive to remain above the simplified notion of “us vs. them,” both on and offline.