Parler Warned the FBI of Potential Violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 More Than 50 Times

Illustration for article titled Parler Warned the FBI of Potential Violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 More Than 50 Times

Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY / Contributor (Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of angry Trump supporters, Parler — the online hub for bigots and far-right extremists — was quickly painted as an instigating force, one that zealots had used to mount their offensive. But during a House Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday probing the security failures that led to the insurrection, it was revealed that on more than 50 occasions, Parler had attempted to warn the FBI of the growing potential for violence.

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According to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Parler had uncovered “specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol” on its platform and was apparently ready to sing like a canary in the weeks leading up to January 6, outing its own members and providing transcripts of the concerning communication to the feds.

When asked outright by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) during testimony whether or not his agency had received any intelligence from social media companies, FBI Director Christopher Wray was evasive and seemed to downplay the existence of direct evidence that would have pointed to a mounting insurrectionist threat.

“We’ve had so much information, I’m reluctant to answer any questions about the word ‘any,’” Wray said. “Certainly we were aware of online chatter about the potential for violence, but I’m not aware that we had any intelligence indicating that hundreds of individuals were going to storm the Capitol itself, to my knowledge.”

When pressed on whether or not the FBI had received intelligence from Parler specifically prior to the Jan. 6 attack, Wray conceded that it had, but declined to give specifics on what kind of intelligence had been relayed.

“My understanding is that they sent emails to a particular Field Office and that some of those contained possible threat information and some of them were referred to domestic terrorism squads,” he said.

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For what it’s worth, Wray’s testimony is seemingly in direct conflict with a letter Parler sent to lawmakers last March, in which it claimed in no uncertain terms that it had been trying desperately to relay the very real threat of violence to federal authorities for weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. In that letter, addressed to Maloney, Parler wrote that it had attempted to establish “formal lines of communication” with the FBI in light of record growth on the platform in the latter half of 2020, and wrote that it had sought to facilitate cooperation and forward instances of “unlawful incitement and violent threats.”

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“Far from being the far-right instigator and rogue company that Big Tech has portrayed Parler to be, the facts conclusively demonstrate that Parler has been a responsible and law-abiding company focused on ensuring that only free and lawful speech exists on its platform,” Parler’s lawyers wrote in the letter.

One post Parler said it forwarded to the FBI called for an armed mob of 150,000 to march on D.C. on order to “react to the congressional events of January 6th.” Another sought recruits for “lighting up Antifa in Wa[shington, D.C.] on the 6th” because the user wanted to “start eliminating people.

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Five people were ultimately killed as a result of the pro-Trump rampage, including one police officer who was beaten and one rioter who was shot at close range.

Trump’s Miserable Mouthpiece Leaving for Fantastical Social Media Platform

Trump aide Jason Miller at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 9, 2021.

Trump aide Jason Miller at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 9, 2021.
Photo: Andrew Harnik / AFP (Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s longtime spokesperson and noted lawsuit loser Jason Miller is reportedly planning to enter a cocoon and re-emerge as an even fouler kind of insect: a social media tycoon.

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According to Business Insider, a “person familiar with the matter” says that Trump is already interviewing potential replacements for Miller, who will remain on his team in some capacity but will now be spending most of his time at a company that “currently owns a social media platform that Trump is considering using.” A source “familiar with the plans” described said company as involved with “next-generation” technology that “blows away anything else currently on the market.”

There’s not a long list of social networks Trump could be considering joining—he’s banned pretty much everywhere, for now, leaving only fringe networks like far-right sites Parler and Gab—and fewer still that could be described as powered by amazing technical prowess. Previously the Wall Street Journal reported top contenders included Facebook/Twitter clone CloutHub and a site called FreeSpace, relatively minuscule sites that have tried to attract conservatives angry about supposed censorship on mainstream destinations. But our next best guess that Miller is joining some kind of blockchain-powered social media site that bills itself as a free-speech utopia.

Politico reported this week that Trump is still debating which site he will end up joining, but it’s hard to imagine he will find a replacement with anywhere near as much reach outside GOP-aligned echo chambers as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube provided. This also wouldn’t be his first attempt at finding a new platform.

In March 2021, Miller promised Fox News that the president would be returning to social media within two-to-three months with “something that I think will be the hottest ticket in social media [that is] going to completely redefine the game” and that “tens of millions of people” will join him. After months of attempting to build anticipation, the ex-president launched a blog titled “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump.” He abandoned the project weeks later amid widespread mockery for its barebones design and failure to gain much traction in terms of views or attention.

At the time, an anonymous Trump aide told the Washington Post the former president was infuriated by the lackluster reception: “He wanted to open a new ‘platform’ and didn’t like that this platform was being mocked and had so few readers.” Miller also distanced Trump from the failed venture, describing it as “just [an] auxiliary to the broader efforts we have and are working on.”

While Facebook has announced that Trump’s ban will end in 2023, conveniently right on time for the 2024 campaign season, he’s seemed less than thrilled with waiting it out.

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“[Facebook] say they may allow me back in two years. I’m not too interested in that,” Trump told supporters at the North Carolina GOP convention in Greeneville, North Carolina, according to Politico. “They may allow me back in two years. We’ve got to stop that. We can’t let it happen. So unfair. They are shutting down an entire group of people. Not just me. They are shutting down the voice of a much more powerful and a much larger group.”

Trump has since returned to issuing statements on his website.

While it is of course possible that whatever Miller is working on could help pave the way for Trump’s social media resurgence, it’s also possible that ants could build tiny tanks out of chitin and start a war on bees. Hey. You never know!

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Hacktivist Targets Citizen, Leaking Crime App’s Scraped Data to the Dark Web

Illustration for article titled Hacktivist Targets Citizen, Leaking Crime App's Scraped Data to the Dark Web

Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP (Getty Images)

“Fuck snitches, fuck Citizen, fuck Andrew Frame and remember, kids: Cops are not your friends,” someone on the dark web recently wrote. That same person claims to have scraped and leaked data from the aforementioned crime reporting app—including information about some 1.7 million public safety “incidents” recorded and cataloged by the company, Motherboard first reported.

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Citizen, whose CEO is the colorfully referenced Mr. Frame, functions as a real-time public safety notification system, alerting users to suspected criminal activity in their geographical area via police scanner information and user-submitted reports. Recently, the company raised some eyebrows when it announced that it will launch its own app-based privatized law enforcement service, thereby basically becoming Omni Consumer Products from Robocop. See our recent coverage for details.

Its ambitions to become a real-life dystopian villain sourced directly from great 1980s science fiction films have clearly not come without some detractors, however. The self-described “hacktivist” who snatched Citizen’s data subsequently leaked it to a website dubbed “The Concerned Citizen’s Citizen Hack”—where viewers can now look up all of the filched information: incident GPS location data, associated police radio audio files, images, event history, and more. Altogether, it gives an unfiltered, aggregated look at the large amounts of info collected by the public safety firm, as well as a window into how the company processes and stores all of that data.

This is really just the latest in a string of various data problems the company has weathered recently. Not only did its CEO recently use bad intel to blame an L.A. homeless man for starting wildfires, but just a few days ago, Motherboard revealed that the company had publicly exposed user data collected via its covid-19 contact tracing feature. The company subsequently patched whatever hole had allowed the data to be visible.

Despite how the “hacktivist” has qualified it, this latest incident isn’t a “hack” per se—as a lot of the data was already publicly accessible to the app’s users. Instead, it resembles many of the other recent large-scale scraping incidents (see: the Facebook, LinkedIn and Parler episodes, for instance), wherein an actor swoops in to grab large amounts of public-facing data, then yanks it out of the application and dumps it into one centralized location—typically some sort of underworld forum.

However, Motherboard has suggested that the data could be useful for “journalists and researchers to gain greater insight into the use and spread of the app around the country”—a potentially good idea, given the fact that Citizen claims to have over 7 million subscribers and is used in some of the nation’s biggest cities.

“It’s like a full log of police activity in multiple U.S. cities,” the hacker told the news outlet, suggesting that it could be used to understand how widely the app is being used and how responsive law enforcement is to it. Motherboard reports:

New York had over 520,000; Los Angeles over 250,000, Philadelphia nearly 120,000. The data also shows Citizen’s use in other cities across the country, including Austin, Atlanta, Dallas, Portland, and Flint. The hacker said the New York scrape dates from January 2018 to May 2021.

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When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Citizen called the incident a “non-story” and provided the following statement:

All of this information is publicly available on our website at citizen.com/explore. Our users broadcast these videos to the Citizen community to keep their neighbors safe and informed. Newsrooms across the country use these videos in their broadcasts daily. We are proud of the fact that we moderate every piece of user-generated content on our platform, and our team of moderators work around the clock to hide videos which do not meet our guidelines.

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Translation: I’m not owned, I’m not owned, I’m not owned.

Why the Hillbilly Elegy Guy and Peter Thiel Are Backing a YouTube Clone for Republicans

J.D. Vance at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.

J.D. Vance at TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018.
Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch (Getty Images)

The Hillbilly Elegy guy and right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel are teaming up to invest big money in a conservative alternative to YouTube called Rumble, the Wall Street Journal reported last week. Why would these ghouls want a piece of one of the web’s junkiest services?

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Cincinnati-based Narya Capital, a firm co-founded by author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance and in which Thiel has invested, will give Rumble a publicly undisclosed sum that the Journal’s sources say is considerable and values the company at $500 million. As the paper noted, this is the first time Thiel has invested in a social media firm since he became an early investor in Facebook, where he is still a member of the board.

This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least because it’s a big financial injection into the push by conservatives who are frustrated by insufficient fealty from platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to set up their own alternate web destinations. The Republican Party has grown obsessed with the supposed censorship of conservatives by Silicon Valley elites in recent years, elevating the baseless assertion into one of its key issues, and Rumble has been happy to cater to that crowd by marketing itself as a GOP-friendly free speech site.

Here’s what is going on.

(Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)

What is Rumble?

Rumble is one of the many alternative platforms that have sprung up for aggrieved conservatives fleeing mainstream services operated by tech titans for a variety of reasons—some were banned on those original sites for breaking rules or fear they will be, while others may simply prefer existing entirely within a MAGA echo chamber. Then there are high-profile conservatives, always looking for the next GOP grift, who sense an opportunity to cash in on censorship panic among their supporters.

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In Rumble’s case, it’s specifically trying to compete with companies like YouTube and Vimeo, though its sparse layout and lack of features call to mind a prior decade of web design. One reason that might be the case is that Rumble, which launched in 2013, used to mostly serve as a clearinghouse for licensing viral videos, and its catalog largely consisted of home movies of babies and animals interposed with a smattering of local news clips. This all changed when Representative Devin Nunes, who has long claimed to be facing Orwellian censorship from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, began uploading his videos there in the summer of 2020. A number of other conservatives followed suit, and CEO Chris Pavlovski saw an opportunity to market directly to a large and potentially untapped audience of angry right-wingers.

By September 2020, Rumble was attracting serious attention from extremely online conservatives like pundit Dan Bongino, who used to scream about guns on a now-defunct NRA TV channel and is the owner of a massive network of Facebook pages. Bongino bought an equity stake in Rumble that month and—curiously enough!—began leveraging his social media accounts on other sites to warn conservatives to join sites like Rumble before it was too late. Rumble wasn’t his only investment. Bongino had bought what he said was an “ownership stake” in conservative Twitter clone Parler in June 2020, which he similarly promoted. That business relationship has since become mired in infighting and the focus of Congressional investigators after numerous users were implicated in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.

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What’s the current state of Rumble?

In late 2020, Republican posturing over social media censorship was reaching a fever pitch that only grew after Trump lost the elections, and by January 2021, banned from Facebook and Twitter after inciting that deadly riot at the Capitol in a last-ditch effort to stop Joe Biden from becoming president. Amid a mad dash to catch a rush of conservatives claiming they were abandoning those sites and others in response, Rumble and its contributors cashed in big time. According to Wired, Similarweb data showed that monthly visits to Rumble skyrocketed from 5 million in September 2020 to 135 million by January 2021. Similarweb shows that traffic has since declined but remained at a respectable 81 million in April 2021. These numbers, like most web traffic data, are somewhat hazy and may not reflect the full reach of Rumble’s content when it is embedded on other sites.

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Rumble is now infested with Republican-baiting content like Bongino’s podcast, sophomoric YouTube bigot Steven Crowder’s show, reaction vids from Donald Trump Jr., and the “Devin Nunes Press,” whatever that is. Much of it is re-uploads from other sites—and a lot of it is just clips from networks like CNN or C-SPAN reposted alongside angry captions. Then there are networks of conspiracy theorists and disinformation artists on the site, ranging from 2020 election truthers and QAnon revanchists to antivaxxers. It’s a hellhole, to put it nicely.

It’s important to understand that a massive slice of Rumble’s viewership is clicking in from links shared on the very same platforms that conservatives claim are censoring them, like Facebook. And in some ways, this might dovetail nicely with the viral non-politics footage still being licensed through the site, as perhaps the same kind of older adult who uncritically hits share on every piece of right-wing clickbait they encounter might be spamming cute babies too.

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So why are J.D. Vance and Peter Thiel interested?

Vance is best known for his book Hillbilly Elegy, which was once praised by some liberal talking heads as providing a sort of Trump safari into the minds of a semi-mythical brand of working-class conservatives. It has since aged poorly. But he’s also a venture capitalist with longstanding ties to Thiel who served as a principal at the billionaire’s VC firm, Mithril Capital, and has launched his own fund in Ohio, Narya Capital, backed by Thiel funds.

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Now that Vance is gearing up for a potential Senate run in Ohio, he’s abandoned the pretense of being a Trump whisperer for well-heeled urban elites and has dove headfirst into the kind of culture war conservativism the GOP’s base laps up like dog chow. As Politico noted, though Vance regularly deletes his tweets, he appears to have stopped tweeting anti-Trump sentiments years ago and is now laser-focused on doing his best Tucker Carlson impersonation, which isn’t very good. He’s sent out bizarre rants on how universal child care is a “massive subsidy to the lifestyle preferences of the affluent over the preferences of the middle and working class,” claimed the Facebook Oversight Board has more power than the entire United Nations, and just this week angrily posted about seeing “a group of girls on the Potomac rowing” while wearing masks.

This might seem rather cringeworthy, but on another level, Vance’s willingness to repeatedly embarrass himself in spectacular fashion online is also raising his profile with controversy-hungry Trump supporters that spend all day yelling into the aether on Facebook and Twitter. Obviously, he’s made social media censorship one of his biggest issues. So, if nothing else, Narya Capital’s Rumble investment is a nice little confluence, providing yet another perch from which to denounce oppressive Silicon Valley liberals as part of his Senate ambitions while simultaneously poising himself to cash in on it.

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Thiel is himself a libertarian turned culture-war conservative notorious for his extensive ties to the far right and who similarly touts phantom bias against conservatives in the tech world as strangling innovation and free speech (that’s rich). He has backed a pro-Vance political action committee to the tune of $10 million, according to Recode, giving Vance an early advantage in the Republican primary race to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman if he chooses to run.

According to the Journal, Narya Capital co-founder Colin Greenspon said that the firm was attracted to Rumble because it promises to expand beyond simply hosting videos and build an alternate internet infrastructure for those distrustful of Silicon Valley firms, such as cloud services. That’s an obvious selling point for Thiel, a longtime backer of conservatives in the tech industry divorcing themselves of liberal groupthink who left Silicon Valley for Los Angeles in 2018, and who may view that project as particularly useful in shaping the future of Republican ideology.

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“The growth of Rumble has created a vehicle for us to start offering cloud solutions to businesses,” Pavlovski, the Rumble CEO, told the Journal. “This will be a major play against Big Tech.”

Postal Service Cops Are Monitoring Social Media, ‘Sensitive’ Internal Document Says

Illustration for article titled Postal Service Cops Are Monitoring Social Media, 'Sensitive' Internal Document Says

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds (Getty Images)

Add another pushpin to the string wall of America’s shadowy force of postal service cops. Yahoo News reports that the USPS’s security arm, the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS), monitored social media for potential threats of domestic violence. According to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo obtained by Yahoo News, the USPIS collected “inflammatory” Parler and Telegram posts ahead of planned March 20 protests and shared them with other agencies.

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The previously unknown operation is called the Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP). It’s unclear whether this is an ongoing program or was established for the sole purpose of collecting right-wing social media posts. The investigation seems to include posts from Facebook and other social media platforms, but the full breadth of the investigation is not clear from the document. The QAnon-promoted protests, against vaccines and covid-19 safety measures, were set for March 20, a date some believed would mark Donald Trump’s surprise return to the White House.

The two-page document, which is labeled “law enforcement sensitive” and was distributed by a DHC intelligence “fusion center,” reads in part:

Analysts with the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) Internet Covert Operations Program (iCOP) monitored significant activity regarding planned protests occurring internationally and domestically on March 20, 2021…Locations and times have been identified for these protests, which are being distributed online across multiple social media platforms, to include right-wing leaning Parler and Telegram accounts.

Neither the USPIS nor the DHS immediately responded to our requests for comment.

You’ll recall that USPIS agents were the armed guys who arrested Steve Bannon on his yacht last year, which piqued our curiosity. (This receded while Postmaster General Louis DeJoy dismantled the rest of the place, cut back hours and proposed reviewing postal workers’ pension payments.) As for what that had to do with the postal service, Chief Postal Inspector Gary Barksdale said at the time: “the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is committed to identifying and investigating anyone who exploits others for their own benefits.”

Mail tie-ins seem to be sort of loose. In a 2019 year-end report, the USPIS said that it employed 1,289 inspectors charged with enforcing “roughly 200 federal laws, covering crimes that include fraudulent use of the U.S. Mail and the postal system.” This surprisingly thrilling tie-in means that they hunt down prolific mail thieves, mail marketers, dark web-sourced mailed drugs, drug delivery bribes, and even on a $7 billion fraud scheme. But it also has a long-running unit for investigating child exploitation material, which, it seems, may or may not be detected through the process of flowing through mail. In its 2019 year-end report, for example, USPIS said that it was handed an investigation into a hard drive (which had at one point been mailed) containing child sexual abuse material, but the investigation was passed along from a Rhode Island internet child abuse task force, not seized en route or at a delivery point.

And, as the Washington Post has noted, the postal service’s investigatory powers granted since 1775 make it the oldest law enforcement agency in the country. The USPIS’s report suggests that it collaborates with virtually every federal investigatory body, including the Securities and Exchange Commission, Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Justice, the Department of Defense, the FBI, the DEA, and more.

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The USPIS told Yahoo News that the iCOP program’s mission represents that of the overall USPIS mission to assess “threats to Postal Service employees and its infrastructure by monitoring publicly available open source information.” But it added that the USPIS “collaborates” with federal, state, and local law enforcement to protect employees and also “customers.”

By the “customers” metric, it seems that, like the mail, USPIS knows no jurisdiction. In its mission statement, the USPIS says that it works to keep up the reputation of the USPS, or “provide the investigative and security resources that ensure America’s confidence in the U.S. Mail.”

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UPDATE 4/21/2021 7:20 p.m. ET: The USPIS declined to respond to Gizmodo’s request for information on USPIS’s relationship with DHS and the scope of its operations. It shared a general statement about USPIS operations, cited by Yahoo News: “The U.S. Postal Inspection Service occasionally reviews publicly available information in order to assess potential safety or security threats to Postal Service employees, facilities, operations and infrastructure.”

Parler Says It Warned the FBI of Violent Posts Threatening the Capitol Before Jan. 6 Insurrection

Illustration for article titled Parler Says It Warned the FBI of Violent Posts Threatening the Capitol Before Jan. 6 Insurrection

Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

Parler, the online safe haven for bigots and far-right extremists, claims it repeatedly alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation about “specific threats of violence being planned at the Capitol” ahead of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, the company’s lawyers said in a letter to lawmakers dated Thursday.

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After seeing record growth in the latter half of 2020, Parler says it developed “formal lines of communication” with the FBI to facilitate cooperation and forward instances of “unlawful incitement and violent threats.” Parler claims that it referred violent content that had been posted on its platform to the FBI more than 50 times in the weeks leading up to the attack. Some of these flagged posts included specific threats to the Capitol, where five people later died during an attack by pro-Trump insurgents trying to prevent Congress from verifying President Joe Biden’s electoral college win.

“Far from being the far-right instigator and rogue company that Big Tech has portrayed Parler to be, the facts conclusively demonstrate that Parler has been a responsible and law-abiding company focused on ensuring that only free and lawful speech exists on its platform,” Parler’s lawyers wrote in a letter to New York Representative Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

The posts Parler cites are crystal clear about their violent intentions, no two ways about it. One post Parler said it forwarded to the FBI called for an armed mob of 150,000 to head to D.C. to “react to the congressional events of January 6th.” Another post sought recruits for “lighting up Antifa in Wa[shington, D.C.] on the 6th” because the user wanted to “start eliminating people.” Another post claimed then-President Donald Trump “needs us to cause chaos to enact the #insurrectionact.” One user said the D.C. event planned for Jan. 6 “is not a rally and it’s no longer a protest.”

“This is the final stand where we are drawing the red line at Capitol Hill,” that user wrote, according to the letter. “I trust the American people will take back the USA with force and many are ready to die to take back #USA so remember this is not a party until they announce #Trump2020 a winner… And don’t be surprised if we take the #capital [sic] building.”

The letter also includes redacted screenshots of emails Parler claims it sent to the FBI detailing these threats. While this news would be met with a positive response from any sane userbase, Parler was reportedly flooded with furious posts on Friday from users pissed off that Parler had ratted them out to federal authorities. Several vowed to jump ship and delete their accounts as soon as Trump rolls out his new social media platform.

Parler bills itself as a less censored alternative to mainstream social media sites and the last bastion of “free speech” on the internet. Shortly following the insurrection, Parler briefly went offline after Apple and Google kicked it off their respective app stores and Amazon Web Services severed ties with the platform. All three companies cited Parler’s lax content moderation in their decisions.

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In an effort led by Maloney, the House Oversight Committee has requested the FBI investigate the company’s role in the attack as well as look into claims that Parler tried to bribe Trump into creating an account on the platform.

Parler’s Ex-CEO Sues, Claims He Was Told His Shares Were Only Worth Three Buckaroos

Illustration for article titled Parler's Ex-CEO Sues, Claims He Was Told His Shares Were Only Worth Three Buckaroos

Photo: Olivier Douliery (Getty Images)

Parler, the pro-Donald Trump social media site that’s served as a sort of all-you-can-eat buffet for brain worms in the past few years, is being sued by its own co-founder and ex-CEO.

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Following the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol, which was partially organized on Parler’s violent death threat-laden site, Amazon Web Services booted Parler from its servers and Apple and Google kicked it off their respective app stores. The site is now back despite failing to convince any of those other companies to let it return, but CEO John Matze didn’t return for the second leg of the trip. He was forced out in some type of internal squabble with GOP mega-donor Rebekah Mercer, a major investor who is now reportedly personally bankrolling the site, and far-right former NRATV pundit and fellow investor Dan Bongino, whose role appears to at least partially consist of urging his millions of Facebook followers to migrate to a site he has a personal financial stake in.

The departure didn’t go over well, with Bongino accusing Matze of trying to sell out the site’s original mission as a free speech utopia where almost anything legal goes—exactly what got the company in trouble in the first place—and Matze telling media Mercer had turned a blind eye to doing anything about the deluge of QAnon conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, fascists, racists, and other unpleasant zealots taking over the site. Now Matze is claiming that his 40 percent stake in the company was stolen in an “outlandish and arrogant theft… epitomized by oppression, fraud and malice,” per the Las Vegas Sun.

Matze wrote in court filings claiming breach of contract and defamation that Parler was “hijacked to advance the personal political interests and personal advantages of the defendants rather than serve as the free expression platform as originally conceived.” Both Mercer and Bongino are named as defendants in the suit, alongside chief operating officer Jeffrey Wernick and Parler’s new interim CEO, Tea Party activist Mark Meckler.

Matze wrote in the suit that the company was initially founded using a holding company designed to obfuscate Mercer’s involvement, and quarreled over financials (in his telling, Mercer characterized her 60 percent equity stake as a loan that would need to be paid back). He added that Mercer seemed to lose interest in the site until around November 2020—it’s not clear exactly when, but this would have been sometime around when Parler signups were surging amid Trump’s claims the election was stolen—and that she subsequently refused to compromise on proposals for more stringent moderation in the wake of the riots. Per NPR:

“Matze’s proposal was met with dead silence, which he took to be a rejection of his proposal,” according to the suit.

Matze says in the suit that Mercer brought in allies, including Wernick, to “strong-arm him out of the company.”

Wernick allegedly threatened Matze with an “avalanche of legal claims and expenses if he dared defy Mercer,” the suit states.

Wernick, according to the suit, told Matze not to consult his own lawyer and threatened that “he would be ruined” if he did so.

Matze plays himself up to be sort of an innocent-minded patsy in the suit. Court documents claim that upon meeting his eventual replacement, Meckler, it “became apparent to Matze that Meckler’s efforts were not to grow Parler as a free expression platform, but instead to redirect it into what Meckler called as the ‘tip of the conservative spear’ for a brand of conservatism in keeping with Mercer’s preferences.” Considering Parler’s obvious ideological pandering, that it allegedly sought to lure Trump into registering an account with promises of an equity stake in Summer 2020, and that Matze bragged about banning liberal “trolls” across the site, it’s hard to take the claim Matze had no idea his site would be used to advance the right-wing agenda seriously.

Finally, Matze claims in the suit that Parler management smeared him with suggestions of misconduct and breaches of his obligations as a manager, when in reality the site was continuing to get back online using the technical game plan he developed, just very poorly. (As Meckler “lacked the technical know-how to actually run such a social media platform—and his real role was to simply push a political agenda—the implementation was beyond lacking,” Matze added.) He also writes that as part of the shakedown, Mercer’s people determined the “fair market value” of his 40 percent stake to be a measly three dollars.

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Perhaps on that, we can agree: Parler is worth about $7.50, give or take a few dollars depending on whether it helps successfully provoke another failed insurrection.

Matze, however, says his stake in the internet hellhole is actually worth millions, and that in internal discussions he and Mercer had valued the site at $1 billion or more.

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The former CEO “looks forward to presenting his claims in court and being vindicated,” Matze’s attorney James Pisanelli told the Sun in a statement.

Encrypted Chats, Parler Posts Indict Proud Boys Leaders for Capitol Rioting

A member of the Proud Boys speaks to the media at a gun rights rally near the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 2021.

A member of the Proud Boys speaks to the media at a gun rights rally near the Capitol in Richmond, Virginia on January 18, 2021.
Photo: Ryan M. Kelly (Getty Images)

The FBI has amassed social media posts and encrypted text messages that implicate four senior members of the Proud Boys in a Jan. 6 plot to storm police barriers at the U.S. Capitol and stop members of Congress from certifying Joe Biden’s victory.

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In a superseding indictment on Friday targeting leaders of the notoriously violent far-right fraternity, the acting U.S. attorney for D.C. alleges three Proud Boys chapter presidents and another member were among the mob of “Stop the Steal” rioters that overran police and eventually forced its way inside the Capitol. In some cases, charging documents allege, the members moved ahead of the crowds.

Prosecutors have offered up online posts from as far back as November and up to the day of the siege to show crimes committed by the defendants were planned well in advance in what courts call a “criminal conspiracy.” Text messages, including many from an encrypted channel used exclusively for Washington, show Proud Boys members issuing orders and giving each other advice, such as “cops are the primary threat,” interlaced with mentions of “plans” that now lend credence to conspiracy charges.

The same Proud Boys members, prosecutors say, would later lead accomplices across the western lawn of the Capitol where police were overpowered before the building was finally breached.

Proud Boys chapter presidents Ethan Nordean, 30, of Seattle, who’s also an Elders chapter member (and calls himself “Rufio Panman”); Zachary Rehl, 35, of Philadelphia; and Charles Donohoe, 33, of Kernersville, North Carolina are all named as co-conspirators, in addition to Joseph Biggs, 37, of Ormond Beach, Florida, who is listed as a “self-described organizer of certain Proud Boys events.”

The four defendants now face six counts, including obstruction of an official proceeding and destruction of government property and aiding and abetting.

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Prosecutors first point to a Parler post by Enrique Tarrio, the Proud Boys chairman (referred to only as such in the indictment). His Dec. 29th message made public the Proud Boys’ plans to “turn out in record numbers on Jan 6th,” as well as the decision to “be incognito” so that “smaller teams” could “spread across downtown.”

The charging documents go on to detail events as the unfolded that day, describing key moments of the siege and how the Proud Boys played a pivotal role:

The Proud Boys gathered in numbers at around a quarter till one near Peace Circle, where Pennsylvania Ave. and First St. meet. A police barrier is overrun on the western perimeter moments after. Footage of the breach was captured by several cameras, including that of right-wing media personality Elijah Schaffer. According to prosecutors, Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, and Donohoe were part of the mob that forced its way past police guarding a pedestrian walkway.

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The fences and other obstacles erected by police on the western lawn proved nothing more than security theater. The crowd easily overcame them and the police continued to lose ground, retreating eventually to the west steps. Nordean “positioned himself near the front of the crowd as these events took place,” prosecutors said.

Inside the building, Vice President Mike Pence was convening a joint session to certify the Electoral College vote and name Joe Biden president-elect. Outside, a violent crowd bent on reversing the outcome surged. Police now vastly in the minority watched as crowds chanting, some to lynch the vice president, smashed windows and rammed open doors.

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Prosecutors say three of the accused—Nodrean, Biggs, and Rehl—seized the opportunity to get inside. In a self-shot video as the mob reached the west plaza, Biggs announced: “we’ve just taken the Capitol.”

Social media posts written by the Proud Boys now provide evidence in their name. Donohoe, 33, the president of a North Carolina chapter, wrote for instance: “We stormed the capitol unarmed,” adding: “And we took it over unarmed.” Prosecutors also use posts prior to the breach to help establish intent: “It’s time for fucking War if they steal this shit,” Biggs wrote on Nov. 5. Rehl, days after mentioning a “a big rally” on Jan. 6, wrote he was hoping “the traitors who are trying to steal the election” are killed by “firing squads.”

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The group crowdfunded online more than a week in advance to pay for members’ travel and buy new paramilitary gear, including radio equipment. Some of the group would use Zello, an app that emulates walkie-talkies over a cell network.

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The FBI obtained numerous messages from encrypted chat groups that included Nordean, Biggs, Rehl, Donohoe and “a handful of additional members.” Two days before the event, Donohoe is seen warning members in the chat: “Everything is compromised and we could be looking at Gang charges.” “Stop everything immediate,” he says, “This comes from the top.” But roughly an hour later, another member, unidentified in the charging documents, calls for handheld radios to be passed out to pick which channels to use.

A separate encrypted Proud Boy channel called “Boots on the Ground” was created for communication in Washington, the indictment says. There, members were instructed by Biggs to “avoid getting into any shit” on the eve of the event. “Tomorrow’s the day,” he said. The word “plan” is used multiple times. Members are also told that “cops are the primary threat” and to remain covert, not displaying their colors.

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When the group finally reached the Capitol building that day after 2 p.m., prosecutors say fellow Proud Boy member Dominic Pezzola, 43, smashed a window using a riot shield he’d ripped from the hands of a police officer. Rioters poured inside and forced open a door for the crowd. Biggs accompanied three other Proud Boy members, William Pepe, Joshua Pruitt, and Gilbert Garcia inside. A message is dropped in the Boots on the Ground channel moments later: “We just stormed the capitol.”

Some walked the halls while others lingered around in the rotunda before going back outside. A message shortly 3:30 p.m. informed the group: “We are regrouping with a second force.”

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Five people died in the clashes, including Ashli Elizabeth Babbitt, who was shot while trying to break into the Speaker’s Lobby, and Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who succumbed to injuries the following day.

More than 300 people have been charged so far in connection with the Capitol breach. As many as 100 more may be indicted, officials say.

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Senate Considering Hauling in Facebook, Twitter CEOs so They Can All Ramble for Hours About Whatever BS Gripe They Have This Time

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at a Congressional hearing in November 2020.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at a Congressional hearing in November 2020.
Photo: Hannah McKay (Getty Images)

HellfeedHellfeedHellfeed is your bimonthly resource for news on the current heading of the social media garbage barge.

If you thought last year’s clusterf*ck of a Senate hearing on social media was a good use of everyone’s time, congrats! The Senate is considering calling Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and the rest of the gang back together for another hearing, this time before the Judiciary Committee.

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Per Politico, Senator Chris Coons told the site on Thursday that he “[thinks] there’s reason for us to ask them to come before us again.” While the plans aren’t final and Coons said he was still negotiating with his Republican counterparts, he added his expectation is that “we’ll look at the dynamics of social media and I think we’ll look at the intersection between privacy, civil liberties and civil rights in the digital context.”

Last year’s hearing was before the Commerce Committee. At the time, it was still controlled by Republicans, but Democrats joined their colleagues across the aisle in a unanimous vote to subpoena Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Alphabet-Google CEO Sundar Pichai. Democrats’ rationale at the time was that the committee chair, GOP Senator Roger Wicker, had promised the hearing would reserve time for Dems’ preferred issues like antitrust and not solely serve as a vehicle for conservatives to scream at the assembled CEOs about liberal bias. Of course, the latter thing is exactly what happened.

With Democrats in control, perhaps this hearing will go a little smoother. Anything’s possible, right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s been a while since our last edition of Hellfeed, so here’s some of the biggest developments in the social media world over the last few weeks.

Facebook is building a version of Instagram for, uh, kids

It’s long been the case—based both on safety concerns like bullying and pedophiles and, more cynically, laws surrounding the collection of user data on children—that Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram have been age-gated to those 13 and older. Of course, this has been completely unenforceable without solutions nobody likes, such as requiring new users to provide photos of their IDs. Children have slipped onto the site in droves, and like their teenage counterparts, sometimes face extreme amounts of bullying and harassment, not to mention the occasional message from pedophiles.

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As originally reported by BuzzFeed, Facebook has a jaw-dropping solution to this: A post on an internal company message board by Instagram vice president of product Vishal Shah said the company is working on “a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time.” What could go wrong? Well, YouTube Kids—which unlike an Instagram for children, doesn’t even involve kids uploading videos of themselves—resulted in claims of illegal data collection and the site being flooded with disturbing videos uploaded by bots or horrible trolls. YouTube was eventually forced to overhaul the whole product. Facebook is mulling a product for children based around one that lets adults upload everything from drug cartel glamour posts to pro-eating disorder content, so… yeah.

As Gizmodo colleague Matt Novak pointed out, pretty much everything about this product and how it will function is an unknown at this point. But it does reek of an effort to get ever-younger users signed up for the Facebook data machine, thinly veiled with the excuse that it’s trying to make kids already on Instagram safer. Yeesh.

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Facebook Groups: Now with slightly more oversight!

Facebook also announced this week that it’s taking steps to clean up Groups, the interest-based communities that it tried to juice in recent years before many of said groups inevitably became hives full of QAnon conspiracists, election truthers, anti-vaxxers, far-right propagandists, and the people who organized the Capitol riots. Changes include prohibiting users who break rules from posting or commenting in Groups for a period of time, putting warning labels on groups that have broken rules, and requiring tighter moderation of rules-violating communities. Surely they’ll whack that mole this time!

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Parler is somehow getting worse, actually

A few fun updates from our friends at Parler, the far-right Facebook/Twitter clone for people who love issuing death threats and would marry a gun if they could just choose one:

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  • While the site has managed to crawl back onto the web after losing its web hosting and app store placements over its role in the Jan. 6 riots at the Capital, it hasn’t convinced any of the tech companies that ditched it—Amazon, Apple, and Google—to do business with them again.
  • Parler claims to now have algorithms to detect content calling for violence now, but there’s no reason to believe anything will change. Apple rejected the company’s appeal to get back on the App Store, after which Parler reportedly fired its whole iOS team.
  • Republican megadonor and Parler investor Rebekah Mercer, a hardliner on the whole giving-racists-and-conspiracy-theorists-a-giant-megaphone-to-spew-hate-online issue, is reportedly personally bankrolling the site with “big checks” at this point and flexing her muscles to preserve that vision. The new CEO, apparently a Mercer pick, is a Tea Party activist.

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Definitely not a ticking time bomb waiting to go off for a second time or anything.

Posting on Gab was maybe not the smartest idea

Gab, Parler’s neo-Nazi uncle, has been hacked—big time. Whistleblower site DDoSecrets announced the release to a group of reporters of some 70 gigabytes of data lifted from the company’s servers, including profile and user data, posts, private messages, and more.

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A similar situation played out on a far smaller scale with white supremacist forum Iron March, which had its SQL database dumped on the Internet Archive by an unknown hacker in 2019. The result was numerous white nationalists/supremacists, fascists, and current/former members of violent groups like the terroristic Atomwaffen Division had their identities publicly revealed, which is sort of inconvenient when you’re trying to anonymously spark a race war.

The Gab leak is already providing a similar look at what’s going on behind closed doors there, and the sheer size of the leak is likely to keep researchers and reporters busy for a while.

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I shall simply open my own failing internet hellhole

You may remember MyPillow founder Mike Lindell from his previous best hits, such as months of increasingly depraved promotion of voter fraud hoaxes (TL;DR: Donald Trump won, apparently!) and the $1.3 billion lawsuit he is facing from an election tech manufacturer over that. He’s definitely not mad that he got banned from Twitter, which is why he’s announced he is launching his own free speech site, Vocl. Per Business Insider:

In an interview with Insider, [Mike] Lindell said he plans to call the site “Vocl” and he described it as a cross between Twitter and YouTube.

“It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen,” he said to Insider in a Wednesday interview. “It’s all about being able to be vocal again and not to be walking on egg shells.”

Vocl, he said, isn’t like Gab or Parler, two far-right social-media sites. It’s a cross between Twitter and YouTube meant “for print, radio, and TV,” he said.

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Sure thing, Mike.

ISIS is trying to hit its crowdfund goal

Facebook, Telegram, PayPal, and other big tech firms are continuing to serve as a vehicle for crowdfunding the Islamic State terror group, often via accounts that are fake or run by sympathizers and middlemen posing as humanitarian interests, according to an in-depth feature on Rest of World:

Vera Mironova, a visiting fellow at Harvard University who has extensively monitored online terrorist fundraising campaigns, notes that posts follow the mores of their host platform. “So secretive campaigns would not be posted on Facebook, or if they were, they would sound more humanitarian and not use words like ‘ISIS.’ But the ones on Telegram go full hurrah,” she explained. This same dynamic plays out on a country-by-country level, Mironova added, and is especially apparent on payment platforms. “Some countries — let’s say Russia or parts of Eastern Europe, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan — they just do not care,” she said. “ISIS-linked campaigns coming from those places absolutely won’t hide anything. … They could use any platform; they even transfer money between bank cards.”

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The full thing is worth a read, because this type of thing is now a permanent fixture of the internet and will only become more relevant going forward.

You are not going to get rich tweeting. You are not going to get rich tweeting

Twitter, which has been introducing new features at a rate of approximately 10 per minute, has announced that it is working on Super Follows, a tool for users to launch paid subscriptions with access to private feeds or posts. While feed-addicted journalism and media types might be salivating at the prospect of being paid to waste time, Twitter has yet to clarify whether it will allow the most obvious application that will actually make money: porn.

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Accessibility on social media apps continues to be a challenge

The Washington Post has an interesting feature on how apps like TikTok have tried to implement accessibility features, but still lag far behind on implementing or improving features like speech to text transcription—making them harder to use for those with deafness, hearing loss, or visual impairments. A good roundup of the technical challenges behind implementing such features on the one hand, but also how tech firms have sometimes failed to prioritize working on them on the other.

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Hoo boy, Substack sure made a mess

Newsletter platform Substack isn’t really a social media site. But it essentially wouldn’t exist without Facebook and Twitter, where the various journalists, commentators, and web personalities that actually write those newsletters generated and cultivate their followings in the first place. Besides, what we will euphemistically refer to as “Substack discourse” is now approximately three hundred percent of Twitter.

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In the past week Substack has come under fire for its practice of luring high-profile writers to set up shop on the site by writing huge “advance payment” checks. That might be less controversial were it not for the fact that many of its most prominent power users regularly write raving diatribes about supposedly out-of-control leftism, “cancel culture,” “identity politics,” and stuff like that. Glenn Greenwald, one of the site’s biggest success stories (and who says he did not accept an advance check from Substack), uses his account to further vitriolic feuds such as one with a specific New York Times reporter. Another, Irish TV writer Graham Linehan, aggressively promotes anti-trans rhetoric.

Annalee Newitz, founder of our sister blog io9, penned a Medium post arguing that Substack’s habit of paying writers, sometimes without disclosure, and seemingly allowing others with huge followings to violate its rules essentially makes it less of a platform than an editorial publication—except one with none of the editorial standards followed by reputable ones:

So Substack has an editorial policy, but no accountability. And they have terms of service, but no enforcement. If you listen to [co-founder Hamish McKenzie], they don’t even hire writers! They just give money to people who write things that happen to be on Substack. It’s the usual Silicon Valley sleight-of-hand move, very similar to Uber reps claiming drivers aren’t “core” to their business. I’m sure Substack is paying a writer right now to come up with a catchy way of saying that Substack doesn’t pay writers.

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(No, no one means “publication” in the way Josh Hawley does, stop asking.)

Substack wrote in a blog post that misunderstandings about the actual makeup of the advance payments program has resulted in a “distorted perception of the overall makeup of the group, leading to incorrect inferences about Substack’s business strategy.” But because there’s no transparency into who Substack is paying beyond those writers which have chosen to disclose they cashed a check, you’re just gonna have to take their word for it.

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And the Q of QAnon is…

An HBO documentary series airing this weekend claims to have discovered the identity of QAnon’s Q, the individual or individuals behind a sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory that infected the Republican Party (primarily via Facebook) and provided much of the manpower at the Capitol riots. It’s not exactly a huge surprise that the culprit named here is Ron Watkins, the administrator of imageboard sites 8chan/8kun, where Q posted for years after leaving 4chan.

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That doesn’t necessarily solve the mystery of who came up with Q in the first place, as Watkins may have simply took over the Q account from its original creator, and whatever case Q: Into the Storm believes it has to prove Watkins is Q has yet to be vetted. Either way, don’t think we’re done with this whole mess anytime soon.

The ban list

Ladies and gentlemen, drum roll please…

  • QAnon cheerleader and (unfortunately) Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene was temporarily suspended from Twitter for 12 hours thanks to an “error,” though one could argue one wasn’t actually made.
  • YouTube took down a video from bigoted talk show host Steven Crowder, not for mocking Black speech and culture in an explicitly racist way or suggesting Chinese restaurants spread the novel coronavirus, but for violating anti-misinformation policies by conflating the pandemic death toll with that of the common flu. That’s because they’re cowards afraid of backlash from conservatives.
  • Facebook banned the military of Myanmar, which perhaps might have been more effective had it done so before they used the site to incite genocide.
  • Also, Facebook briefly banned news links across the entire country of Australia in an inspiring corporate protest against a law forcing them to pay out a share of revenue to news sites.
  • Twitter accidentally auto-banned a lot of people, including Gizmodo weekend editor Alyse Stanley, for posting the word “Memphis.”
  • TikTok banned the use of the “super straight” hashtag, which claimed that being transphobic is a gender identity, and its creator Kyle Royce.
  • World’s worst lawyer Rudy Giuliani was banned from YouTube for two weeks for refusing to stop insisting his ex-boss, who hates him, won the 202 elections.

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Honorable mention: Neera Tanden, Joe Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t get banned from Twitter. But her tweets attacking numerous members of Congress did get her “banned,” in a sense, from further consideration for the job.

Apple Tells Parler It’s Still Too Friendly to Racist Filth for iOS

The Parler App running on an iPhone.

The Parler App running on an iPhone.
Photo: Hollie Adams (Getty Images)

Parler, the social media network for people furious that Lola Bunny’s animated boobs are too small now, won’t be returning to iOS anytime soon.

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The social network, which caters to conservatives, Trump supporters, and various other right-wing cranks and bigots, branded itself as a censorship-free site that would only remove illegal posts and liberal trolls. It predictably became a hive of death and rape threats against Democrats, racist diatribes, and pro-Trump conspiracy theories. Parler was subsequently booted off of its Amazon web hosting and Apple’s and Google’s respective app stores in January after numerous Parler users were implicated as involved pro-Trump riots at the Capitol on Jan. 6, where five people died.

Parler was forced offline for weeks as a result, returning late last month with promises of better moderation (ones to be extremely skeptical of, given the site’s majority investor and GOP megadonor Rebekah Mercer used the opportunity to fire CEO John Matze and replace him with a Tea Party activist). Amid all this, Parler fell flat on its face in a doomed antitrust lawsuit against Amazon portraying itself as the victim. It doesn’t appear to be doing much better in its quest to get back on the App Store, per Bloomberg, which reported on Wednesday that Apple rejected Parler’s appeal to return to the App Store on Feb. 25.

According to Bloomberg, Apple staff wrote in a letter to Parler that it didn’t believe the app’s revamp contained any meaningful moderation changes and that it still considered it overrun with “hateful, racist, [and] discriminatory” content:

“After having reviewed the new information, we do not believe these changes are sufficient to comply with App Store Review guidelines” Apple wrote to Parler’s chief policy officer on Feb. 25. “There is no place for hateful, racist, discriminatory content on the App Store.”

Apple included several screenshots to support the rejection. Some screenshots, reviewed by Bloomberg, show user profile pictures with swastikas and other white nationalist imagery, and user names and posts that are misogynistic, homophobic and racist.

Apple left open the possibility that Parler could return to the App Store in the future if it complies with its guidelines but left it fairly clear that Parler was nowhere close to doing so.

“As you know, developers are required to implement robust moderation capabilities to proactively identify, prevent and filter this objectionable content to protect the health and safety of users,” Apple wrote in the letter obtained by Bloomberg. “… In fact, simple searches reveal highly objectionable content, including easily identified offensive uses of derogatory terms regarding race, religion and sexual orientation, as well as Nazi symbols. For these reasons your app cannot be returned to the App Store for distribution until it complies with the guidelines.”

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Parler reportedly fired (or canceled, one might jeer) the three iOS developers it still had on staff as well as four other employees on Wednesday, a source told on Bloomberg, indicating that it has likely given up on ever getting back on iOS.

According to the Washington Post, Parler’s new CEO, Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler, had previously expressed confidence that Parler’s app would return to iOS. However, he also said the company had no interest in appeasing the moderators at Google’s Play Store, as it is far easier to sideload apps on Android.

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