In the week leading up to the riot inside the U.S. Capitol, a whopping 87% of all news links on Parler led to known misinformation sites, according to a new report from the news rating firm NewsGuard and analytics firm PeakMetrics.
The report quantifies just how polluted the information landscape was on Parler in January, before it was unceremoniously deplatformed by Amazon. This week, the app relaunched following a month-long hiatus, with few guardrails in place to prevent history from repeating itself.
According to the report, among the many misinformation sites that filled Parler before the Jan. 6 uprising, the site that appeared most frequently was American Conservatives Today, which launched just a month before the riot and appeared to be run out of Macedonia. It was linked to nearly 3,000 times in a single week.
Other sites that proliferated on Parler that week include a network of Islamophobic sites reportedly run out of Israel, a video site linked to InfoWars' Alex Jones and a QAnon conspiracy theory site. In addition to these peddlers of fake news, NewsGuard also found more than 1,000 links to weapon sales, prepper gear, nutritional supplements and other merchandise.
"Many misinformation publishers, including those involved in spreading falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election, depend on click-throughs from social media platforms to drive page views and advertising revenue," NewsGuard's general manager, Matt Skibinski, wrote in the report, which was provided exclusively to Protocol. "As mainstream platforms like Twitter and Facebook face regulatory pressure to reduce the spread of misinformation, misinformation sources may continue to shift to less controlled platforms like Parler."
NewsGuard analyzes thousands of news sites across the web and grades them based on a rubric of journalistic rigor. Sites that pass get a green label, while sites that fail get a red one. NewsGuard publishes detailed explanations of its grading system with each label. To measure just how many of these red-rated sites were floating around Parler, NewsGuard partnered with PeakMetrics to pull every post on Parler that contained a link to news during the first week of January, then ran those links against NewsGuard's list of misinformation sites. The results show that in addition to the rampant calls for violence that pervaded the app, Parler was absolutely overrun with misinformation, much of it driven by profit.
NewsGuard wasn't the first to note Parler's Macedonian fake news problem. Last fall, before the U.S. election, researchers at the Election Integrity Project found that around one in seven Parler users followed an account linked to a Macedonian clickbait site called Resist the Mainstream. Larger platforms like Facebook saw the same phenomenon emerge before the 2016 election and have since worked to crack down on these for-profit fake news purveyors. But the effort has yielded mixed results. According to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook's own internal researchers found in August that one of its most popular political groups last year had "possible Macedonian ties." Facebook has now stopped recommending all political groups to its users.
Parler, by contrast, has resurfaced with much the same mission that got it deplatformed in the first place: to provide a safe space for dangerous speech. It has a new web hosting provider, Epik, which has hosted another famously deplatformed app beloved by the far-right, Gab. It's got a new CEO in conservative activist Mark Meckler, who replaced the company's co-founder and CEO John Matze (who said he was fired by Parler's financier Rebekah Mercer). And it's got some new line items in its terms of service, including algorithmic content moderation that monitors for incitements to violence and a "trolling filter" that will allow people to, at least in theory, stop seeing certain types of targeted abuse.
But for the most part, Parler's new handlers appear undeterred in their commitment to creating an anything-goes app — even if that app is filled almost entirely with fake news.