On Nov. 4, 2020, as then-President Donald Trump continued to spread false claims that the election had been stolen, his supporters created several “Stop the Steal” Facebook groups that shared election disinformation and threats against election officials.
By Nov. 5, Facebook shut down the groups, citing the false information and incitements to violence the groups' members had shared, but the #StopTheSteal hashtag continued to spread across social media, including smaller, alternative sites, like Parler, MeWe, and Rumble. Parler, a “free speech” platform started in 2018, saw an immediate surge in its users: Before Election Day, the social media site favored by far-right conservatives had 4.5 million users; one week later, it claimed to have 9 million. (Despite Parler’s claims to promote unfettered free speech, this isn’t actually true; the platform has community guidelines like any other.)
By mid-January, Parler had nearly vanished. After it became clear that white supremacists, Proud Boys, and QAnon conspiracists had used the site to allegedly plan and document the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, Parler was removed by app stores and its web server, Amazon. On Jan. 21, a judge affirmed Amazon’s right to suspend the site, given Parler’s platforming of violent threats before, during, and even after the attack. Parler leadership continues to contest the deplatforming; the company’s CEO, John Matze, claimed in court that Parler had “no tolerance for inciting violence or lawbreaking.”
This isn’t the first time extremists have sought out alternative platforms in order to spread misinformation freely: After its 2016 launch, Gab, another social media site claiming to prioritize free speech, became a breeding ground for white supremacists and neo-Nazis; the gunman in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting had an account on Gab. Now, Gab is raking in new users as Parler struggles to regain its platform, despite evidence showing Gab was also used during the putsch.
"There were directions provided on Gab for which streets to take to avoid the police," Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, told NPR. "And which tools to use to help pry open the doors."
Some Christians have witnessed the exodus over to these apps, particularly Parler, before its suspension. Ken Chitwood, a religion scholar and former Lutheran pastor, started seeing notices in his Facebook feed in the weeks following the election. “[It was] family and friends saying, ‘Come follow me on Parler, here's my username,’ former members of my churches, saying they're leaving Facebook to go join these other sites,” Chitwood told Sojourners in November 2020.
According to Chitwood, many of these posts cited a fear of censorship as a main factor to seek out alternative social media. “In this case, [censoring] their Christian faith is what they're concerned about, a lot of times,” he said.
This lines up with the messaging that right-wing politicians and others have pushed around the platforms. Throughout November, many of these influencers and public figures promoted making the switch from Facebook and Twitter to other smaller platforms, decrying alleged censorship in mainstream social media.
Yet evidence shows that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have bent their own rules to permit otherwise off-color behavior by popular accounts, including Trump’s. For years, Trump used social media to spread false and information and to incite abuse against others from his followers. But not until January did most mainstream social media platforms ban Trump, citing that he violated their terms of service by publicly supporting the attack on the Capitol.
Indeed, bending the rules and enabling users’ bad behavior is what led to Parler’s demise: The site’s failure to remove threats of violence, which violated their own terms of service, was Amazon’s justification for removing them.
MeWe, which is slightly less popular, is attempting to become an alternative to Facebook. Unlike Parler, whose founders were conservatives, MeWe unintentionally became a popular conservative platform. Like Parler, it also claims to be a free-speech haven, though it, too, has community guidelines of its own.
Chitwood cautioned Christians against leaving mainstream social media, concerned they would lose the one constant resource those sites should provide: interpersonal connection. To stop community members from being unintentionally drawn to platforms spreading disinformation and hate, he advised Christians to try and use their social media platforms to build and solidify those connections.
“I know that conservative Christians, white evangelicals, have had platforms for decades and a lot of what they feel now, that they sense this persecution, is just the loss of privilege,” said Chitwood. “But for me, who may disagree with them politically, but who sort of still serves them as a pastor, I have to also take time to make sure that they feel heard, and to exhort them, and challenge them to move beyond these fear-motivated stances toward the world.”
In November, I reported for Sojourners on how conservative disinformation and fake news often spread quickly in religious communities, at times even targeting them. According to University of Victoria professor Christopher Douglas, American-grown and American-targeted disinformation tends to be more salient on the Right than the Left, and typically involves a religious component. The biggest fake news headlines of 2016 and 2017 often targeted Christians, including false headlines about Satan-worshipping Democrats, Hillary Clinton supporting ISIS, or the pope endorsing Trump.
And as Gina Ciliberto and Stephanie Russell-Kraft reported, Christian nationalists were clearly present among those who denied Trump’s loss and rioted at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. “I think that [the demonstrators and rioters] believe that God has a specific plan for this country, and that their vision for the country has been given to them by God. Christian nationalism at its core is this desire to see Christianity be privileged in the public sphere,” Andrew L. Whitehead, co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives and professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, told Sojourners.