GOP officials flock to Parler social network. So do their trolls and impostors.July 2, 2020
Dozens of Republican lawmakers have joined the social media site Parler as GOP tensions with Twitter and other major tech platforms mount, but so have hordes of fake accounts claiming to belong to conservative politicians.
At least 32 GOP members of Congress have set up accounts on Parler, with a vast majority doing so in recent weeks and even days, according to a POLITICO review confirmed by lawmaker offices. They include at least three senators — Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah — and a slew of big tech critics in the House, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Reps. Devin Nunes of California, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Ken Buck of Colorado.
Conservative politicians have turned to the platform, which bills itself as an “unbiased” substitute for the likes of Facebook and Twitter, as they escalate their feud with Silicon Valley over allegations that social media companies stifle viewpoints on the right. That movement has given Parler’s site — with its crimson theme, minimalist feel and Twitter-like interface — a distinctly conservative bent.
But Parler has also seen a sudden uptick in impostor accounts over the past few weeks, with 11 GOP congressional offices telling POLITICO there are new pages on the site wrongly purporting to be their official accounts, including for Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Texas and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois.
The phony @RealSenGraham introduces himself with a post, which the site calls a “parley,” saying: “Well kiss my grits and call me Lindsey. I’m on Parler.” The senator is not, in fact, on Parler, but at least another four fake Grahams are, some more polished than others.
Many of the fake Parler accounts present themselves like any typical congressional social media page, posting advisories about upcoming events, putting out statements on timely issues and sharing notable articles with constituents — making them nearly indistinguishable from an official forum. Others are more flagrantly false, with one phony account for a Democratic lawmaker sharing links from a far-right blog known for spreading hoaxes.
The trend highlights Parler’s challenge to gain credibility as a platform striving to be an alternative to Facebook, Twitter, Google-owned YouTube and Reddit, even as it becomes the talk of conservative circles. Parler already had a reputation as a conservative echo chamber where some fringe characters banned from Facebook and Twitter found a home. Now, users have to figure out if the conservative voices they’re hearing are genuine.
Impostor accounts are nothing new to social media — the industry’s biggest companies routinely purge their platforms of scores of phony accounts impersonating public figures. But those firms have tightened their verification protocols over the years in an effort to ensure users aren’t fooled by accounts pretending to be political leaders.
That’s a challenge Parler is now running into at full speed, as officials in the highest ranks of the Republican Party join the site in rapid succession. While the site has been widely seen as freewheeling, Parler does have rules about content and user conduct, including community guidelines that prohibit impersonation of a public official.
The GOP movement onto Parler was at first slow, then suddenly swift. Paul, the libertarian Kentucky senator, was among the first lawmakers to publicly announce they had joined in August.
But dozens more Republican lawmakers have signed up over the past several weeks, according to a review of the platform and statements from congressional offices provided to POLITICO. The findings mark the most detailed look to date at how widespread use of the platform has become among GOP officials on Capitol Hill.
That comes as Parler is experiencing a boost in users overall, according to its CEO. Parler chief John Matze told CNBC its user base has grown from 1 million to 1.5 million in just a week — a growing figure that still pales in comparison to the over 2 billion users on Facebook. The stat highlights the massive uphill climb smaller platforms like Parler and others face in competing with the tech giants, who dwarf them in size and resources.
Parler is trying to seize a moment. President Donald Trump and his allies ratcheted up their attacks against Silicon Valley after Twitter began adding warning and fact-checking labels to some of the president’s tweets in late May. Trump has since ordered federal regulators to look at whether to narrow social media companies’ liability protections over user content, a move that could deal a major blow to the online industry.
The site has also attracted other high-profile conservative figures including Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and Fox News host Sean Hannity. And its CEO says they’re looking to convert that momentum into revenue by building an online advertising platform, a plan that arrives as Facebook faces a major advertising boycott over its handling of Trump’s posts. (Matze told Forbes the company got off the ground with some early investors, including friends.)
While some of those figures now on the platform, including the president’s children, have had their accounts verified by Parler and been labeled as such, others haven’t completed that process yet. Parler shows that public figures’ accounts are genuine with a gold badge.
“We are still going through the Parler verification process,” said Brigid Nealon, a spokesperson for Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.), who joined the site last week.
That could complicate efforts to make out who is and isn’t who they say they are from Parler’s new pool of recruits in Washington. Of the impostor accounts for lawmakers confirmed by POLITICO, several featured identical handles and visuals as the officials’ profiles on other platforms. That included a page impersonating Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), which has the same profile picture and background image as his profile on Twitter and goes by the same handle.
The account was shifted to “private” status on Wednesday, limiting its visibility, after POLITICO reached out to Parler and Kennedy’s office regarding the page.
“It appears that someone created a fake account in the senator’s name, and that the misleading account is no longer active,” said Jess Andrews, a Kennedy spokesperson.
At least one phony user even posted about wanting to get their page credentialed. “How do I become verified? #parler” posted an account under the handle @SenJohnThune. A Thune spokesperson confirmed the lawmaker is not on the platform.
Democratic officials have — unsurprisingly — been less eager to join the site. But a casual observer might think they have at least a limited presence. Impostor accounts exist purporting to be Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden. None of them have accounts on the platform, spokespeople confirmed.
One fake Schiff account posted a link to an article about Biden from Gateway Pundit, a far-right blog known for promoting conspiracy theories.
But such accounts are also less likely to dupe users aware that the platform has been less attractive to those on the left. Matze told CNBC he wants more liberals to sign up, and he’s even offering a “progressive bounty” of $20,000 for a prominent left-wing pundit to start a Parler account.
Several congressional offices said they planned to ask Parler to take down the impostor accounts after POLITICO sought comment on them. A Schiff spokesperson said his office is aware of fake pages masquerading as the House Intelligence chair and that they encourage Parler to take action. Schiff does not have an account on the platform, they said.
Parler did not return multiple requests for comment on the impostor accounts or its verification process.
Despite GOP lawmakers flocking to Parler, there’s been little to no indication any of them plan to quit the major social media platforms. Many announced that they had joined Parler in posts on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, and have continued to post to those sites since.
Some lawmakers’ offices who created accounts say they are still weighing whether to actively use the platform. And other offices, including McCarthy’s, said they wanted to secure accounts on the platform, where common handles for the lawmakers are quickly getting snatched up by other users. It’s unclear whether Parler would accommodate potential requests from lawmakers to make handles available to them that have already been claimed by other users.
“We reserved them to make sure they weren’t taken—but we have yet to decide if we’re going to follow through with using the platform,” said Sarah Selip, a spokesperson for Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga), who created an account last week.
But there’s already signs more may follow.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesperson for Graham, said the senator doesn’t “have a Parler account … yet.”