The chairwoman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee has asked the FBI to investigate Parler, the largely unmoderated conservative social media hellhole implicated as one of the sites involved in organising the January 7 riots at the Capitol.
In a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) asked the agency to examine whether Parler was “a potential facilitator of planning and incitement related to the violence,” as well as gather evidence that may have been posted by users and assess whether or not the site could be a channel for foreign funds to disrupt domestic politics. Parler was a bastion of diehard Trump support until Amazon Web Services yanked its contract following the failed insurrection, citing a deluge of violent threats issued through the social network that it had done little to rein in.
Maloney specifically pointed to one post cited in a U.S. Department of Justice indictment against one of the rioters, which relayed a threat “armed Patriots” intended to violate DC gun laws and “storm the Capitol” tomorrow. That Parler user faces additional charges of issuing threats on the website:
Headed to D.C. to give the GOP some back bone — to let them know this is their last chance to Stop The Steal — or they are going to have bigger problems than these coddled Antifa burning down their safe spaces. DC announced it is “banning guns” when we storm the Capitol tomorrow. Very illegal. Whether the police can enforce their gun laws depends on how many armed Patriots show up. Ironically, in the long list of firearms and weapons banned by the DC ordinance, tomahawks are not mentioned, meaning there is no prohibition against carrying a tomahawk as long as it is not used offensively! The tomahawk revolution — real 1776.
CEO John Matze has pledged bring the site back online by the end of January, but Parler is struggling. It is suing Amazon in a bid to force the tech giant to reinstate its account, but on Thursday, a judge refused to issue an injunction that would make that happen while the court battle plays out. Google and Apple, which hold an effective duopoly on app downloads in the U.S., banned Parler’s app from their respective stores this month. That means if it does return, mobile users will likely have to access the site through a browser.
Parler recently managed to get its domain back online, but in the form of a “Technical Difficulties” page that displays messages of support from Sen. Rand Paul and various conservative personalities. Maloney asked the FBI to investigate Parler’s new infrastructure provider, Russia-based service DDos-Guard, to determine whether the arrangement could be a pipeline for foreign adversaries “financing civil unrest in the United States.”
However, a number of far-right sites, including neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer and white supremacist hub 8kun (formerly 8chan) have been terminated by U.S. service providers but re-emerged using firms based in countries ranging from Russia and China to Iceland. Others in a similar situation have found a domestic solution in Epik, a niche domain registrar that with a long list of far-right clients such as social network Gab and video site Bitchute; Parler has also been working with Epik.
According to the Washington Post, Maloney said the letter to the FBI was a step toward the Oversight Committee opening its own investigation of websites “to get to the bottom of who owns and funds social media platforms like Parler that condone and create violence.”
While a big portion of the letter was focused on the Russian connection, Parler has received large amounts of funding and was co-founded by Rebekah Mercer of the billionaire Mercer family, a significant source of cash for right-wing causes who was deeply involved with Trump’s political rise. Other U.S. social networks, particularly Facebook, were also used to plot and promote the attack on the Capitol.
Parler, like every other website, is shielded from most criminal and civil liability for user-generated content through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law doesn’t shield providers from liability for violations of federal law, but that exception has only very rarely been used in court and would require prosecutors to prove Parler was actively involved in threats of violence. A full congressional investigation wielding subpoena power could compel the release of information Parler doesn’t want released to the public, force testimony by its executives, and further savage its reputation. Section 230, however, is likely to shield the company and its executives from any direct legal consequences.
“Like other social-media platforms, we have been cooperating and will continue to cooperate with law-enforcement efforts to identify and prosecute those individuals responsible for organising and carrying out the shameless Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol,” Parler Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick told the Post. “Parler welcomes Rep. Maloney’s call to have the Federal Bureau of Investigation conduct a robust examination of our policies and actions.”