Parler, the “free speech” social network that attracted millions of Donald Trump’s supporters in the run-up to last year’s US election, was on the ropes in January.
In the wake of the Capitol riots that followed the vote, the app, whose lead investor is the Republican donor Rebekah Mercer, was removed by Apple and Google from their app stores and denied hosting services by Amazon. Even its public relations firm quit. Weeks later, its chief executive, John Matze, was fired after disagreements with Mercer.
Enter George Farmer, a 31-year-old former hedge fund partner and the Oxford university-educated son of a British baron, who has been plotting a route back for the controversial app since becoming its chief executive in May.
“My goal is to provide the platform for the disenfranchised and the voiceless who feel that the mainstream has cut them out,” Farmer said in an interview with the Financial Times. “It is almost like we are an ‘anti’ company.”
A former candidate for the UK’s Brexit party, the well-spoken but pugnacious Farmer wants to prove that Parler can reach a broader base than Trump supporters and to set the app on course to become a reputable platform, while retaining its contrarian edge.
He is planning to “aggressively” market the app, which today has about 30 employees, this quarter, and promises that he has “a lot in the pipeline”, including product innovations and new potential revenue streams. “The platform is going to be very different in a year’s time,” Farmer said.
‘What existed was not a viable business’
Parler launched in 2018 as a self-described “unbiased social media network”, hosting debates over politics, gun rights and conspiracy theories for example.
Ms Mercer said she set up the company to counter the “ever-increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords”. It has an interface similar to that of Twitter — where users can post and follow others, including public figures.
As Facebook and Twitter increased their efforts to curb misinformation, hate speech and content that incited violence in the run-up to the 2020 election, Parler attracted far right groups and was promoted by a number of high-profile Republicans.
Before arriving at the app, Farmer worked at Red Kite, a hedge fund founded by his father Michael Farmer, the veteran metals trader known as ‘Mr Copper’ and a former treasurer of the UK’s Conservative party.
Farmer had previously headed the UK arm of Turning Point, the US rightwing youth group, and was an outspoken campaigner for Britain to leave the EU, which he described as “a toxic, socialist, genocidal superstate”.
His journey from the City of London to the frontline of the US culture war came after he met Candace Owens, a pro-Trump activist, in late 2018. The couple got engaged just two-and-a-half weeks later.
After a period as a self-described “independent roving investor” in the US, Farmer says he approached Parler’s shareholders in early 2021 offering himself as a “steady pair of hands” after Amazon cut off access to their web hosting services, citing repeated content moderation failures.
“What existed was not a viable business,” he said, adding that he spent a few months as interim chief operating officer before taking the chief executive role. “To that end, my goal was to basically conduct a restructuring programme which involved both the technological side of the business and also the corporate side of the business.”
This involved hiring new engineers and finding new third party vendors — for example replacing Amazon’s Web Services with the services of little-known Los Angeles-based web hosting group SkySilk.
Meeting the criteria required to return to the app stores also meant overhauling its content moderation processes, introducing a “scalable model” that blends human and artificial intelligence reviewing, he said. He spoke after researchers at Stanford university found that Parler’s permissive content strategy had seen “spam, financial fraud and porn accounts” proliferate earlier this year.
Today, the level of moderation depends on the device a user has; Parler will filter out content that breaks Apple’s rules just on iOS devices, for example, but not Android devices or its website.
Nevertheless, Farmer said the app continues to stand by its free speech ethos, arguing that while incitement to violence should not be permitted, other less severe speech should be allowed.
“Big Tech got blamed a lot for [Trump’s victory in] 2016. Their default response was to go into censorship mode,” he said. “Saying ‘the election was stolen’ is totally different to saying ‘I’m going to go and storm the Capitol’. To conflate them runs the risk of cheapening the debate.”
A million monthly users
Parler is still small compared to its Big Tech rivals and is not attracting the droves of users it did before its implosion in January, but is “close to tracking where we were in the fourth quarter of last year”, according to Farmer. The platform has about a million monthly active users and 16m accounts in total, he said. By contrast Twitter has 206m monthly active users.
Its future success will depend on whether it can address concerns over lax cybersecurity and poor user experience. It may aso hinge on attracting popular commentators and influencers, particularly on the right, and Farmer said it may offer financial rewards to high-profile people who post exclusively on Parler.
The biggest target is likely to be Trump himself, who has struggled to find ways to address his followers after being suspended from Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. A blog launched by Trump in May was taken down a few weeks later.
Farmer said that Parler had had some “constructive discussions” with Trump’s team, adding that he remained hopeful that the politician would join the platform. “He is the ultimate example of the censored individual,” he said.
A rival pro-Trump social network, Gettr, launched in July but has already run into problems after leaking the data of its users. Farmer said he believed Parler was more developed than its rivals, and welcomed users from across the political spectrum.
He said he also planned to diversify Parler’s revenues beyond digital advertising. This might include allowing brands to sponsor emails that are sent to users, selling apparel and merchandise, and introducing a membership model similar to the Guardian newspaper.
“The social media aspect will always be free but I think there’s a lot more where people want to buy into the brand,” he said.
But there is no urgency, he admitted, as the company has “some shareholders who are very supportive of the organisation”. According to PitchBook, its early backers include Mercer and her father, hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, private start-up and crypto investor Jeffrey Wernick, and rightwing political commentator Dan Bongino.
Farmer declined to comment on Ms Mercer’s involvement with the company, but said the pair had a “great relationship”.
He acknowledged that if Big Tech social networks were to loosen, rather than tighten, their content moderation policies, it would pose “a business risk”. But he added: “I would love to see the world become a more open forum for debate. Do I see that on the cards anytime soon? No.”