Parler, founded by University of Denver grads, is squeezed as Trump seeks new online megaphone

Two University of Denver graduates grabbed national headlines in recent days as the social media site they started was shunned by mainstream technology companies in the wake of Wednesday’s violence in the U.S. Capitol building — prompting their alma mater on Monday to issue a statement condemning “any and all acts of violence.”

The graduates, John Matze and Jared Thomson, are the founders of Parler — a social media site billed as a free-speech-protecting alternative to Twitter that has become a magnet for conservative and far-right users.

After President Donald Trump was kicked off most mainstream social media platforms, Parler — founded in Nevada in 2018 — had been the leading candidate for the president to reconnect with his followers, at least until Google and Apple removed it from their app stores and Amazon booted it off its web hosting service just after midnight Pacific time early Monday.

The companies dropped Parler on the grounds it allows posts that incite violence.

Matze and Thomson studied computer science at the University of Denver, according to their LinkedIn profiles. Matze graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree and Thomson in 2016 with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, according to the University of Denver.

“The University of Denver condemns any and all calls to violence, insurrection, or sedition,” DU officials said in a statement Monday. “We are grounded in the tenets of free speech and First Amendment rights, but those rights end when they incite the populace to violence or to harm others. Those we condemn unconditionally.”

Matze, Parler’s CEO, said the industry cut-off could knock Parler offline for a week, though that might prove optimistic. And even if it finds a friendlier web-hosting service, without a smartphone app, it’s hard to imagine Parler gaining mainstream success.

The 2-year-old magnet for the far right claims more than 12 million users, though mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower puts the number at 10 million worldwide, with 8 million in the U.S. That’s a fraction of the 89 million followers Trump had on Twitter.

Still, Parler might be attractive to Trump since it’s where his sons Eric and Don Jr. are already active. Parler hit headwinds, though, on Friday as Google yanked its smartphone app from its app store for allowing postings that seek “to incite ongoing violence in the U.S.” Apple followed suit on Saturday evening after giving Parler 24 hours to address complaints it was being used to “plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.” Public safety issues will need to be resolved before it is restored, Apple said.

A message seeking comment from Parler was sent Sunday on whether the company plans to change its policies and enforcement around these issues.

Amazon struck another blow Saturday, informing Parler it would need to look for a new web-hosting service effective midnight Sunday. It reminded Parler in a letter, first reported by Buzzfeed, that it had informed it in the past few weeks of 98 examples of posts “that clearly encourage and incite violence” and said the platform “poses a very real risk to public safety.”

When asked for comment, an Amazon spokesperson referred The Associated Press to the letter obtained by Buzzfeed.

Parler CEO John Matze decried the punishments as “a coordinated attack by the tech giants to kill competition in the marketplace. We were too successful too fast,” he said in a Saturday night post, saying it was possible Parler would be unavailable for up to a week “as we rebuild from scratch.”

“Every vendor, from text message services, to e-mail providers, to our lawyers all ditched us too on the same day,” Matze said Sunday on Fox New Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.” He said while the company is trying to get back online as quickly as possible, it’s “having a lot of trouble, because every vendor we talk to says they won’t work with us, because, if Apple doesn’t approve and Google doesn’t approve, they won’t.”

Losing access to the app stores of Google and Apple — whose operating systems power hundreds of millions of smartphones — severely limits Parler’s reach, though it had continued to be accessible via web browser. Losing Amazon Web Services means Parler needs to scramble to find another web host, in addition to the re-engineering.

Trump may also launch his own platform. But that won’t happen overnight, and free speech experts anticipate growing pressure on all social media platforms to curb incendiary speech as Americans take stock of Wednesday’s violent takeover of the U.S. Capitol by a Trump-incited mob.

While initially arguing their need to be neutral on speech, Twitter and Facebook gradually yielded to public pressure drawing the line especially when the so-called Plandemic video emerged early in the coronavirus pandemic urging people not to wear masks, noted civic media professor Ethan Zuckerman of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

Zuckerman expects the Trump de-platforming may spur important online shifts. First, there may be an accelerated splintering of the social media world along ideological lines.

“Trump will pull a lot of audience wherever he goes,” he said. That could mean more platforms with smaller, more ideologically isolated audiences.

On the first full day of trading since kicking Trump off of its platform, shares of Twitter Inc. tumbled more than 10% at the opening bell Monday. Facebook and other tech companies that have put restrictions in place on conservative platforms fell as well amid a broader market selloff.

Associated Press writer Amanda Seitz in Chicago contributed to this report.

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