By / Dec 14

In recent months, a new social media platform gained growing popularity in light of controversies over content moderation and fact-checking on traditional social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Parler was launched in August of 2018 by John Matze, Jared Thomson, and Rebekah Mercer. While it still has a smaller user base than most social platforms at just over 2.8 million people, the app saw a surge in downloads following the November 2020 presidential election and has become extremely popular in certain circles of our society. It became the #1 downloaded application on Apple and Google devices soon after the 2020 presidential election, with over 4 million downloads in just the first two weeks of November, according to tracking by Sensor Tower.

Here is what you should know about this social media application and why it matters in our public discourse.

What is Parler?

Parler, named after the French word meaning to speak, is described as a “free speech” alternative to traditional social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. The company’s website describes the platform as a way to “speak freely and express yourself openly, without fear of being ‘deplatformed’ for your views.” Parler intentionally positions itself as the “world’s town square,” and CEO John Matze said of the app, “If you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.”

Parler is a microblogging social service, very similar to Twitter, where users are encouraged to share articles, thoughts, videos, and more. The platform states that “people are entitled to security, privacy, and freedom of expression.” This emphasis on privacy is seen in the ways that Parler will keep your data confidential and won’t sell your data to third parties services, which is a complaint about the nature of other platforms and their business models based on ad revenue. Currently, Parler does not have advertisers on the platform, but they have plans to allow advertisers to target influencers instead of regular users.

Posts on the platform are called “parleys,” and the feed is broken up into two sections namely parleys and affiliate content, which functions like a news feed of content providers for the platforms. To share content from someone else, a user can “echo” a certain post or piece of content.

The platform also has a “Parler citizen verification,” where users can be verified by the service in order to cut down on fake accounts and ones run by bots. Users that submit their photo ID and a selfie are eligible for verification. Once verified, users will see a red badge on their avatar indicating that they are a Parler citizen. Parler also has a “verified influencer” status for those with large followings who might be easily impersonated, very similar to the “blue check” icon on Twitter.

Does Parler censor or moderate content?

The company claims that it does not censor speech or content, yet it does have certain community standards much like other platforms, even if those standards are intentionally set low. The community standards are broken into two principles: 

  1. Parler will not knowingly allow itself to be used as a tool for crime, civil torts, or other unlawful acts.
  2. Posting spam and using bots are nuisances and are not conducive to productive and polite discourse.

Outside of these two community standard principles, Parler does have a more detailed account of the type of actions that fall under the principles. The platform is intentionally designed in order to give users some tools to deal with spam, harassment, or objectionable content including “the ability to mute or block other members, or to mute or block all comments containing terms of the member’s choice.”

Overall, Parler is designed to be an alternative platform for those who do not agree with the community standards and policies of other social platforms. The company states that “while the First Amendment does not apply to private companies such as Parler, our mission is to create a social platform in the spirit of the First Amendment.” This is an important point in the debate over content moderation on other platforms though because as the company points out, the First Amendment does not apply to private companies but was written to reflect the relationship between individuals and the state. 

Why is Parler controversial?

As the platform has gained prominence in certain segments of American life, Parler has expanded its user base in large part as a reaction to the content moderation policies on other platforms. Because it has promised to allow and highlight content that other services deem misinformation, contested claims, and at times hate speech, Parler has been characterized by what it allows its users to post without fear of removal or moderation.

Relying on users to moderate or curate their own feeds, Parler seeks to abdicate themselves of any responsibility of what is posted on their platform. The application has also become incredibly partisan, with a large number of users joining the platform after the 2020 presidential election amidst the growing distrust in the ways that other social media label controversial content, misinformation, and fake news.

Currently, Parler has a large number of users from one side of the political spectrum, which can at times lead to a siloing effect where a user only sees one side of an argument. This was one of the issues of traditional social media that Parler set out to overcome with its lax moderation policies in the first place.

Is it a safe platform?

Parler states that any user under 18 must have parental permission to gain access to the application, and all users under 13 are banned. But the service does not currently have an age verification system. Users can also change settings on their account to keep “sensitive” or “Not Safe for Work” content from showing in their feeds automatically. The Washington Post also reports that Parler does not currently have a robust system for detecting child pornography before it is viewed or potentially flagged and reported by users. A company spokesman has said, “If somebody does something illegal, we’re relying on the reporting system. We’re not hunting.”

Given its lack of robust content moderation policies, Parler has drawn a considerable number of users from Twitter and other platforms who decry that their views were censored or their accounts banned. Many conservative elected officials and news organizations have joined the platform, which hopes to attain a critical mass of users large enough to sustain the platform moving forward. Parler currently does not have the amount of brands or companies that other platforms have, which can be needed for a platform to flourish as an information source and connectivity tool for users.

Parler banned pornography on the platform but in recent months changed its content moderation policies to allow for pornography on the platform. This aligns it more with Twitter’s policy allowing this graphic content online. Parler’s approach to moderation can be seen in recent comments by COO Jeffrey Wernick to the Post in response to allegations of the proliferation of pornography on the site. Wernick responded that he had little knowledge of that type of content on the platform, adding, “I don’t look for that content, so why should I know it exists?” He later added that he would look into the issue.

Since the shifts in policy in recent months, Parler has suffered from issues surrounding the proliferation of pornography and spam, which should come as no surprise as the pornography industry has been using innovative technology from the early days of the internet. Parler states that it allows anything on its platform that the First Amendment allows. The United States Surpreme Court has declared that pornography is constitutionally protected free speech.

It should be noted that Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube ban all pornographic imagery and videos from their platforms. Facebook and Instagram use automated systems to scan photos as they are posted and also rely on a robust reporting system for users to flag content that may violate the company’s community standards. While Twitter’s policies allow for pornography, it does employ automated systems to cut down on rapid posting and other spam-related uploads as well as the use of human moderators to cut down on abuse from users and bots.

Should social media companies be able to censor speech and enforce content moderation policies on users?

This is at the heart of the debate over free speech and social media, especially centering around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Section 230 has been called the law that gave us the modern internet. The law allowed a more open and free market of ideas and for the creation of user-generated content sites.

As the ERLC wrote in 2019, many social conservatives, worried about the spread of pornography, lobbied Congress to pass the the Communications Decency Act, which penalized the online transmission of indecent content and protected companies from being sued for removing such offensive content. Section 230 was written with the intention of encouraging internet companies to develop content moderation standards and to protect them against liability for removing content in order to have safer environments online, especially for minors. This liability protection led to the development of community standards and ways to validate information posted without the company being liable for user-generated content.

Controversy over the limits of Section 230 and ways to update the law have been center stage in American public life for the last few years, especially as the Trump administration issued an Executive Order on the prevention of online censorship. Both sides of the political aisle are debating if it should simply be updated or if the statute should be removed completely.

By / Oct 12

I love Sunday mornings, but there is one thing I dread each week about them. Outside of the blessing of gathering together as the church (even remotely in this season) and extra time with my family, I get the dreaded notification on my iPhone. From reading and entertainment to social media and productivity, the screen time activity report on my phone displays the reality of my online activity for the past week. That methodic revelation often comes as a disappointing and discouraging reminder of the toils of this season of remote work, online school, and social distancing.

Our children are likewise fixated on screens, with countless hours spent online for homework, remote learning, gaming, reading, social media, connecting with friends, and even gathering with the church. This generation of children is the first to grow up in the smartphone era, seemingly always connected by social media and digital technology. It will be decades before we see the full effects of these technologies on their development as adults.

If we are honest, this season is hard on most of us. The guilt associated with screen time and our children can be overwhelming at times even for the most disciplined parents. I don’t know of a single family that thinks they have these things all figured out. Two things are for certain: we will get through this pandemic season, but we will fail at times in our role as parents. However, our job isn’t to be the perfect parents or guardians. Our role is to shepherd and disciple our children in the ways of the Lord, even in our digital first world. 

The bad news

Just this past week, I took our oldest to his four-year-old well check and was reminded yet again at how this pandemic is affecting our children, especially in relation to technology. After the doctor’s visit, they handed me a paper of developmental goals and tips for parenting that mentioned the amount of time recommended for him on a screen each day. Needless to say, I am not a shining example of a parent in this season in relation to screen time. I bet you are in a similar boat.

Countless studies have confirmed what most of us already instinctively know about technology and children. Too much screen time can be detrimental to their brain development, social skills, and creative thinking. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 2 to 5 shouldn’t watch more than one hour of high-quality children’s programming per day. Older children have various recommended limits and certain content restrictions. A recent survey by Common Sense Media revealed that pre-pandemic, the average child views from four to seven hours of entertainment media per day. During COVID-19, we will probably far surpass many of these professional recommendations.

The good news

With all of the increased pressures on our families and communities this year, it can feel as though we can never catch a break. But for overwhelmed and often overworked parents, the additional guilt and concern over our children’s technology habits can be a heavy burden to bear. There is good news, though, regardless of where you find yourself. 

First, this time in life will pass. It sounds a bit cliche, but in the middle of a busy season of life and parenting we all need to be reminded that this is not our new normal. It will be behind us soon. The habits and patterns of life that we have formed—in many cases, just to survive—will not and do not determine the future of our families or parenting. 

Acknowledging that we often fail and learning to lean upon God’s gracious mercy each day, we can begin to implement the little changes with technology habits that often yield bigger results in the long run.

And second, there is grace for our failures. As a fellow parent, I need the daily reminder from the Lord that there are new mercies each morning and that my failures from the day before do not and cannot define me (Lam. 3:22-23). God’s mercy is abundant, and he is faithful to see us through this difficult season of health, finances, online schooling, and even our technology habits.

As parents and guardians, we are fallible human beings. We will mess up. We likely will get sucked into addictive patterns of screens from time to time, pacify our children with technology, and use these technologies to avoid hard conversations. But not only is God’s mercy overflowing for us each day, it will also sustain us in the ups and downs and as we seek to use technology wisely in our homes. 

Start with small habits

Acknowledging that we often fail and learning to lean upon God’s gracious mercy each day, we can begin to implement the little changes with technology habits that often yield bigger results in the long run. I encourage you to start small. Maybe that is just seeking to have a single meal without any screens period. It could be a long walk with your family that is not tracked, measured, or put on Instagram. 

My wife decided to put together a fall bucket list of activities for our family that gets us active and out of our pandemic habits this month. Some of the activities include a fall drive with hot chocolate and no screens, baking cookies to share with neighbors (socially distanced, of course), setting up a bonfire in the backyard, creating handmade Halloween cards for family and friends, and even making a thankful tree to be reminded of the good gifts of God in this season.

A friend at the beginning of this pandemic said that this is going to be a year to remember but one that can be a sweet memory with our children. Even amidst all the hardships, there can be precious moments that will be remembered well after this virus. While it is easy to use technology as a crutch or pacifier right now, our children need us to disciple and help them form healthy habits concerning technology that will outlast us as parents and guardians. So even in the chaos of this year, we need to remember that God’s mercies are new each morning. And we can rest in knowing that God is even more present than the watchful eye of our smartphones and that dreaded screen time activity report.

By / Oct 1

A few days ago, I started hearing buzz around the documentary, “The Social Dilemma.” It is a documentary on NETFLIX that exposes how addiction and targeted ads and videos aren’t accidental side effects of social media use, but they are planned features to keep the user coming back. Although its original design was intended for good, many of the former tech executives in the documentary say that social media apps are now monetizing this addiction and have the potential to shape beliefs and behaviors in negative ways. 

As a Christian, this is disconcerting, and yet if we look at the last few years, we can understand how this is true. Between the Pizzagate conspiracy on TikTok and the Flat Earth Conspiracy theories seen on YouTube, we see just two substantial examples of how social media has affected the beliefs of its users. Not to mention that psychologists are now linking social media use to seeing increased depression in children. So, what are we to do? How do we ensure we aren’t addicted to technology and our minds and behaviors aren’t altered by smartphones?

Justin Early, in his book The Common Rule: Habits for Purpose in an age of Distraction says, “Habits form much more than our schedules: they form our hearts.” I think this is a wise word for believers wrestling with how to use technology well. Here are a few “habits” or ideas that will better help you grapple with how to use technology well. 

Make your smartphone work for you

A few years ago I read a book called The Tech-Wise Family. In his book, Andy Crouch argues that we ought to be putting technology in its proper place. In other words, technology should serve a purpose; you shouldn’t serve technology. In order to do this, Crouch gives 10 Commitments or guiding principles that will help you form a better relationship with technology. 

One of the principles I recently started practicing was making sure that my smartphone “goes to bed” before I go to bed and “wakes up” after I wake up. My phone shouldn’t be the last thing I see at night or the first thing I see in the morning. This seems like common sense, but truth be told it’s something I haven’t been practicing during most of 2020. I’ve found myself scrolling the news or social media in bed. As I checked my phone for more updates on the many happenings of 2020, I slowly became more addicted to “news.” What originally started as a quick five-minute habit turned into something I’d do and lose track of time (and precious minutes of sleep). 

One practical way to enforce this habit is to limit what apps you can use and when. Most smartphones now have screen time limits where you can shut down and wake up apps at specific times. I now have a minimalistic list of apps that I can use (messaging, notes, etc.) in addition to the main purpose of the smartphone, actual phone calls, from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m. No more mindlessly scrolling through Twitter before bed. No more ending the day with fear-driven news or peeking in on the latest evangelical Twitter battle. 

We should view our use of social media as a good news tool, not sticking our heads in the sand about hardship, crisis, and heartache, but as a method to take the good news to those hard places and meet the needs of others.

After putting these guidelines in place, I was surprised at how much more reading I finished in a night and how I was able to fall asleep faster. I was no longer going to bed anxious about the news or what a neighbor said on Facebook. Now I jot down my to-do list for the next day, pick up a book, and read until I’m ready for sleep. It’s been incredibly life-giving. 

Know when to step away

Another good practice is learning how and when to unplug. I often set good boundaries, only to slip into bad habits again. This is a good signifier that I need to unplug for a few days and reset boundaries. Tiffany Shlain, a Jewish filmmaker and author of 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day A Week recommends unplugging for at least one day a week. In her book, she calls this a “technology Shabbat,” modeled after a traditional Jewish shabbat. One day a week from sundown on Fridays to sundown on Saturdays, their family powers off every cellphone, iPad, TV, and other computers in the house. They kick off the shabbat with a big meal, signifying the communal aspect of shabbat, and she has said that this has been one of the most life-giving habits for her family.

Andy Crouch, in The Tech-Wise Family, says something similar. He recommends shutting it all down for one hour a day, one day a week, and staying unplugged for one week a year. As Christians, this idea of sabbath rest from technology shouldn’t feel too unfamiliar. After all, we see an example of our good and all-knowing God modeling rest in the creation narrative. And historically, Sabbath rest, moderation, and fasting have all been disciplines that were practiced regularly by Christians. Practicing these disciplines directly combats a cultural gluttony that values independence, surplus, and instant gratification. Rather than succumbing to addiction and the instant gratification that smartphones can bring, we have the opportunity to point to a better way of living: one rooted in Christ, our ultimate sabbath.

See the potential for gospel good

It’s tempting to get caught up in a doomsday approach. It seems like just about every major problem in society has the potential to lead toward the end of humanity as we know it—or at least, that’s what the talking heads tell us (and the end of the documentary suggested). But as a people who base our entire existence on the hope of a suffering King who has promised to come again, we can have a more redemptive lens. We know that God has promised to make all things new. And in the meantime, he has charged his church with the mandate to go into the world and preach the gospel, and to be for the flourishing of others around us. Social media can be a powerful tool toward those ends, so we choose to steward it well. 

We should proclaim Jesus every chance we get on social media. We can point to rhythms and resources that help others walk faithfully with Christ. We must model Christlike discourse online when the rest of the world is yelling. We have the opportunity give generously to GoFundMe accounts and other organizations raising funds for worthy causes. We should view our use of social media as a good news tool, not sticking our heads in the sand about hardship, crisis, and heartache, but as a method to take the good news to those hard places and meet the needs of others. In other words, we use social media for Gospel good and don’t allow social media to use us for evil. 

These are just a few habits we can practice, and they aren’t exhaustive. Rather, my prayer is that they serve as a catalyst for you to spend some time thinking and praying through how you can, as Andy Crouch says, put technology in its proper place. 

By / Jun 6

In this issue, we aim to provoke Christians to think deeply about the way we interact with technology. We are not merely venting about Facebook. Nor are we starry-eyed tech savants who refuse to ask ourselves important questions about the technology we consume. Rather, we want to apply the good news of the gospel—a Creator God who rescues humans from their corrupted endeavors—to the world in which God has called us. And we think the church is the best institution to have these discussions in a world that is asking questions. 

Along the way, we feature essays like Jason Thacker’s article on the tension of technology and Brett McCracken’s on finding margin in a distracted world. We also highlight interviews with innovators like Bobby Gruenewald of YouVersion and author Andy Crouch. Finally, you can evaluate breakthroughs like cryptocurrency and read advice from Chris Martin on how to conduct yourself well on social media. 

By / Oct 21

Welcome back to the Questions and Ethics program with Russell Moore. I am Daniel Patterson. We’ve got an interesting question for you today, Dr. Moore. This question comes from a parent who says I’ve got a twelve-year-old. All his friends have smartphones, iPads, laptops, but I’ve got some concerns myself. Should I get my twelve-year-old a smartphone?

Well, you are really hitting on a sensitive area for me because this is something that just is a continual point of amazement to me are kids, not just age twelve, but even much younger than this who have iPhones and iPads and so forth. My kids are among the only ones in the neighborhood who aren’t walking around with smartphones. And so I really think this is an important question because I have to reflect all the time on my gratitude to God for the fact that as a Gen-Xer I came of age right before the digital revolution because if I had come of age just a little bit later, I think it would have been new enough that my parents probably wouldn’t have known what all sorts of trouble one could get into, and if I had had access to the internet I would have just completely destroyed myself. I mean, I know myself, and I know my weaknesses enough to know that that would have been the case.

And so I think when we are thinking about smartphones there are a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. One of those is that you are dealing with a situation in which porn is more trafficked on the internet than Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter combined. It is not simply that pornography is out there—it is that pornography is an industry that has every interest in using the technology to drive people toward it. So when you are just sending kids out into the Wild Wild West of unrestricted internet access you really have a Proverbs 7 sort of situation of sending a child into a place where there is danger that can be spiritually deadly.

And it is also true that you are dealing with children who are in the most vulnerable stage in that adolescent era in terms of creating the habits that are going to be with them for the rest of their lives and also in terms of writing their sexual scripts. I mean the images—now one of the powers that pornography has is to embed images and to embed scripts that for a developing young man or young woman can last for a lifetime.

And it’s not just pornography; it’s also a situation where one is developing one’s brain in terms of imagination and in terms of attention. I mean just think about how frustrating it is even for those of us who have given great attention in our lives to other things, to academics or Bible study or other things, to be distracted by the sort of digital world where everything is immediate and everything is constantly sort of barking at you like a carnival barker as you are walking past it. This can have serious repercussions.

So I think when it comes to smartphones it is not so much the same thing as saying we are going to allow our child to watch television—It’s more along the lines of we are going to send our child into this strip club because he or she is going to have to eventually know how to navigate not going into strip clubs when the child is grown. That’s not a Christian way of seeing the nurture of children. And so I would not get a smartphone that has easy access to the internet on it at all. And even when you are using programs that are blocking inappropriate sites, those programs often are able to be circumvented especially by digital natives who are typically more adept with those sorts of things than their parents are.

Now, I think there are options out there. One of the things that my wife and I are looking at are phones that would have cellular service and would have a restriction on the numbers being called and also on the text messaging capability so that we have approved numbers and people that are loaded in, including 911, where adolescents can call or text with their parents or with other people that their parents are aware of and approving of without sending them over into the cyberwilderness. And I mean we also do this with for instance an iPad. I have an iPad that when one of my sons is traveling with me I disable the internet on it and simply load it up with games or books or those sorts of things that I want my child to have when we are on a plane or when we are on a train or whatever we are doing. There are all sorts of ways that parents can do that.

And then as a child starts to get older you’re gradually giving more and more freedom as the child is showing maturity and showing responsibility. I just was told the other day about a dad who with his sons they are all Covenant Eyes accountability partners with one another, the dad and the sons. I thought that was beautiful. You have these older teenage sons that the dad is treating like men and part of what it means to be a man is a moral accountability to one another and the dad is not putting himself as kind of above this but he is putting himself right there in the struggle with these sons and showing them what it means to be accountable. I think that’s a beautiful sort of story.

But when it comes to smartphones I would just say jesus tells us that even the pagans wouldn’t give to their child a snake when he asks for a fish or a scorpion when he asks for an egg, and I think that we need to have that sort of wisdom. There’s just too much at stake to turn a developing psyche loose with no boundaries with a technology that could psychically and spiritually cripple him or her or a future family for that matter for a lifetime. And then beyond a lifetime.

And technology is good. We need to be grateful and glad that we have it. But that doesn’t mean that we turn our children over to the cyberwilderness.

Thanks for joining the Questions and Ethics program. If you have a question that you would like Dr. Moore to answer, email it to [email protected] and we will be back again next week to help you apply the gospel to the pressing issues of the day.