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Parler’s got a porn problem: Adult businesses target pro-Trump social network

Hashtags like #keepamericasexy proliferate alongside conspiracy theories and conservative politics

Parler positions itself as the "free speech" alternative to Twitter and Facebook. And after the 2020 election, conservatives welcome that. (Video: The Washington Post)

Anyone following the #sexytrumpgirl hashtag on Parler, a social media site increasingly popular with conservatives, got an eyeful one recent Thursday evening as images of topless women and links to hardcore pornography websites appeared at a rapid-fire rate, often more than one per minute.

The surge of #sexytrumpgirl posts highlighted a broader dilemma for Parler: The site’s lax moderation policies, in keeping with its claims to being a bastion of free speech, could make it a magnet for pornographers, escort services and online sex merchants using hashtags targeting conservatives, such as #keepamericasexy and #milfsfortrump2020.

The pornography threatens to intrude on users not seeking sexual material and has the potential to complicate hopes the site may have to expand advertising, which is now limited. Experts on the impact of pornography say major companies typically avoid having their sales pitches appear alongside controversial imagery.

Purveyors of sexually explicit material have thrived online since the early days of the Internet, and determining what to allow — and how to block what’s not allowed — has been a challenge for most social media sites. Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, for example, prohibit sexually explicit images and videos, while Twitter generally allows them so long as they show the images or actions of consenting adults.

Parler once banned all pornography but in recent months revised its terms of service to permit essentially anything that’s legal, making its policy close to Twitter’s, if slightly more permissive. Twitter, however, also has automated systems that prevent excessively rapid posting, as well as other spammy behavior, and employs human moderators to enforce its policies.

Parler, by contrast, outsources moderation to volunteers who judge potentially objectionable content after it has been flagged by other users. Its systems and policies have given wide latitude for images of adult nudity and sexual behavior, a Washington Post review in recent weeks found. A variety of pornography is easy to find on the site, using both search terms that are explicitly pornographic and others that are not.

These included #trump2020 and #wwg1wga, a slogan for the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, with its baseless claims that leading Democrats and Hollywood celebrities are Satan-worshipping pedophiles. Searches of another hashtag popular with QAnon adherents, #sextrafficking, also yielded numerous pornographic images the same week that they appeared on #sexytrumpgirl, The Post’s review found. An account responsible for many of the pornographic images on those hashtags is now restricted as “private.”

After this story was published online, Parler Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick, who had not responded to repeated pre-publication requests seeking comment on the proliferation of pornography on the site, said he had little knowledge regarding the extent or nature of the nudity or sexual images that appeared on his site but would investigate the issue.

“I don’t look for that content, so why should I know it exists?" Wernick said, but he added that some types of behavior would present a problem for Parler. “We don’t want to be spammed with pornographic content.”

The site’s Chief Policy Officer Amy Peikoff, who also did not respond to repeated requests for comment on its handling of pornography, had defended the company’s approach to content moderation in response to questions for a previous Post story about Parler.

“Broadly, our whole guiding principle is that we want to allow everything that the First Amendment protects as speech, and nothing that it doesn’t,” Peikoff said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared pornographic images of adults to be constitutionally protected speech.

Conservatives grumbling about censorship say they’re flocking to Parler. They told us so on Twitter.

The Post’s review found that searches for sexually explicit terms surfaced extensive troves of graphic content, including videos of sex acts that began playing automatically without any label or warning. Terms such as #porn, #naked and #sex each had hundreds or thousands of posts on Parler, many of them graphic. Some pornographic images and videos had been delivered to the feeds of users tens of thousands of times on the platform, according to totals listed on the Parler posts. (Wernick said those totals did not reflect how often a particular post had been seen by users.)

“When you say, ‘We don’t moderate content,’ you are inviting this content,” said Hany Farid, a University of California at Berkeley computer science professor who has helped develop image-detection technology used by social media sites. “My prediction is they will be overrun with this stuff.”

Much of the pornographic imagery appeared in posts offering links to adult websites, including those featuring women who offer to perform sex acts online for money or gifts, as well as other websites claiming to facilitate in-person sexual encounters with strangers — something that, experts say, often serves as a front for prostitution.

Some of these outside links featured text in Romanian, suggesting foreign operators for those adult websites.

“All of these adult sites, it’s a shell game. … It’s just monetization,” said Danielle Citron, a Boston University law professor who has studied the pornography industry and fought to remove sexual images of people that are uploaded against their will, typically by former romantic partners.

Citron said it’s unlikely that Parler would face any legal ramifications for hosting images of naked adults in apparently consensual encounters, even if some of those links lead to sites that may offer prostitution. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a 1996 federal law undergirding much of the modern Internet economy, offers broad immunity for content uploaded by third parties onto social platforms. Laws against sex trafficking would implicate platforms only if they knowingly promoted such content, as opposed to merely hosting links to other sites, Citron said.

Parler, which was founded in 2018 in Henderson, Nev., with the backing of conservative financier Rebekah Mercer, has been touted by prominent Republicans as an alternative to mainstream platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that they have repeatedly claimed — without offering systematic evidence — are biased against conservative voices.

Independent researchers, meanwhile, have warned that Parler also has become a haven for hate speech, conspiracy theories and disinformation, including a Russian political influence operation that research firm Graphika publicly identified in October but Parler declined to remove. The operation remains active on the site after the company said it would consider acting if the researchers or law enforcement specifically requested removal through its complaint portal. In recent days, the reportedly Russian account, which claims to be an “independent platform,” has questioned the safety of coronavirus vaccine candidates, called the U.S. presidential election “rigged” and warned that Philadelphia was becoming a “white-minority ruin.”

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Eric Feinberg, vice president for content moderation at the Coalition for a Safer Web, a nonprofit group that advocates for technologies and policies to remove extreme content from social media, last month started tracking the rise of pornography on Parler, including links that lead users to third-party sites that offer a range of sexually oriented businesses.

“It’s becoming a Wild West for right-wing customers,” said Marc Ginsberg, the coalition’s president, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

Sexually explicit content has surged as Parler has gained popularity in recent weeks, briefly becoming the top app on Apple’s App Store while generating more than 4 million downloads in just the first two weeks of November, according to tracking by Sensor Tower, an analytics service. Parler’s executives have claimed the site now has 10 million accounts.

The image-detection technology that Farid, the UC-Berkeley computer scientist, helped develop allows social media sites to find images of child sexual exploitation, also known as child pornography, so they can be removed before being viewed by users or human moderators. He said Parler’s approach may make the site vulnerable to those who upload child pornography, which, despite being illegal, infiltrates social media platforms unless measures are put in place to detect and remove it.

Facebook, for example, removed more than 30 million images of child nudity and sexual exploitation in the first nine months of this year, according to the company’s quarterly transparency reports. (It also removed nearly 112 million images of adult nudity and sexual activity in that same time period.)

Peikoff said Parler would not “knowingly allow it to be used for any criminal content.”

Wernick elaborated after this story published, confirming that Parler has no system for detecting child pornography before it is viewed and potentially reported by users.

“If somebody does something illegal, we’re relying on the reporting system,” Wernick said. “We’re not hunting.”

Parler’s terms of service describe a system in which users must first report content that violates company policies before the company takes action. “Sometimes the law requires us to exclude content from our platform, once it is reported to our Community Jury. Obvious examples: content posted by or on behalf of terrorist organizations, child pornography, and copyright violations.”

These rules are more permissive than those published just a few months earlier. In community guidelines posted in July, Parler said users should not “use language/visuals that describe or show sexual organs or activity.” Chief executive John Matze told NPR earlier this year that the app took “a hard line against pornography and nudity.”

The most recent iteration of Parler’s community guidelines allows for adult pornography, though Parler has settings to block material deemed “sensitive” or “Not Safe for Work” from appearing automatically on users’ screens.

The Post’s review found that a portion of the pornographic posts on Parler had their explicit imagery covered by red warning labels that required an extra click to bypass, but in some cases, the same pornographic images were blocked on some posts but not others. Relatively mild imagery — a woman in lingerie, for example — got blocked in some instances while some graphic, up-close videos of sex acts did not.

Parler says it does not allow users under 18 to use the site without explicit parental permission, and users under 13 are forbidden entirely from Parler. But the site has no system for detecting or verifying a user’s age.

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Not all of the images of naked people on Parler are obviously commercial, though many intentionally seek the attention of Trump supporters, as one woman did last week by placing a “Trump 2020” hat across her stomach as she lay naked on her back for a photo posted to Parler. The text read, “Just promoting our president!”

Another account showed a nude woman with a black handgun covering her genitals, along with the text “Naked and real” and hashtags including #freedom, #secondamendment and #girlswithguns. Another post using the #girlswithguns hashtag urged anyone “interested in seeing a young, hot, conservative girl” to send her a direct message.

These users and others posting such content did not reply to requests for comment.

Some Parler users, meanwhile, posted pornographic images and videos of other people, including some that appeared to be professionally produced.

Overall, The Post’s review found a wide range of imagery and explicitness. Searching the #girlswithguns hashtag, for example, surfaced many images of women in bikinis or revealing clothing as they brandished large rifles, but outright nudity appeared rarely in the images or videos affiliated with that hashtag.

Parler makes no public mention of an automated system trained to identify posts that may violate its policies. Instead, it has a “community jury” of Parler users who review potential violations after users have reported them.

“No user shall be stripped of his parleys or comments, nor shall he be suspended, banned, or deprived of his standing in any other way, except by the conscientious judgment of his equals,” the jury’s official Parler page reads.

Jury members vote on reported posts or comments to decide if the post in question violates Parler’s guidelines. A post must receive four or five votes to be considered in violation of Parler policies. If the post includes illegal content, it gets taken down, according to Parler’s jury guidelines. Posters might also receive “points” for offending posts, which can eventually get them banned if they rack up too many.

Parler’s jury members get regular training on the company guidelines, said Peikoff. The jury had nearly 200 members this summer, and recently put out a call for more volunteers, saying participants would be compensated.

“As I am sure you are aware, we are experiencing a substantial influx of new people on our platform — and with that an increase in the amount of violation reports,” said a Parler post on Nov. 21.