The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Parler is offline, but violent posts scraped by hackers will haunt users

Parler’s data was easily scraped from its site, a researcher said, as it fell off the Internet this week

Parler’s data was easily scraped from its site, a researcher said, as it fell off the Internet this week. (Christophe Gateau/AP)

Rioters who stormed the Capitol last week posted some of their plans on Parler, a social media network that prides itself on free speech.

“Better advice … go armed and ready to shoot,” one user posted on the site on Jan. 6, according to screenshots shared on Twitter.

Over the weekend, Parler was removed from the Apple and Google app stores. On Monday, Parler disappeared from the Internet entirely as Amazon’s cloud provider dropped it. All the tech giants cited the site’s incitements to violence and lack of content moderation.

Parler immediately objected to this characterization — and filed a lawsuit against Amazon on Monday.

Parler’s fall was faster than its rise. The site, founded in 2018, built a name as a conservative competitor to Twitter and Facebook. It was much smaller than the giants but growing steadily, and pitched itself as a privacy-focused, sophisticated social media site that put a premium on people’s right to free expression. For months it attracted big names and gained millions of users, many of whom had grown fed up with traditional social media platforms.

But Parler also quickly became a breeding ground for conspiracy theories about the election and calls for violence in D.C. And one by one, technical services in the days following the riot dropped their support, culminating with Amazon’s decision. As its fate became clear, a group of hackers worked to archive the site so no posts — potentially incriminating or not — would be lost.

Users, who flocked to the site on the promise of free speech and expression without censorship, were dealt a parting blow from a researcher who said she is in the process of archiving nearly all public posts on Parler and will make them available to others online. That scraping, as it’s known, wouldn’t have been so easy for a bigger site with more security precautions in place, security experts said.

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One of Parler’s selling points, extolled publicly by executives, was privacy — compared with the reams of data Twitter and Facebook collect on users.

“It’s one thing to have the intention of privacy, and it’s another to be able to deliver it in a meaningful way,” security researcher Troy Hunt said Monday. Hunt, who was not involved in the data leak, pointed out that although the data may have been legally obtained, Facebook and Twitter have controls in place to prevent such scraping.

It wasn’t just the big players — customer service company Zendesk and security firm Okta also dropped Parler as a customer, furthering its tumble off the Web.

Parler sues Amazon after pro-Trump site goes dark

Parler did not respond to a request for comment.

Before it went dark, chief executive John Matze posted on the site that “violence and coordinating riots, coordinating rebellions and coordinating insurrections has no place on social media.”

Matze posted that “the media tried to claim that ‘The Insurrection’ was organized on Parler.” He added that Parler has no way to organize anything and that “bad actors” turned the Capitol protest into a riot.

In its lawsuit against Amazon, Parler said Amazon Web Services, the cloud computing service, alleged that it had informed Parler of 98 posts that violated policies, and later in the suit Parler said it had “removed everything AWS had brought to its attention and more.”

Parler pointed out in its suit that violent hashtags and posts also surface on Twitter and said that Amazon breached its contract with the company by not giving it 30 days’ notice.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Parler has long prided itself on relaxed moderation policies that rely on a group of volunteer jurors to vote on potentially illegal posts and decide if they should be removed or left up. Parler has said it doesn’t rely on artificial-intelligence technology to find and flag violative posts, and it noted several months ago that it had only about 200 volunteer jury members.

“If somebody does something illegal, we’re relying on the reporting system,” Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Wernick told The Post in December.

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But in the days leading up to and following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, Parler was filled with posts supporting the rioters and calling for future attacks.

“Sleep well tonight patriots. … You are going to love how this movie ends,” wrote StormIsUponUs, a QAnon-espousing account with more than 450,000 followers on Parler. “‘Nothing can stop what’s coming’ wasn’t just a catch-phrase.”

The Post has not been able to independently verify the archive of scraped Parler posts, although Internet sleuths have said they’ve started using the information. A Twitter user who posts under the handle @donk_enby, who has posted that she’s working on the archive and whom The Post hasn’t been able to identify, didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Archive Team, which was documenting the effort, and Internet Archive, which is supposed to host the scraped data, did not respond to requests for comment.

Parler surged in popularity over the past eight months, riding the backlash against big tech companies pushed by President Trump and conservative politicians and pundits.

The company was launched by an investment from billionaire Republican megadonor Rebekah Mercer, who with her father has helped bankroll Trump, the far-right site Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica. Parler was founded in Henderson, Nev., in 2018 as a free-speech alternative to mainstream social media sites, promising fewer rules.

In May, Twitter for the first time flagged Trump’s account with a fact check label. Facebook said shortly after that it would also begin labeling his posts, and Trump lashed out at the social media companies for censoring him.

Prominent Republicans in response called on people to abandon Twitter and join Parler.

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Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted in June that he was joining Parler, calling it “a platform [that] gets what free speech is all about.” In just one week, the site gained 1 million users, bringing it to nearly 3 million users by early July.

The site steadily gained users as Trump and prominent conservative voices continued to rail against big tech companies and as some Republicans tried to push changes to a critical social media law. Still, Trump himself didn’t join.

After the election, Parler saw an even bigger bump. Many voices, including Fox News personality Sean Hannity, encouraged a jump to the site. Parler said its users doubled that month to more than 10 million. In its lawsuit filed Monday, it said more than 12 million people used the site.

Parler reached the top spot for downloads on the Apple App Store in the United States on Nov. 8, five days after the election. It reached it again Jan. 9, the day after Twitter banned Trump. It was downloaded 296,000 times in the country that day, according to data from Sensor Tower.

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Matze has said the app welcomes all voices from across the political spectrum. But the company has attracted a right-wing base fed up with what they consider censorship on traditional social media sites.

“We initially attracted conservative users because they felt disenfranchised by other social media platforms,” Matze said in an email sent through a spokesperson in July.

Some posts on Parler echoed common social media themes — sharing cooking tips or updating friends on life events. But the site largely seemed to focus on sharing news from conservative publications and discussing the state of politics, particularly following Trump’s election loss.

In the days before the attack last week, Parler users with red badges — indicating that the company had verified they were real people — advocated for a violent uprising against law enforcement, supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and antifascists, according to screenshots posted on Twitter.

“Time to burn down dc police precinct. [Expletive] those treasonous pig bastards,” one user wrote under the handle JuarezTX, in response to the arrest of a member of the Proud Boys. “And you choose to beat antifa and blms asses; remove their helmets and kick in their teeth,” wrote user Harleyquinn.

The Twitter user @donk_enby said she started making a record of every public Parler post made during the Capitol riot to preserve them. When it seemed that Amazon would pull its hosting support, she said she and others started archiving as many public posts as they could.

“I’d describe the current Parler archival situation as ‘a bunch of people running into a burning building trying to grab as many things as we can,’" @donk_enby tweeted Sunday.

She also said she made a record of all videos uploaded to Parler and cautioned they could include deleted posts. In the end, she told Gizmodo, she estimates that 99 percent of Parler posts were saved and will eventually be hosted by the Internet Archive.

Internet sleuths have said they’ve already used information from the archived data, including GPS coordinates of videos, to create interactive maps and identify counties and other locations where videos were allegedly uploaded.

The data pulled by researchers after the Capitol attack could be used to aid law enforcement in their investigation.

The Cybersecurity 202: Parler scrape puts some Capitol rioters in legal jeopardy

“All the data would be fair game for law enforcement,” said Kiel Brennan-Marquez, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law who specializes in surveillance and data collection. A principle established under the Fourth Amendment, called the private search doctrine, allows the government to use data that was a result of surveillance or intrusion by a third party — so long as law enforcement didn’t coordinate with the individual.

A similar grass-roots effort to archive planning documents followed the white-nationalist march in Charlottesville in 2017. In that case, the documents were obtained from private groups operated by far-right figureheads and hosted on Discord, an app popular with gamers. Months of chat transcripts and audio recordings, published by the left-wing nonprofit media collective Unicorn Riot, revealed participants discussing potential weapons and concealing firearms.

The conservative alternative to Twitter wants to be a place for free speech for all. It turns out, rules still apply.

At the time, lawyers said the archive could be useful in criminal cases and in civil lawsuits filed by people hurt or killed during the confrontation.

Tonya Riley contributed to this report.