Sowing Doubt: Anti-“Big Tech” Narratives, Parler, and the Alt-Tech Attention Economy

Brief
Koshiro K/Shutterstock.com
June 1, 2022

It was the spring of 2020, and the presidential election was only a few months away when Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) decided to gamble big on an all-out political offensive. From the start of the 2020 presidential election cycle, there were early signs that Gaetz and others in Congress who supported President Donald Trump’s campaign for a second term had adopted a strategy of building on Trump’s narrative that the results would be rigged by a malevolent “Big Tech.”

A gregarious, young Florida lawyer and the scion of an influential Republican state politician, Gaetz was looking to build momentum around his campaign against “Big Tech.” He was part of a wave of conservatives swept into office on the coattails of former President Donald Trump. Known for his pivotal role as an adviser to the successful gubernatorial campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), Gaetz had a well-earned reputation for promoting far-right conspiracy theories and charging head-on into political controversy after he invited a notorious Holocaust denier to the State of the Union address two years earlier.

But three years into his tenure in Congress, Gaetz, who also served on the House Judiciary Committee, appeared to be making another play for more influence. As the 2020 presidential campaign ramped up in the final stretch of the primary season, Gaetz and other Trump campaign surrogates promoted the view that attempts by social media companies to rein in and moderate misinformation and disinformation about the election was an attack on conservative free-speech and a threat to the voices of real voters.

Up to this point, Gaetz had thrived on a pugilistic style of politics, first gaining national attention for his defense of the “stand your ground” law in the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012. Gaetz traded up on the political capital he amassed in the Florida legislature during the trial for Martin’s killer when an opportunity to fill a vacant Congressional seat for the First District in Florida opened up in 2016. Once in Washington, Gaetz leaned into the role of contrarian conservative and became one of the most vocal critics in Congress of former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s leadership of the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections. In time, Gaetz emerged as one of the White House’s most recognizable political surrogates, praising Trump effusively and nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize while attacking anyone who opposed Trump.

In May 2020, Gaetz and other supporters of Trump in Congress were at an inflection point—the choice of doubling down on Trump’s influence campaign or being left out in the cold politically—and the flogging of Big Tech became a proxy for support of Trump. With hearings on proposed antitrust legislation targeting the tech industry scheduled for later that summer in 2020, Gaetz appeared to be priming the pump ahead of a widely anticipated showdown in Congress with company officials from Twitter, Facebook, and Amazon.

Piecing together timelines from Tweets and news stories reveals a dogged effort by Gaetz and his allies to cast Big Tech as a threat to conservatives, and therefore to democracy. The campaign was clearly aimed at persuading Trump’s core political constituents that the president and, by association Gaetz and the Republican Party, were the best defense against the tech industry’s abuse of power.

But how broadly impactful was the attention and influence Gaetz so consistently sought out? And was the strategy successful? As we will see from an examination of news, Twitter, and the alt-tech platform Parler, Gaetz was part of a successful ensemble of actors who cemented the idea of “Big-Tech” as a cartel of dishonest, liberal leaning technology companies that would preempt the fairness of any election. While Gaetz did not invent the term “Big Tech,” the specific meaning of the term for Gaetz and other pro-Trump allies conjures the notion that technology platforms are so biased and aggressive against conservative thought, their size and notoriety becomes a threat to democracy and public discourse. In this incarnation of “Big Tech,” the bigger the tech, the bigger the threat. And key to establishing this mythology appears to be consistent repetition of this particular conspiratorial flavor of “Big Tech” throughout 2020.

Assessing this is difficult given the fleeting nature of a 24/7 news cycle, radio, and social media posts, but we do have some clues. Hints of how coordinated action online and offline by Gaetz and others close to Trump shaped public opinion in the lead up to the 2020 presidential elections are hidden in data culled from Twitter, Google, and Parler, the social media platform widely associated with the January 6, 2021 mob assault on the U.S. Capitol. Data from tens of thousands of social media posts and other sources reveals a pattern of trial and error online, on camera, and on the airwaves.

Gaetz was ultimately successful in calling attention to his anti-Big Tech stance in advance of the July hearings and, later, the November election. Messaging from Trump, fellow Republican lawmakers, and online and cable news helped create a repertoire of tools for keeping the threat of Big Tech projected on as many screens as possible. Concurrently, Trump called out the anti-fascist or “Antifa” movement specifically as a threat to public order, decrying failing police forces and crumbling and inefficient institutions as markers of American decline.

In a chaotic year defined by unprecedented civil strife over the decaying state of democratic institutions and widespread information disorder, the success of Gaetz’s spring and summer campaign appeared to be a harbinger of the violent discord to come. Ahead of the certification of the 2020 election results on January 6, sowing doubt in people’s ability to have free thought and therefore a free vote, it turned out, was a successful recipe for gaining and wielding influence. It also promoted the perception of an existential crisis to democracy. “Big Tech” was a monster, and the truth required for a fair vote could only be found with the people and the platforms who opposed it. Implicit in the message was the idea that alt-tech platforms like Parler were far more trustworthy. Come November 2024 the same dish will likely be served again to an electorate that rejected the political platform on offer from Trump and members of his party when President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. was elected to office.

Testing, Testing. Is This Microphone On?

Like many members on the House Subcommittee on Antitrust Legislation–Democrats and Republicans alike–Rep. Gaetz had spent weeks taking to the airwaves and the Internet in the early spring of 2020, testing out different messages about Section 230. A controversial part of the 1996 U.S. Communications Decency Act, Section 230 grants protection to Internet service providers and online companies against libel and defamation lawsuits for information posted on their websites by third parties. By the spring of 2020, Section 230 had also emerged as the strawman for public concerns about constraints imposed on free speech by big mainstream tech companies. In a tweet, Gaetz bragged about his proposed bill to strip tech companies of immunity for libel under federal statutes (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

On May 27, 2020, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla) road-tested one of his messages about the “Big Tech censorship” of conservative views on the election.
Source: https://twitter.com/RepMattGaetz/status/1265724465767493637

On that same day, Donald Trump tweeted a similar message: “Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election. If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen! They tried hard in 2016, and lost. Now they are going absolutely CRAZY. Stay Tuned!!!”

The following day, in a television interview with Fox News, Gaetz reinforced the narrative by echoing Trump’s assertion that large technology companies have—and will continue to—use “censorship” to tilt the hearts and minds of the country to vote against Republican candidates. Soon after Gaetz appeared on Fox, however, his message was subsumed by the tumult that followed the June 2020 police killing of George Floyd. As protests sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement’s response to police misconduct converged with public furor over government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, censorship issues with Big Tech temporarily receded from much of the public conversation. Gaetz still attempted to explicitly tie Big Tech to the emergent protests by insinuating on Twitter on June 4 that technology companies were hypocritical in their standards of acceptable political violence. Gaetz aired his complaints after Twitter added a warning to Gaetz’s account for his glorification of violent activity.

In the few days that followed the Twitter warning, Gaetz continued to stir up controversy and conflict over the issue, instrumentalizing his new-found role as Twitter gadfly and publicly decrying movements to defund the police. Throughout June of 2020, Gaetz continued to double down on his opposition to any racial reckoning in the United States.

But in late June and early July of 2020, Gaetz would return to the subject of Big Tech, this time assailing political rival Nikki Haley after her June 25 tweet defending the independence of technology platforms. The Big Tech theme began to build up steam in other venues leading up the Congressional hearings at the end of the month. On July 19, 2020, for instance, Tucker Carlson launched a tirade against Big Tech on his own show, saying, “The left’s goal is to make dissent invisible and therefore irrelevant.” By the time the hearings began on July 29, Gaetz appeared on Fox News in the morning and then grandstanded later that day, asking Sundar Pichai of Google to pledge to reject a “bigoted anti-police policy.”

The public pressure campaign on mainstream technology companies continued with the Congressional hearings on the market power of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. During the hearings, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, spelled out the stance of the pro-Trump wing of the party. “We all think the free market is great,” Jordan said, “But what’s not great is censoring people, censoring conservators and trying to impact elections.” Soon afterward, Trump also waded in on the Big Tech questionwith a tweet: “If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with Executive Orders.”

The Data Speaks for Itself

Data we collected on Google Trends indicates that the surge in Republican messaging online, in Congress, and in the press prompted a visible increased interest in the topic. Google Trends analyzes the popularity of top search queries, which allowed us to capture what concepts the users of Google’s search engine were interested in, thus providing a measure of concepts that were part of the public consciousness at the time. Between July 26 and Aug 1, 2021, only one week after Congress held hearings on the subject, the term “Big Tech” hit its second highest peak of all time as a search term, according to Google Search Trends, second only to the days before Parler’s deplatforming and following the January 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.

Additionally, news database searches helped us identify how legacy media outlets responded to the rising number of public references to Big Tech in the information ecosystem. We searched ProQuest news database holdings for newspapers located in the United States for news, opinion, feature, and editorial pieces that mention big tech between January of 2020 and the end of February 2021. For that search in that date range, June 2020 is the one of the lowest months for mentions of Big Tech overall.

Looking at some of these broader trends in retrospect, Big Tech became a powerful talking point for many conservatives during the July through November 2020 period in the lead up to the presidential election, as well as in January 2021. It appears that June 2020–when much of the country was tuned to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the ongoing pandemic–was a low point in national attention on the subject.

Figure 2

Mentions of “Big Tech'' in news and newspapers from January 2020 - February 2021.

But back to Rep. Gaetz; he seemed to be on to something. His repeated messaging drew attention to, or even helped to create, the hobgoblin of Big Tech and then linked its influence to unreliable election outcomes. And this idea–that the electoral process was suspect because of a stacked deck against the president–was harmonic with other attempts by GOP members of Congress and their allies to sow doubt in the results of the November election.

Gaetz’s emphasis on Big Tech, then, was part of a broader strategy of undermining the idea that the United States was a safe and functioning democracy. Over the year-long 2020 election cycle, high-profile Trump supporters and members of Congress weaved many of those narrative strands into a thick braid of far-right conspiracy theories and angry conjecture that were, in turn, used to whip up anxiety over the outcome of the vote before it even took place. In the world imagined by this strategy, technology companies were part of a multi-point effort to rig the election, with Twitter and Facebook stifling speech online and Antifa intimidating the voters into submission.

Reports from North Carolina and Florida, for example, demonstrate the narratives put forth by political operatives to cast the election as digitally rigged and physically patrolled by radical enemies. It’s no surprise, then, that the trending subject of “#StoptheSteal” grew into an online juggernaut that seeded election protests across the country well before polling day in November 2020, and months ahead of the mob assault on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

By the time the November election had taken place, #StoptheSteal was already an established movement online and the occasion for protests nationwide. Facing this crisis surrounding the election, Twitter and Facebook attempted to thwart the spread of election misinformation and disinformation by suspending accounts and blocking groups that incubated conspiracies and misinformation. While these suspensions removed harmful sources and spreaders of online misinformation, they also fueled more conjecture about Big Tech conspiracies to suppress conservative thought and pro-Trump political organization.

In the end, pushing the idea of Big Tech as an antagonist of true American values sowed doubt in the minds of voters about the fairness of elections. But that was not the only doubt generated by the mythology and repetition of the “Big Tech” narrative; by establishing an elitist, morally inconsistent, and left-leaning Big Tech, Gaetz and allies helped to carve out negative space for the rise in popularity of alt-tech. In other words, these big tech critiques helped install a perceived moral high ground for emergent, alternative platforms.

Parler and the Alt-Tech Attention Economy

Rising in popularity in early 2020 as the COVID crisis worsened and election campaigns built momentum during the primary season, Parler was an alternative tech platform that allowed far-right ideas, narratives, conversations about the election, and other topics to percolate with little to no oversight. Parler’s user base paled in comparison to the billions who use Facebook and hundreds of millions who use Twitter. Indeed, Parler represents only a small corner in an expanding constellation of social media platforms with loose content moderation policies that have cropped up as alternatives as Big Tech firms have stepped up their moderation of content in recent years. These so-called “alt-tech” sites began to proliferate and take on more prominence as Trump began to prepare his re-election campaign amid a series of White House scandals.

But, in the spring of 2020, at precisely the moment when Rep. Gaetz, Rep. Louis Gohmert (R-Texas), and others appeared to be stoking their campaign against Big Tech, Parler’s user base had grown exponentially with company officials claiming that the platform that aimed to be Twitter’s conservative arch-rival had approximately 15 million users.

Data from Google Trends, news databases, and Twitter indicate that there was a brief lull in June and July in public attention to the Big Tech issue as national news coverage shifted to other more urgent issues driven by Black Lives Matter and protests related to local and national officials’ COVID-19 response. But during that time frame, Parler kept the idea of Big Tech as anti-democratic boogeyman on life support, driving it to the forefront of attention for its users.

Throughout June of 2020, when news databases and Google Search Trends show a decline in mentions of the term, Parler saw a surge in usage of the term “Big Tech.” In fact, June marked an all-time high point for the term, only to be outdone by later surges in the following months of November and January. We determined this by searching the entire Parler archive used in our earlier research on the role of the platform in the January 6 Capitol attack. Searching both posts and comments on posts for the term, Big Tech, in an elastic search tool we created to assess publicly available Parler data, we were able to create a time series of mentions for the term aggregated by week.

Figure 3

Graph depicting the number of daily posts mentioning the term “Big Tech” in Parler.

In June 2020, then, Parler demonstrated mentions of the term Big Tech, and did so without any obvious correlation to high-impact tweets or news stories involving influential political figures. This was not the case in November 2020 and January 2021. On numerous occasions, high-impact tweets by Trump and his allies saw corresponding activity on Parler when it came to mentions of “Big Tech.” For instance, on November 2, President Trump returned to the topic leading up to the election, writing in a tweet: “Joe Biden is bought and paid for by Big Tech, Big Media, Big Donors, and powerful special interests.”

Here, Parler saw an ensuing spike in mentions of Big Tech, as did other venues, including renewed interest on Google search. The same goes for January, where the deplatforming of Parler and the fallout of the January 6 insurrection brought new attention to technology platforms and their policies.

In November and January, then, Parler seemed to echo broader trends across other platforms and venues. This is in distinction to earlier, and we return to what happened on Parler in June 2020: mentions of Big Tech surged on the platform when it was not prominent in other places such as Twitter, Google searches, and prominent newspapers indexed by ProQuest. The surge of mentions of Big Tech coincides with a dramatic increase in new Parler accounts and a mass exodus by conservative users from more mainstream social media platforms like Twitter.

In the overall story of Big Tech and the 2020 election, Parler’s June surge in mentions of the topic stands out as anomalous. Why did Parler see such an increase in usage of Big Tech? When the story was flagging nationwide, why did the term appear so often in Parler? The answer lies in the welcome messages sent to new users on the platform in June of 2020. @Robertleon, a self-titled “Parler Concierge,” began including language about Big Tech in welcome messages, ushering users to the platform while volunteering that “a lot of conservatives here that [sic] got burned by big tech.”

This single comment accounts for nearly all mentions of Big Tech in the June Parler data we analyzed. Thousands who joined the platform, and who welcomed those who joined the platform, became the audience for a now familiar canard: that large technology companies have chased away conservatives, and Parler is their new home. These “welcome messages” served to prime new users into this specific view of Big Tech as seeking to “silence conservative thought.” The idea of Big Tech gained circulation on Parler, but only because of a flurry of activity from @Robertleon. After June 19, that account would not mention Big Tech until October of 2020.

To be clear, the greeting from @Robertleon cast “Big Tech” as a sort of disaster from which people needed shelter. This repetition did not necessarily represent an organic interest in Big Tech bubbling up from Parler users during June 2020. Rather, portions of the anti- Big Tech messaging campaign percolated on Parler with the help of automated means and other coordinated inauthentic behaviors. When interest in the topic seemed to wane among legacy media outlets and the social media accounts of key political figures, Parler served as a place where the hobgoblin of Big Tech could be seen regularly on the screens of users. This is yet another fairly significant indicator that Parler differed substantially from its mainstream rivals Twitter and Facebook because it, in effect, acted as another critical gear in what appeared to be purpose-built and well-oiled election campaign messaging machine.

Gaetz, then, was not just locked in to just any political issue; he was helping to create a positive feedback loop of profound doubt in American democracy. While Parler carried the anti-Big Tech torch at various points in the 2020 election cycle, it is remarkable that Parler’s rise in prominence and usership is bound up so closely with the mythos of a rigged election. So while the idea of social media platforms as a liberal-leaning cartel was used to sow doubt in the election by Trump, Gaetz, and other Trump allies, it also produced the occasion for Parler to be a place for Trump supporters to find refuge in the harsh storm of allegedly biased “censorship” and deplatforming.

It is no surprise that being reminded of the monolithic and dangerous aspects of “Big Tech” was table stakes for those joining Parler in June of 2020–any perceived freedoms afforded by the platform were meant as a tacit critique of bigger technology platforms and their practices. By demonizing Big Tech as all-influential, left-leaning, and capricious, Gaetz, Trump, and allies produced a two step messaging cycle that sowed doubt in election integrity: 1) Elections are rigged by thought controlling Big Tech; and 2) Alt-tech platforms can then define themselves against Big Tech, thereby reinforcing the prior political messaging.

The “alt-tech vs. Big Tech” framing of issues and ideas on Parler are not just mere symptoms of an echo chamber run amok. Rather Parler itself is both medium and message; it is a living performance of the idea that fairness cannot be achieved through dialog with others, because the channels of communication have been irreparably tilted. The question now—as the 2022 mid-term elections and 2024 presidential elections loom—is not whether we should expect to see a rinse, wash, repeat cycle emerge on Parler and other alt-tech platforms like Gab, Gettr, and Rumble, but when that pattern will erupt into mass political violence again.