EPA Joins Conservative Social Media Platform Parler

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined Parler, a conservative social media app that claims to promote and protect “freedom of speech.” Since the app’s launch in 2018, it has garnered notoriety for its policy of not fact-checking or censoring content on its platform, placing itself in opposition to sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit, which have begun censoring and fact-checking misinformation (to varying degreesonly very recently. The EPA’s engagement with the app has experts and environmentalists concerned that the agency may be legitimizing harmful misinformation about climate change and science.

Why This Matters: The spread of online misinformation is at an all-time high. The Trump administration has shown that it is willing to embrace such disinformation to recruit conservative voters and further its agenda. The Trump campaign already has its own Parler account and Trump has outright denied climate change, a move that garnered support with conservative climate change deniers. 

During his administration, Twitter has been a breeding ground for climate change denial and other harmful conspiracy theories. In recent months, however, Twitter and other platforms have begun to fact-check and even remove posts, notoriously putting misinformation warnings on the President’s own tweets. In response, conservatives and conspiracy theorists have been switching to Parler en masse. Researchers have found that climate change denial has thrived on the platform.

A Double-Edged Sword: EPA spokesperson Molly Block said that the agency joined Parler “to reach new audiences and promote the numerous environmental accomplishments made under the Trump Administration.” 

The EPA’s first engagements with the platform were a mixed bag, drawing both support and criticism of Trump’s supposed “environmental accomplishments.” 

This response reflects how Bret Schafer, a media and digital disinformation fellow at Alliance for Securing Democracy, views the potential consequences of the EPA’s decision to join.

It is generally a good thing to reach the audience where they are,” he said. “There’s a potential to maybe debunk some things that are surfacing.” He stipulated, “If it becomes more of a 4Chan, 8Chan place where conspiracies are running wild, I don’t know necessarily if having a government agency on a platform … then just sort of legitimizes some of the more problematic content that’s being shared there.” 

Growing Pains: Parler has enjoyed a major boom following the presidential election. There were two million downloads of the app from November 3rd to 9th and while Twitter and Facebook clamped down on conspiracy theories about the election, disinformation has thrived on Parler. 

The growth has also been spurred on by high profile endorsements from popular conservative pundits. Experts compare the app to other social media sites like 4chan and 8chan, where misinformation about climate change has thrived in the past. Schafer notes, however, that unlike those sites, which primarily attracted disillusioned young men, Parler is attracting a much broader, more mainstream crowd. “This is not aggrieved 20-year-old gamers flooding to Parler. This is your aunt and uncle,” he said. While Schafer notes that the content being shared is similar to that shared on Facebook, he says that it has the potential to be even more dangerous because there is no dissenting thought to keep it in check. 

The Future of the Relationship: The EPA may not be on the app for long. Many experts expect the Biden administration to discontinue federal use of the platform. Saif Shahin, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Communications, notes that the app’s unchecked content is particularly vulnerable to foreign actors.

However, the current division in the country may make discontinuation of federal use easier said than done. Conservatives may react poorly, citing censorship and a perceived attack on their values, while those on the left will most likely see it as a well-needed crackdown on hate speech and misinformation. “We have people in this country divided so sharply along partisan lines that they actively are seeking what we consider to be disinformation, but what they consider just one type of information,” said Shahin.

Schafer says that the key factor in the case of Parler, like any platform, is how the EPA chooses to use it going forward. “It’s hard to predict what that platform is going to become in six months. And if it truly does become sort of a conservative alternative to Twitter, then, sure, I think it’s helpful to have government agencies there.”

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