By Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey
As Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have taken a harder line against unsubstantiated claims of a stolen presidential election, prominent conservatives on both platforms have responded with anger and a frequent retort: Follow me on Parler.
Launched in 2018, the libertarian-leaning social network was the most downloaded app on both Android and Apple devices for most of last week, according to data from Google and analytics firm App Annie. Its leaders envision it as a free-speech-focused alternative to the giants of Silicon Valley.
The platform also has some deep-pocketed investors. Hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer and his daughter Rebekah are among the company's financial backers, according to people familiar with the matter. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.
After The Wall Street Journal reported on the Mercers' ties with Parler, Mr. Matze confirmed that Rebekah Mercer was the lead investor in the company at its outset and said that her backing was dependent on the platform allowing users to control what they see. Mr. Mercer couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
Ms. Mercer also said in a post on the platform that she and Mr. Matze "started Parler to provide a neutral platform for free speech, as our founders intended." She said the effort is an answer to what she called the "ever increasing tyranny and hubris of our tech overlords."
The company's user base more than doubled to 10 million in under a week, making it difficult for its roughly 30-person staff to keep up with the flood of new sign-ups.
"You'd fix one thing, and another would blow out," said Parler Chief Executive John Matze. "We're now solid at this point."
Other allies of President Trump have joined Ms. Mercer in framing Parler's rapid growth as a rebuke to major tech platforms' efforts to more aggressively label content or restrict the reach of posts that the platforms deemed misleading or dangerous. Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo announced she was quitting Twitter for Parler, where she has amassed more than 1 million followers. Conservative talk show host Dan Bongino -- who is both one of Facebook's most popular content creators and an investor in Parler -- heralded its growth as "a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants."
Both of them have continued to post on Facebook and Twitter, though, raising the question of whether Parler will eventually complement or replace larger platforms with much bigger audiences.
In part, that answer will be determined by the success of Parler's business model, which eschews some of the foundational tools of social media.
Twitter and Facebook gather extensive data about the content users interact with -- and then customize what users see based on what's likely to appeal to them. When the platforms detect content that's popular among a swath of users, they promote that content in more users' feeds -- creating the sort of viral sensations social media is known for.
Parler doesn't do that. The platform doesn't use content-recommendation algorithms, collects almost no data about its users and, for privacy reasons, hasn't provided the tools to let users easily cross-post from other platforms. Parler simply shows users all the posts from everyone they follow, in reverse chronological order.
While Parler's terms of service allow the app to tailor content for its users in the future, executives said they were committed to their libertarian principles.
"We're choosing to be a neutral platform," said Jeffrey Wernick, the company's chief operating officer.
Parler's hands-off philosophy could test users.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Parler leaves virtually all moderation decisions up to individuals, allowing them to choose whether to apply filters that hide content such as hate speech, graphic violence and pornography. The minimal enforcement that exists -- primarily the removal of spam, threats of violence, or illegal activity -- is handled by "community jurors," all currently volunteers.
That policy leads to freewheeling political discussion. It also allows some communities to flourish that don't fit as easily on other platforms, such as a group of users who publish their nude photos on the platform, Mr. Matze said.
Parler has also been embraced by individuals who have been banned by other platforms. Far-right talk-show host Alex Jones, the extremist group The Proud Boys and the "Stop the Steal" election protest organizers all have established sizable followings on Parler after being banned from Facebook.
In recent weeks the app has teemed with claims about election fraud without offering evidence, white-supremacist content and posts from backers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, the Anti-Defamation League said in a blog post Thursday.
Mr. Matze said allowing those groups on the platform is consistent with the company's commitment to free speech, even if not all of it is to his taste.
"Those Q-Anon people, they creep me out," said Mr. Matz, the 27-year-old CEO who founded the Henderson, Nev.-based company after graduating from the University of Denver.
"I can see why there's interest in this," said Antonio Garcia Martinez, a former Facebook product manager and Twitter adviser, noting that mainstream platforms feel they must make concessions on free speech in order to reach the broadest possible audience.
Yet recent history suggests that "at some point the world revolts against this sort of thing," he said, noting the struggles of alt-right platforms such as Gab. It faced both public condemnation and a blockade by web-hosting and payment providers in 2018 after revelations that a man who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue had posted on Gab about plans to act on his anti-Semitic beliefs. Gab said afterward that it would bolster efforts to prevent threats of physical harm.
Shannon McGregor, a social media researcher at the University of North Carolina's Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, said partisan social media has traditionally struggled, in part because sparring across ideological lines keeps users engaged.
In addition, she said, Parler's commitment to chronological feeds for users could present challenges for high-profile content creators.
"It's not going to give the greatest voice to the leading figures in the way that an algorithmic feed does," she said.
Parler executives acknowledge that their principles could slow their growth.
Turning a profit isn't an urgent concern, Mr. Wernick said, adding that the surge in Parler downloads has been accompanied by interest from new potential investors and advertisers.
"We think that, long term, doing the right thing will pay off," he said.
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com and Keach Hagey at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
This article was corrected Nov. 15, 2020 to reflect that John Matze, CEO of the social network Parler, is 27 years old. The original version incorrectly said he was 26.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 14, 2020 17:49 ET (22:49 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.