In recent weeks, prominent right-wing public figures have posted about joining Parler, a “free speech” app and social network already populated by Trump’s family, friends, grifters, and most loyal supporters.
The app claims to be unique in that it allows free speech, but its real success is that it allows the Trump, the GOP, and bad faith actors to peddle disinformation directly to the phones of people willing to believe anything they say. Far-right groups like the Proud Boys even use the app to organize attacks at Black Lives Matter protests. Parler is an echo chamber for every lie out of the Trump administration and calls to action against U.S. citizens, private or public, who don’t believe the lies.
Parler is free for propaganda, sure, but its “free speech” agenda is not extended to left-leaning users who fact-check lies or start an argument on a Trump supporter’s post. Twitter is full of people showing they’ve been banned from Parler for these reasons. Back in June when leftists flooded the platform, co-owner John Matze practically admitted that only conservatives have free speech privileges:
Who’s pushing the propaganda and benefiting from selective free speech? Some notable Parler members include, among others: the Trump family, Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, Kayleigh McEnany, James O’Keefe, Charlie Kirk, Brad Parscale, members of Congress, and Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Maria Bartiromo.
It’s easy to find out what Parler is, who’s on it, and what kind of content the network promotes. But where did it come from?
Married to Russia
Alina Mukhutdinova is the daughter of Gulnara Mukhutdinova, a Russian government agent whose own mother received an “honored builder of Russia” award before the fall of the Soviet Union. Like most of our profiles today, Alina’s social media tells a pretty story of life before Parler.
Alina and a friend were on a “vacation” in the United States from May through September 2016. On May 15, they met John Matze and Jared Thomson, two tech entrepreneurs, in Las Vegas.
John and Alina hit it off. Leading up to her last days of vacation, Alina returned to Vegas and worked at a trade show with John for his father’s company. About six months later, she was back in the states and living with her American beau.
In November 2017, John and Alina boarded a flight to Russia for their wedding, which was hosted by the Kremlin in a government building in early December. The newlyweds then travelled extensively through Russia and Europe for the next eight months. Someone else was making back and forth visits between Russia and Europe during these months, too: Rudy Giuliani.
From Russia to Republicans
On February 27, 2018, Rudy Giuliani’s law firm, Greenberg Traurig, registered a new company in Nevada called NDMASCENDANT LLC. This might seem irrelevant now, but keep reading.
About six weeks later, on April 18, something strange happened.
A company called CarePICS announced that John Matze (who was still traveling between Russia and Europe according to social media) joined the company as their new CTO. The company’s Facebook page wasn’t updated for two years after John was hired, and the company never sent out a press release again. Why would John take the job while planning to start his own company? How was John working at CarePICS while traveling internationally? Could the job have been a cover for something?
The next day, Giuliani announced a temporary leave from Greenberg Traurig. He resigned shortly after, on May 10.
On May 17, 2018, John registered Parler LLC in Nevada.
In August, back in Las Vegas, John and Jared Thomson launched Parler. The network was mostly inactive until four months later when right-wing grifters Candace Owens and Cassandra Fairbanks began promoting it. John and Jared also got their first celebrity member: Kanye West.
In 2019, months after GOP legislators and right-wing figures were already on the platform, John and Jared brought the network to GOP operative Jesse Benton. Benton is a member of the Ron & Rand Paul family by marriage and an associate of Mitch McConnell, among others. In 2016, he was caught trying to funnel $2 million from Chinese investors into a pro-Trump PAC. That same year, he was convicted for election finance violations he committed during Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential campaign.
Benton soon joined Parler as the company’s press contact and PR consultant. An employee at Trump International Hotel, Elise Rhodes, also joined Parler that year to help with marketing — which she has no prior experience in.
Follow The Money
There is no public record of who all owns or funds Parler. The company’s ownership is split between John Matze and a mystery company, registered in Nevada where businesses don’t have to disclose their owners or officers. That company’s name is…
NDMASCENDANT LLC, the company that someone at Giuliani’s law firm registered before he resigned. We can’t prove Rudy Giuliani’s direct involvement in Parler or NDM, but there are too many coincidences here. Update: In March 2021, an anonymous source tells Bloomberg that NDMASCENDANT is owned by Rebekah Mercer. Keep reading for more on the Mercer family.
We also can’t track where all of the money pouring into Parler is coming from, but we do know some of the people financially invested in the company.
Cryptocurrency investor Jeffrey Wernick claims to be a shareholder, and he was later identified as Parler’s chief operating officer.
Right-wing media figure Dan Bongino claims to have an owner’s stake in the business. These claims are probably true. Bongino, Wernick, and Matze met with representatives for Trump in June to discuss him joining the app.
Fox News spread a conspiracy that George Soros is behind the app, even though they’ve had John Matze on the network. They were actually covering for…
The Mercer Family
The Mercer family is often considered the most influential political donors in the United States. Robert Mercer co-founded Cambridge Analytica with Steve Bannon and tested Trump slogans as far back as 2014. He was also a major donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, after already throwing $11 million at Ted Cruz’s campaign before he dropped out. In Mercer’s perfect world, the federal government’s power would be reduced “to the size of a pinhead,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Rebekah Mercer, Robert’s daughter, was a member of Trump’s transition team and is credited for putting Bannon and Kellyanne Conway on the Trump campaign. John Matze recently confirmed that Rebekah was a top investor early on in the company and helped with the launch. This suggests that sometime before John and Alina’s wedding or during their travels between Russia and Europe, they were already working with the Mercers. (Rebekah has confirmed she’s a co-owner, too).
According to John Matze, the Mercer money came with a condition: Parler must not moderate what content users see on the platform.
Behind The Domain
If there’s still any doubt that Parler is a GOP operation, look behind the digital curtain.
Cyber risk expert Chris Vickery was able to find out that Parler’s website developer is Market Rithm, which also exists as Psyclone Media, StructureCMS, and GuruDNS. Each company name refers to a different product (hosting, design, content management), but they are all extensions of the same company.
[Based on the way they like to name their companies, they might also be tied to John’s supposed employer (CarePICS) or John’s father’s business (BridgeSTOR). That’s probably a genuine coincidence, though.]
The group’s specialty is designing websites for Republican campaigns, “pro-America” news sites, and conservative PACs. With a little digging into the company’s domain and hosting information, we were able to find a long list of other websites the company made. Here’s one:
And here’s Psyclone Media’s CFO and co-founder Larry Ward telling a Facebook friend that he works with Parler as a conservative alternative to social networks:
Click for More Sites From Psyclone / Guru / Market Rithm / StructureCMS
And many more.
According to network analyst and disinformation expert Dave Troy, Parler’s purpose is “expressly political and aimed at eroding U.S. social media firms” by challenging Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which prevents social networks from being held legally accountable for the content users post.
Disrupting big tech companies and changing internet communications law certainly could be Parler’s endgame, but Larry Ward’s Facebook post suggests that’s not the case. If Facebook and Twitter were held accountable for the content of their members, then Parler would be, too.
Parler’s long-term goal, if there is one, probably has more to do with data collection (like Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica) and information control.
One of the ways that Bannon and Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica collected data was through a personality quiz on Facebook. The link seemed innocent, but it actually ripped data from anyone who took the quiz. That information was then used to target political messaging that would have the greatest impact.
Now imagine the kind of information that the Mercer family could compile if they had your phone number and your driver’s license number. Imagine what they could do with it.
Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Parler requires a phone number to join. They also verify that the number is from a real service provider, not an app like Google Voice or Burner. Your account can’t be made until you enter a real number.
If you want added benefits, be ready to give Parler more personal information, too. In exchange for your driver’s license, state ID, or passport, members unlock “Parler Citizen” status with “additional features and privileges that are not available to unverified people.”
When someone joins Parler because they can’t use Facebook or Twitter without their posts being monitored, they don’t realize that the alternative is a network where their life can be monitored.
I’m not an expert on how that data can be used politically, but I imagine it isn’t good.
For years, the GOP has wanted to take down Google’s monopoly on search engines, possibly to give strength to their own search engine that would prioritize right-wing propaganda sites like Breitbart and the websites connected to Psyclone Media. In the meantime, having an avenue to put propaganda in their supporters’ hands without them having to search for it will do the trick. It might even be better.
Parler member and GOP Rep. Devin Nunes was asked by Lou Dobbs on Fox Business if there’s any real plan to give the election to Donald Trump.
Remove the election from the context of that quote. “In order to win… we have to have a place to communicate.” That could apply to any battle, any smear campaign, any policy needing public support, and any effort to legitimize propaganda or conspiracies — even when Trump is out of office. Imagine any horrible thing this country could do — like funneling taxpayer dollars to a Russian spy family or using government agents to murder a U.S. citizen — and almost half of the country believing that it’s a Democrat lie meant to hurt (insert any Republican). Or worse, imagine that almost half of the country never hears about it at all.
Parler isn’t the only method for this possibility, either. Members are often directed to Rumble, a “free speech” alternative to YouTube.
However, if information control is a goal of Parler’s overlords today, that wasn’t always the case. Controlling which information the MAGA base sees would require mainstream media and left-wing politics to remain outside of the echo chamber. But at the start of 2020, Matze was campaigning to bring leftist figures to the network.
A Divided Nation
Maybe Parler’s purpose moving forward is simpler. If Russia has any influence over the app or the Mercers, one goal is obvious. Russia wanted to undermine public faith in the U.S. government and democracy in 2016. It succeeded. Places like Parler help that agenda and delay the deprogramming of millions of Americans whose beliefs, unbeknownst to them, now align with authoritarianism and/or fascism.
The Best Case Scenario
Parler is obviously a useful tool for its owners, but maybe it’s just a blip on the radar, a temporary project that the funders can afford to trash at any moment. As Vickery puts it:
Unfortunately, he’s right. The Mercer family threw $11 million at Ted Cruz and had no problem throwing millions more at Donald Trump. They can drop money on a new project at any time. I’d bet my own money that the next idea is already in the works. Maybe it will be like Parler, a tool to add gasoline to a raging fire of anger, hate, and conspiracy. Maybe the family is on the hunt for a 2024 candidate that will keep the MAGA cult fed and the social network relevant.
Or maybe they’ll surprise us.
Only time will tell.
This post has been updated from a previous version. You can find the original draft here.
Note: November 23 does not hold any significance in the history of Parler. This post is dated for the day it was published. Introduction / Overview files act as the start of a subject’s timeline.
March 2021 Update / NDMASCENDANT: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-16/relaunched-parler-engaged-in-mercer-funded-war-over-free-speech
Parler Bans People: https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20200627/23551144803/as-predicted-parler-is-banning-users-it-doesnt-like.shtml
Dave Troy: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1327253991936454663.html
Rudy Giuliani’s Trips: https://www.propublica.org/article/trump-inc-podcast-rudy-giuliani-mystery-trips-to-russia-armenia-and-ukraine
CarePICS Press Releases: https://pressroom.prlog.org/carePICS/
Jesse Benton (Chinese Money Scandal): https://web.archive.org/web/20161024192242/http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/24/exclusive-investigation-donald-trump-faces-foreign-donor-fundrai/
Jesse Benton (Conviction): https://www.cbsnews.com/news/aides-to-ron-pauls-2012-team-convicted-of-campaign-finance-violations/
Delaware / Nevada: https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/092515/4-reasons-why-delaware-considered-tax-shelter.asp
Chris Vickery: https://twitter.com/VickerySec/status/1302815780782764033
Larry Ward’s Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/lward99/posts/10158179486730659
Christopher Wylie: https://twitter.com/chrisinsilico/status/1327704670127726592
Russia’s 2016 Goal: https://intelligence.house.gov/social-media-content/
Vickery’s thoughts on Parler endgame: https://twitter.com/VickerySec/status/1331124641583120384
Photo: Jason Reed/The Daily Dot