Media Law Prof Blog

Editor: Christine A. Corcos
Louisiana State Univ.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Cowls and Ma on The "Internet's Town Square"? A Critical Discourse Analysis of Parler's Free Speech Imaginary @joshcowls

Josh Cowls and Cindy Ma, both of the University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute, have published The 'Internet's Town Square'? A Critical Discourse Analysis of Parler's Free Speech Imaginary.  Here is the abstract.

The discursive construction of sociotechnical imaginaries by the leaders of platform companies can help legitimize their platforms, shaping how they are perceived and ultimately regulated. Scholars have identified the construction of “future imaginaries” by leaders of large platform companies such as Meta—but do smaller platforms also seek to construct imaginaries, and if so, what form do they take? In this article we undertake a critical discourse analysis of public pronouncements by John Matze, co-founder and CEO of the fringe social media platform Parler. Parler gained significant popularity among right-wing users during 2020, before it was removed from Apple’s and Google’s app stores in January 2021 following the riot at the United States Capitol. Using van Leeuwen’s framework for discursive legitimation, we analyze a curated dataset of 186 news articles to identify the legitimating themes that Matze invoked in his discursive construction of Parler throughout 2020. We find that Matze foregrounded free expression, and with it the vision of Parler as a “town square,” to legitimate his fledging platform. However, this discursive construction must be understood in the context of Parler’s base of predominantly right-wing users, many of whom turned to Parler because of the perceived “bias” and “censorship” of mainstream platforms. We argue that, in contrast to the future imaginaries constructed for large platform companies like Meta, Matze’s discursive strategy constructed an imaginary that was fundamentally retrograde. We tie Parler’s backwards-looking free speech imaginary to efforts by far-right groups to justify and legitimate racist hate speech in increasingly platformized societies.

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