Kanye West’s biggest challenge with owning Parler may come from Elon Musk

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A week ago, Kanye West was temporarily suspended from Twitter for posting anti-Semitic tweets. Now the rapper has agreed to take over Parler, an alternative social platform popular with conservatives, to avoid ever “fearing about being removed from social media again.”

West, who has legally changed his name to Ye, is just the latest controversial figure to bet on a burgeoning, alternative set of social media platforms favored by conservatives and members of the far right, who profess outrage at the Moderation of content in the mainstream to feel services.

After former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter following the January 6 riot, he endorsed Truth Social, an alternative to Twitter. In a presentation, Trump’s digital media company touted the ambitious possibility of not only creating alternatives to the major social media platforms, but also to cloud computing products such as Amazon Web Services and the payment service Stripe.

Separately, Peter Thiel, an influential venture capitalist and Republican donor, invested in Rumble, a conservative alternative to YouTube. Other services, including Gab and Gettr, are also part of what Ben Decker, CEO of digital threat analysis firm Memetica, calls an “alternative social media ecosystem” fueled by “deplatforming high-profile conservative” figures from other larger platforms will recent years.

There are a number of possible reasons why West — an unpredictable figure known for messy business dealings — wanted to acquire Parler, a platform that calls election denial, anti-Semitism, and conspiracy theory supporters QAnon home. He was probably frustrated that his anti-Semitic comments were removed from Twitter (TWTR) and Instagram, and permanently suspended from the latter. West is also friends with conservative political commentator Candace Owens, who has reportedly encouraged the rapper’s political involvement and whose husband is Parler’s CEO.

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In a statement accompanying the Parler announcement on Monday, West alluded to the need for a different, safe space for conservatives, a camp with which he identifies. “In a world where conservative opinions are considered controversial, we must ensure we have the right to express ourselves freely,” he said. West was also discussing his proposed Parler acquisition with Trump, a source familiar with the call told CNN on Monday, though it was unclear if the two spoke before or after news of the rapper’s acquisition was released.

But to the extent that he’s serious about the acquisition, which remains very unclear, West faces an uncertain path forward that mirrors the challenges faced by other services that promise full “freedom of speech.”

First off, the audience for these alternative platforms remains far smaller than the mainstream services they offer compete with. Even if all of Parler’s estimated 40,000 daily active users followed West on the platform, his audience would pale in comparison to the 31.4 million followers he has on Twitter, not to mention the more than 200 million daily active Twitter users.

And despite its commitment to giving fringe content an unrestricted home, some services, including Parler, have had to make concessions on content moderation in order to be allowed in the major app stores. Apple said last year it approved Parler’s return to the iOS App Store after the company made improvements to better detect and mitigate hate speech and hate speech, and Google did the same last month. But even with app store approvals, major marketers are reluctant to run ads alongside controversial content.

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Perhaps the biggest joker of all comes from West’s friend and unpredictable wealthy Elon Musk. The billionaire Tesla CEO seems closer than ever to acquiring an already established platform, Twitter plans to reduce its content restrictions. (After the Parler announcement, Musk said tweeted, and later deleted, “Fun Times Ahead!” along with a meme showing the smiling faces of the two men superimposed over a cartoon.)

Various regulations and business interests may prevent Musk from allowing everything on Twitter, as Parler and others have done. But it might not take much to persuade right-wing users, including influential figures, to return to Twitter. Musk has said he would restore Trump’s account on the platform; and while the former president has said he will remain with Truth Social, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t at least be tempted to return to Twitter’s much bigger megaphone.

Shares in the investment vehicle designed to publicize Trump’s Truth Social slipped when Musk first announced his plan to buy Twitter, and fell again earlier this month when Musk resumed his purchase proposal. Likewise, Rumble, which recently went public through a similar route, recently saw its share price fall when Musk said the deal was back in place.

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Many of the right-wing figures who have championed alternative platforms have hailed Musk’s plan to take over Twitter, a sign that they could abandon their commitment to a right-wing social media ecosystem if a mainstream platform were willing to take them to welcome back. Radio personality Joe Rogan — who previously discussed a move to Gettr — said in a text to Musk in April, “I REALLY hope you get Twitter. If you do that, we should have a hell of a party.”

Social platforms are attractive in large part because they enable conversations and connections between many different types of people. With alternative conservative platforms, many users could be put off by the echo chamber. “When you go to these platforms, a conversation happens,” said Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies disinformation and inauthentic behavior on social media. Conservative users uninterested in politics may also avoid the alternative platforms due to other objectionable content they host, according to experts studying the space.

Political discourse aside, many of these platforms also suffer from technical issues and poor user interfaces. Unlike their mainstream competitors, these newer services do not have sufficient resources to fix these issues. That might just make it harder to compete with a Musk-owned Twitter.

“Elon Musk could buy Twitter and say, ‘Trump, you’re back, Kanye, you’re back,’ and then Kanye is stuck owning a relatively outdated, somewhat irrelevant platform,” Decker said. “The question will boil down to how serious Elon Musk is about all this.”


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