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

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New York
CNN Business

One week ago, Kanye West was temporarily suspended from Twitter for posting antisemitic tweets. Now, the rapper has agreed to acquire Parler, an alternative social platform popular with conservatives, to prevent ever having “to fear 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 nascent, alternative set of social media platforms favored by conservatives and members of the far-right who profess to feel outrage over content moderation on more mainstream services.

After being banned from Twitter following the Jan. 6 insurrection, former President Donald Trump backed Truth Social, an alternative to Twitter. In a slide deck, Trump’s digital media company touted the ambitious possibility of creating not just alternatives to the major social media platforms but also to cloud computing products like Amazon Web Services and 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 company Memetica, calls an “alt social media ecosystem,” fueled by “the deplatforming of high-profile conservative” figures from other larger platforms in recent years.

There are a range of potential reasons why West — an erratic figure known for chaotic business dealings — may have wanted to acquire Parler, a platform that’s been home to election denialism, antisemitism and adherents to the conspiracy theory QAnon. He was likely frustrated with his antisemitic comments being removed from Twitter

(TWTR) and Instagram, and for being 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.

In a statement included with the Parler announcement on Monday, West alluded to the need for a different, safe space for conservatives, a camp with whom he identifies. “In a world where conservative opinions are considered to be controversial we have to make sure we have the right to freely express ourselves,” he said. West also discussed his planned Parler takeover with Trump, a source familiar with the conversation told CNN Monday, although it was unclear if the two spoke before or after the news of the rapper’s acquisition was made public.

But to the extent he is serious about the acquisition, which remains very much unclear, West faces an uncertain path forward that mirrors the challenges for other services promising unfettered “free speech.”

For starters, the audience for these alternative platforms remains far smaller than the mainstream services they are competing with. Even if all 40,000 of Parler’s estimated 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 Twitter’s more than 200 million daily active users.

And despite professing to provide an unrestricted home for fringe content, some services, including Parler, have had to make concessions on content moderation to be allowed on the major app stores. Apple said last year that it had approved Parler’s return to the iOS app store following improvements the company made to better detect and moderate hate speech and incitement, and Google did the same last month. But even with app store approvals, large marketers tend to shy away from running ads alongside content that even whiffs of controversy.

Perhaps the biggest wild card of all comes from West’s friend and fellow erratic rich guy, Elon Musk. The billionaire Tesla CEO appears closer than ever to taking over an already established platform, Twitter, with plans to cut back on its content restrictions. (Following the Parler announcement, Musk tweeted, and later deleted, “fun times ahead!” along with a meme showing the two men’s smiling faces superimposed over a cartoon.)

Various regulations and business interests may keep Musk from fully committing to letting anything stay on Twitter, in the same way it has for Parler and others. But it might not take much to get right-leaning 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 stick to Truth Social, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t at least be tempted to return to Twitter’s much larger megaphone.

Shares of the investment vehicle set to take Trump’s Truth Social public slid when Musk first announced his plan to buy Twitter, and fell again earlier this month when Musk revived his proposal to buy it. Likewise, Rumble, which only recently went public via a similar path, saw its stock decline recently when Musk said the deal was back on.

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

Social platforms are attractive in large part because they enable conversations and connections between lots of different kinds of people. With alternative conservative platforms, many users may be discouraged by the echo chamber. “If you go to these platforms, there is one conversation happening,” 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 because of other objectionable content they host, according to experts who study the space.

Putting the political discourse aside, many such platforms also suffer from technical issues and poor user interfaces. Unlike their mainstream rivals, these newer services lack sufficient resources to fix those issues. That could only 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 defunct, somewhat irrelevant platform,” said Decker. “The question is going to come down to how serious Elon Musk is about any of this.”