Kenai Peninsula lawmakers join millions of conservatives on unmoderated social media platforms

Homer Rep. Sarah Vance’s MeWe profile. MeWe is currently the 11th most popular free app in the Apple App Store. (Source: MeWe)

Local lawmakers in the Kenai Peninsula are among the millions of conservatives flocking to Parler and MeWe, unmoderated social media sites that have become increasingly popular as mainstream social media companies crack down on election misinformation and extremism.

Nikiski Republican Ben Carpenter said that regulation is partly why he migrated to those platforms and deleted his personal and professional Facebook accounts. He said he’s on Parler or MeWe in his capacity as an individual, not as an elected official.

“Why that platform over another platform? The answer’s obvious,” he said. “The owners of Facebook and Twitter are censoring conservative voices and I don’t condone that. I don’t believe it’s American, but they have a right to do it as it’s their private business.”

Facebook and Twitter banned President Trump and his allies for propagating falsehoods about election integrity and instigating violence after the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Parler and MeWe are unmoderated. So users can post whatever they want — including hate speech and conspiracy theories.

Carpenter said another reason he switched is that he doesn’t think Facebook is conducive to conversations with constituents. He doesn’t think Parler and MeWe are, either, which is why he said he probably won’t be posting on them in an “official capacity.”

Rep. Sarah Vance, of Homer and Ron Gillham, of Soldotna, both Republicans, also have presences on MeWe. Both also maintain active Facebook pages.

Parler is currently offline since it was booted by app stores and Amazon Web Services for not removing content that “encourages or incites violence against others.”

Experts say websites like Parler helped Pro-Trump extremists organize for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“What they advertise themselves as is that they presume themselves as completely unregulated, free speech-first platforms,” said Alex Newhouse, research lead at the Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He’s been paying attention to apps like Parler in his studies on far-right extremism.

“In theory, that sounds pretty great for people who are concerned about freedom of speech and First Amendment issues,” he added. “But in practice, what that means is a lot of groups and individuals who have been kicked off for very important and valid reasons, like inciting violence and organizing terrorist attacks, also end up on those platforms, as well.”

Politicians have been using alternative social media to converse with voters and appeal to their more conservative base, Newhouse said. He said it’s a worrying trend since more mainstream conservatives and overt extremists are all syphoned through the same channels.

“These politicians are becoming lightning rods where that sort of mish-mash merging of different strains of the conservative movement broadly are occurring,” he said. “Without acknowledging how their presence affects that and how it draws people from all different parts of the spectrum, it is very dangerous. And it does contribute to radicalization of normal people. So I’m very concerned about the presence of politicians on unregulated platforms like that.”

Carpenter said he doesn’t think getting rid of these sites will eliminate the threat of violence. And he said regulation of social media is a violation of free speech.

Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche said he doesn’t have plans to move to any of those alternative sites. He said right now, Facebook is a good way for him to communicate with the people in his district.

“I’m going to be relying more on newsletters so that not every issue is politicized. But I’ll be evaluating the most effective way to reach my constituents,” he said. “I don’t know what my long-term decision will be.”

Neither Gillham nor Vance would respond to requests for comment by airtime. Representatives are arriving in Juneau this week for the start of the legislative session.

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