Amidst crackdown, Kenai Peninsula lawmakers among those moving to unregulated social media

Rep. Sarah Vance’s MeWe account profile.

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

Nikiski Republican Ben Carpenter said regulation is partly why he migrated to those platforms, deleting 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.”

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

But Parler and MeWe are unregulated, 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 still 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 unregulated websites like Parler helped Pro-Trump extremists organize for the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

“What they advertise themselves as — 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 get syphoned through the same channels as overt extremists.

“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.”

Rep. Carpenter said he doesn’t think getting rid of such 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.