In the wake of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by scores of President Trump’s supporters, a lone researcher began an effort to catalogue the posts of social media users across Parler, a platform founded to provide conservative users a safe haven for uninhibited “free speech” — but which ultimately devolved into a hotbed of far-right conspiracy theories, unchecked racism, and death threats aimed at prominent politicians.
The researcher, who asked to be referred to by her Twitter handle, @donk_enby, began with the goal of archiving every post from January 6, the day of the Capitol riot; what she called a bevy of “very incriminating” evidence. According to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, among other sources, Parler is one of a several apps used by the insurrections to coordinate their breach of the Capitol, in a plan to overturn the 2020 election results and keep Donald Trump in power.
Five people died in the attempt.
Hoping to create a lasting public record for future researchers to sift through, @donk_enby began by archiving the posts from that day. The scope of the project quickly broadened, however, as it became increasingly clear that Parler was on borrowed time. Apple and Google announced that Parler would be removed from their app stores because it had failed to properly moderate posts that encouraged violence and crime. The final nail in the coffin came Saturday when Amazon announced it was pulling Parler’s plug.
In an email first obtained by BuzzFeed News, Amazon officials told the company they planned to boot it from its clouding hosting service, Amazon Web Services, saying it had witnessed a “steady increase” in violent content across the platform. “It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service,” the email read.
Operating on little sleep, @donk_enby began the work of archiving all of Parler’s posts, ultimately capturing around 99.9 percent of its content. In a tweet early Sunday, @donk_enby said she was crawling some 1.1 million Parler video URLs. “These are the original, unprocessed, raw files as uploaded to Parler with all associated metadata,” she said. Included in this data tranche, now more than 56 terabytes in size, @donk_enby confirmed that the raw video files include GPS metadata pointing to exact locations of where the videos were taken.
@donk_enby later shared a screenshot showing the GPS position of a particular video, with coordinates in latitude and longitude.
The privacy implications are obvious, but the copious data may also serve as a fertile hunting ground for law enforcement. Federal and local authorities have arrested dozens of suspects in recent days accused of taking part in the Capitol riot, where a Capitol police officer, Brian Sicknick, was fatally wounded after being struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.
@donk_enby describes herself as hacker, in the sense that she’s “someone with a creative, but skeptical attitude toward technology,” to paraphrase a definition offered by the Chaos Computer Club, Europe’s largest hacker association. “I want this to be a big middle finger to those who say hacking shouldn’t be political,” she said. @donk_enby work has aided other researchers, including one at New York University’s Center for Cybersecurity.
@donk_enby told Gizmodo that she began digging into Parler after the company issued denials about an email leak unearthed by the hacktivist Kirtner, who has been credited with founding the hacker group Anonymous. @donk_enby said she was able to independently locate the same material herself at the time.
Kirtaner, creator of 420chan — a.k.a. Aubrey Cottle — reported obtaining 6.3 GB of Parler user data from an unsecured AWS server in November. The leak reportedly contained passwords, photos and email addresses from several other companies as well. Parler CEO John Matze later claimed to Business Insider that the data contained only “public information” about users, which had been improperly stored by an email vendor whose contract was subsequently terminated over the leak. (This leak is separate from the debunked claim that Parler was “hacked” in late November, proof of which was determined to be fake.)
In December, Twitter suspended Kirtaner for tweeting, “I’m killing Parler and its fucking glorious,” citing its rules against threatening “violence against an individual or group of people.” Kirtaner’s account remains suspended despite an online campaign urging Twitter’s safety team to reverse its decision. Gregg Housh, an internet activist involved in many early Anonymous campaigns, noted online that the tweet was “not aimed at a person and [was] not actually violent.”
@donk_enby said she believes Twitter has been relying too much on its automated moderation tools, which have led to dubious suspensions of users not actually violating of its rules. This has the effect of “driving people to toxic echo chambers like Parler,” she said.
Parler investor Dan Bongino, a Fox News commentator and former NYPD police officer, said in a Parler post on Saturday — shared on Twitter by BuzzFeed reporter John Paczkowski — that the company was “not done with Apple and Google” and encouraged users to “Stay tuned to hear what’s coming.” One user replied: “It would be a pity if someone with explosives training were to pay a visit to some AWS Data Centers – the location of which are public knowledge.”
On Sunday, CEO Matze sharply criticized the tech companies’ actions, claiming on Fox News that Amazon, Apple, and Google were attempting to “actually destroy the entire company.” Matze added that the company had also been “ditched” by its lawyers.
In an interview last year, Matze said that Parler — which has also taken money from Rebekah Mercer, a deep-pocketed, pro-Trump Republican donor — had planned to generate revenue using an “influencer” model. Prominent users would be tapped to post organic-looking posts promoting outside companies and products. Users could then “boycott” the influencers they didn’t like. On Tuesday, @donk_enby posted images of what the influencer panel looked like, as well as a function that enabled Parler to conceal the capability from certain users.
Parler is unlikely to rebound quickly, if at all. As the Duckbill Group’s Corey Quinn recently explained on Twitter, migrating a large product off AWS can take months of staging and possibly years to execute. Apps that integrate AWS’s wide array of services cannot be easily transposed onto a different hosting environment, Quinn said.