Ayn Rand Devotee and Never Trumper Drives Parler’s Reboot
(Bloomberg) -- A few years ago, a lawyer with a PhD in philosophy named Amy Peikoff appeared on Fox News and defended Amazon.com Inc.’s pay practices. The show’s host, Tucker Carlson, expressed disgust that some Amazon employees were collecting taxpayer-funded food stamps at a time when the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, was the world’s richest man.
But Peikoff said the problem wasn’t Amazon or Bezos, but the commonly accepted idea that the federal government should provide food assistance to people struggling to make ends meet. “If it’s wrong for taxpayers to pay his labor costs, then what we need we need to do is eliminate the program,” she said.
In July, Peikoff became chief policy officer at Parler, and these days she finds herself working to salvage the controversial social media platform, which in January was driven off the internet in part by the very company she once defended on Fox.
Parler, which came back online a few weeks later, continues to promote a hands-off approach to content moderation that is largely being driven by Peikoff, who wrote the rules that dictate what’s allowed on the site, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified discussing private information.
Since it went online in 2018, Parler has promoted itself as the antithesis of Big Tech, a free speech champion that keeps policing of its users to a minimum. “Our goal is to provide all community members with a welcoming, nonpartisan Public Square,” according to Parler’s latest, two-page community guidelines, which were written by Peikoff, according to the people. “We prefer that removing users or user-provided content be kept to an absolute minimum. We prefer to leave decisions about what is seen and who is heard to each individual.”
Previous versions of Parler’s guidelines cited Federal Communications Commission rules on obscenity and had more specific examples of what isn’t allowed on the platform. The newest guidelines still outline what isn’t allowed, including child sexual abuse material, spam and bots, but its emphasis is on leaving users alone to have their say. “Parler’s policies are, to use a well-known concept in the First Amendment, viewpoint-neutral,” the rules state.
Peikoff, 52, initially agreed to be interviewed but stopped responding to requests. Parler did not respond to a request for comment. On her blog, in interviews and on social media, she has described herself as a “Never Trumper,” an atheist and a devotee of the late author Ayn Rand, whose writings and novels espouse a philosophical system she called Objectivism.
That philosophy championed laissez-faire capitalism, hard work and reason and considered selfishness a virtue, while dismissing altruism as a destructive force. Rand's critics describe her views as simplistic and cruel. Peikoff’s ex-husband, Leonard Peikoff, was a close associate of Rand’s, the legal heir to her estate and, according to his website, “the world’s foremost authority on Objectivism.” The couple divorced in 2012.
Amy Peikoff has also carried Rand’s torch forward on her YouTube channel and website “Don’t Let It Go,” named after a Rand essay, as well as in other interviews. For the last decade, Peikoff has tweeted, blogged and posted videos extensively on her website, covering a variety of topics that are primarily written through the lens of Objectivism.
“In the last week-plus, we’ve seen a chorus of people blaming Parler, specifically, for threats or incitement in user-generated content,” Peikoff wrote in January. “I argue that placing responsibility for user-generated content on platforms plays right into the totalitarians’ hands.”
Besides her admiration for Objectivism, Peikoff isn’t shy about sharing her other points of view.
In 2010, Peikoff wrote multiple blog posts opposing the construction of an Islamic community center and mosque that was set to be built two blocks from where the World Trade Center once stood.
“As I understand it, we are at war with those who are animated by an ideology—Islam—that declares war on us (the nonbelievers) and our way of life,” Peikoff wrote in 2010. “Because they have declared war on us, we are at war with them, regardless of whether our government has chosen to formally or explicitly declare war on anyone.”
She has publicly opposed Trump since the earliest days of his candidacy in 2016. “I’ve always been #nevertrump,” Peikoff tweeted in 2019. “But I’m also anti-leftist. I’m pro-rights. And Trump doesn’t believe in rights as a principle.” On her YouTube channel, she has interviewed conservative commentators Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin.
She recently left California for Austin, Texas, saying in an interview that she wanted to start a business and pay less taxes, and because she disagreed with California’s coronavirus lockdowns and Newsom’s “progressive agenda.”
After Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced he was ending the statewide mask mandate and lifting coronavirus restrictions, Peikoff responded with a heart emoji. "This doesn’t mean everyone should be reckless—just that people can decide for themselves what risks to take," Peikoff said. "Governor Abbott, are you active on Parler yet?"
Peikoff has hailed whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency, as a hero who should be pardoned, and she sided with Apple Inc. in its battles with U.S. authorities over encryption. In addition, Peikoff she describes herself as “carnivorish” and said she eats at least a pound and a quarter of meat per day. In a recent Instagram post, which featured slabs of rare meat, she said, “Leftover #ribeye for breakfast.”
Her pronoun? “Tough cookie,” according to her Parler account.
Parler first went live in August 2018, co-founded by John Matze and Jared Thomson, both of whom had studied computer science at the University of Denver. The site exploded in popularity last year after Facebook and Twitter started cracking down on false claims about election fraud and other misinformation—drawing criticism from some conservatives that they were being unfairly censored. Parler drew an estimated 13 million users before the site went down early this year, and reached the top spots in mobile app store.
Parler was taken offline in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Amazon Web Services, which hosted Parler, sent a letter to Peikoff stating that Parler repeatedly violated its terms of service, citing 98 posts it said “clearly encourage and incite violence.” Apple and Google also suspended the Parler app from its app stores.
Shortly before Parler went offline on Jan. 10, an anonymous hacker exploited a flaw in the site and downloaded all of the content, about 56 terabytes worth, that had been uploaded to the social media platform. Researchers were able to track Parler users who participated in the riot in the U.S. Capitol using the data, some of which was cited as evidence in Trump’s second impeachment trial.
Peikoff has said little publicly about the Jan. 6 riot. On Jan. 8, she wrote that Ashli Babbitt, the woman who was shot and killed inside the Capitol a few feet from the House chamber, had followed her on Twitter. “Apparently she followed me here on Twitter, even though I have been a vocal critic of @realDonaldTrump,” Peikoff tweeted. “Makes you wish you had done more.”
Peikoff joined Parler after catching the attention of one of its investors, the Bitcoin evangelist and self-described anarcho-capitalist Jeffrey Wernick, according to an interview on C-SPAN. On behalf of the Center for the Legalization of Privacy, which she founded, Peikoff wrote an amicus brief in the case U.S. v. Facebook, arguing that the Justice Department shouldn’t be given access to a wide range of Facebook documents because it would violate the privacy of its users. Wernick read the brief and reached out, she said.
“In the summer we got some of our first burst of user growth on Parler,” Peikoff said, in the C-SPAN interview. “It started to become clear they were going to need someone to come on and do policy.” She added that Wernick “thought, and I agreed, that I would be a good fit for that. So here I am.”
Peikoff has thrived at Parler even though her distinctive worldview may chafe many of its users, including Fox News host and Trump confidante, Sean Hannity, and its investors. According to Matze, the ex-chief executive officer, its lead investor is Rebekah Mercer, whose wealthy family has sought to reshape conservative politics with a populist, anti-establishment message. Mercer was an active supporter of Trump and served on his transition team.
Matze said he was fired by Mercer after suggesting Parler be more pragmatic in their content moderation, including removing white supremacists and QAnon supporters. Peikoff said in a statement that Matze’s claims about the reasons for his departure were “inaccurate and misleading.”
Mercer didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Parler came back online on Feb. 15 thanks to SkySilk Cloud Services, which is based in Los Angeles. SkySilk’s CEO defended its hosting of Parler, saying that the social media site was working to improve its content moderation policy.
“SkySilk feels that Parler is taking the necessary steps to better monitor its platform and applauds their release of new Community Guidelines,” SkySilk CEO Kevin Matossian said in a statement. “Once again, this is not a matter of SkySilk endorsing the message, but rather, the right of the messenger to deliver it.”
Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, said Parler’s revamped community guidelines are “very much the bare minimum to cover one’s possible legal responsibility.”
“It definitely leaves open the possibility for the kinds of hate harassment and incitement that we’ve seen over the years,” she said.
But Peikoff maintains that Parler is far more friendly to users than its bigger competitors, as it doesn't use algorithms to try to hook users or engage in tracking to target advertising.
“Why would you want to continue to help monetize a platform that is restricting what you can see and is trying to keep you engaged?” Peikoff said on C-SPAN.
On Jan. 14, Peikoff appeared again on Tucker Carlson’s show, this time as Parler’s chief policy officer. Carlson lashed the tech companies that had stopped working with Parler.
“I assume most of them are just greedy soulless little robots who will do whatever it takes to continue to loot the country,” he said.
Peikoff mostly agreed, saying that Parler was “singled out unfairly” and the type of posts that got it suspended were prevalent on other social media platforms too. She said Parler was the latest casualty of “a sort of Faustian bargain” that Big Tech has made with the government.
But as she often does, Peikoff offered a different viewpoint.
“With respect to this particular fight, I see Apple as an ally,” Peikoff said, explaining that CEO Tim Cook had said that Parler could be allowed back on the App Store if it updated its content moderation policies. “At least they stand for privacy, Tucker.”
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