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FROM the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto to Ukip candidate Carl Benjamin’s YouTube channel “Sargon of Akkad,” alt-right hatred is being shared across the internet more outspokenly and frequently than ever.
In response, social media platforms such as Twitter, Reddit, YouTube and Facebook have attempted to moderate such content by deleting it from their sites. However, the social media giants did not foresee the outcome of openly stating that such content is forbidden: the growing popularity of the unmoderated social media site Gab.
Gab was created in August 2016 by Andrew Torba, an US-based Trump supporter, with the goal of replacing Twitter, the second largest social media site after Facebook.
Gab’s logo is a frog’s face, a nod to the alt-right’s ironic use of the Pepe The Frog meme, adopted as an inoffensive symbol for offensive-to-genocidal political positions.
Although Gab’s goal seems rather far-fetched, seeing as the site only has an estimated one million users to Twitter’s over 321 million, membership has been sharply increasing over the past months due to the crackdown on larger platforms.
Whereas sites such as Twitter moderate content by deleting posts and banning users, the unmoderated Gab leaves all content up on the grounds of free speech.
Torba kickstarted the site as a protest against “big tech” Silicon Valley, labelling moderation as “left-wing censorship” (even though Silicon Valley is fiercely pro-establishment and pro-capitalist). In an interview with the far-right news giant Breitbart, Torba professes that Silicon Valley “will be replaced” by unmoderated sites such as Gab in the near future. But how likely is this?
In October 2018 Gab hit media headlines after the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The shooter, who killed 11 people and injured a further 6, had posted his plans to attack the place of worship on Gab. As a result of the massacre, PayPal banned Gab from its payment platform, and Gab’s domain provider GoDaddy terminated its website server.
Alarmingly however, this crackdown only fuelled its growth: Gab’s subdomain, invest.gab.com (hosted by Amazon Web Services), ended up raising over $10 million to keep the website online.
As a result of this investment boom, Gab rebranded in Spring 2019 and now uncannily resembles Twitter. Gab’s new website is complete with the exact same web design as Twitter, including followers and posts. Posts on the site are called “gabs” and have a 300-character limit — slightly more than Twitter’s 280 word “tweets”, and users call themselves “Gabbers” (not to be confused with the Dutch 1990s dance subculture) in counterpart to Twitter’s Tweeters.
Not only have mass-shooters had a membership on Gab, but it also attracts some of the biggest less extreme “alt-lite” personalities.
Carl Benjamin, the Ukip candidate known for his YouTube channel “Sargon of Akkad” where he stated he “wouldn’t even rape” Labour MP Jess Phillips, was also known for his hateful rhetoric on Twitter. After his YouTube channel was demonetised, meaning it can’t make profits from ads, and his Twitter account banned, alongside his Ukip and YouTube counterpart Mark Meechan (aka Count Dankula), Benjamin urged other Ukip candidates and party supporters to migrate to Gab.
Ukip was not the only party inclined to the Gab migration, with Jayda Fransen of Britain First and ex-BNP leader Nick Griffin also pursuing the “free speech” path. They join the biggest names of the British alt right – Milo Yiannapolis and the currently imprisoned Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (“Tommy Robinson”) are also dedicated Gab members. On the other side of the Atlantic, Gab’s domestic members include the neonazi Richard Spencer and the infowars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
After the El Paso shooter published his manifesto on the /pol/ (politics, or “politically incorrect”) board of the notoriously unmoderated and anonymous 4chan spin-off 8chan, the site was finally deactivated: the Christchurch shooter too had been an active 8chan user, along with numerous other “lone wolf” attackers.
Although some speculate the 8chan users have migrated even further from sight into the Deep Web, like 8chan Gab is an easily accessible platform, not requiring any extra software or technical knowledge.
This accessibility is a key reason for Gab’s growing user base — and it is also adopting some of 8chan’s anonymity. As of last month, posts have been restricted to being viewed by members only, meaning that you have to join the site to be able to see what others post — a move likely to push the platform’s discourse to the extreme, giving users a sense of safety from public view and increasing the echo-chamber effect.
Despite Torba proclaiming that Gab is open to all kinds of viewpoints and “free speech,” his direct support for Trump and the far-right in general is a massive dissuasion for leftwingers considering supporting Gab as an unmoderated alternative to Twitter. Where leftwingers seek unmoderated platforms they are currently sticking to Bunkerchan and Discord servers.
Gab’s overt far-right reputation and its association with neonazis and mass shooters undeniably serves as a deterrent to the wider public too.
It remains highly unlikely that it will meet Torba’s goal of challenging Twitter. Instead, it seems it will become a life-raft for the radical right alone as one by one their sites and accounts are purged from the web.
How this develops is interesting: whilst isolation could kill the scene off, with users slinking back to mainstream platforms with their identities and views under-wraps, bias-conformation and cabin fever could also accelerate the creation of the next generation of far-right terrorists. Anti-fascists must monitor the project closely.
Nathan Czapnik is a socialist researcher and theorist based in London.
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