Gab, an Online Haven for White Supremacists, Plots Its Future

(Bloomberg) -- For many people, the massacre in Pittsburgh on Saturday was an introduction to gab.ai, a social-media website popular among right-wing extremists. In the weeks leading up to the killing, the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers, posted a stream of anti-Semitic invective, before a final post attacking the Hebrew Immigrant Aide Society: "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

For a normal website, the idea of having played even a glancing role in such an event would likely be a moment for soul-searching. Not Gab. The company declined an interview request, but in a stream of posts on Twitter, as well as in a public statement posted to its homepage, the company dismissed the idea that it is possible or even desirable to discourage hateful speech online. Even after taking down Bowers’s account, Gab CEO Andrew Torba told NPR he didn’t think the alleged shooter’s final post was a threat. “There’s awful content all across social media, across all of the internet. That’s the way it’s always been.”

In a younger, more innocent age of social media, people at some social networks made some version of this argument. That has faded as the connection between online speech and real-world violence has become clearer. Companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube all acknowledge the responsibility to confront extremism on their platforms, even if critics regularly question whether they’re too addicted to advertising dollars to dedicate themselves fully.

Torba, a disaffected entrepreneur who felt his support for Donald Trump made him a pariah in liberal Silicon Valley, started the company during the 2016 presidential election. He pitched it as a sanctuary for people who had been kicked off of Twitter for violating its community standards. Gab soon counted many of America’s most famous racists among its users.

The company realized from the start it was on shaky ground, because it relied on mainstream tech companies both for distribution and technical infrastructure. It tried to use this vulnerability as a way to rally support. Torba railed against the market power of Facebook and Google, claiming that reasonable people on both left and right could agree their sway over the virtual public square was worrying. Gab’s only ideology was a zealous support of free speech.

Torba expresses a harsh version of right wing populism, while also attempting to distance himself from the extremism on his site. Like a significant amount of right wing speech online, there’s an element of joking-not joking to it. Gab’s mascot is a cartoon frog that resembles Pepe, a meme used to signal winking support for the alt right. In the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting, Gab’s Twitter feed posted multiple messages arguing that no one but the shooter bore any responsibility — but also reposted one Tweet suggesting the attack was explained by Jewish support for liberal migration policies. (The post disappeared late Monday.)

Many vendors Gab relied on have cut ties. Google and Apple have banned it from their app stores. In September 2017, the company’s domain registrar told the site it wouldn’t host it anymore, citing extremist content on the site. Over the past month, and especially in the past few days, payment processors and other infrastructure providers have broken ties with Gab.

Many people on the far right have faced similar hurdles in recent years. Last year, the day before the white nationalist riot in Charlottesville, Gab announced the creation of the “Free Speech Tech Alliance.” The idea was to create a far-right friendly alternative infrastructure to the internet. In a seeming sign that such efforts remain a work in progress, Gab disappeared from the Internet within 48 hours of the shooting in Pittsburgh. The company attributed it to a dispute with its domain registrar.

On Monday night, Gab said via Twitter that it planned to be back up by the weekend. The company insisted the attention it had gained would benefit it in the long run. "You have all just made Gab a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online at a time when Silicon Valley is stifling political speech they disagree with to interfere in a U.S. election,” it wrote in a statement on its homepage.

Utsav Sanduja, who is Gab's former COO and remains a supporter, said the company’s failure to take action on Bowers illustrated a lack of “checks and balances,” but blamed the company’s shoestring budget. “It’s really so hard to police everybody on the site. It’s really difficult to have that kind of oversight on a regular basis. I really feel for Gab, because they have a good mission, which is free speech,” he said.

The tumult surrounding the site does seem to require the commitment of a true believer. Over the weekend the company’s CTO, Ekrem Büyükkaya, quit, citing “the attacks from the American press.” Sanduja left in June, saying he and his wife were worn down by the constant trolling by some of the site’s neo-Nazi users. “After a while it just takes a toll on you,” he said.

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