Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
In the deadliest anti-SemiticÂ attackÂ in American history, aÂ mass shootingÂ on October 27 left 11 dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. Reporters unearthed violently anti-Semitic messagesÂ the shooter had posted on the platform Gab, using an account that has since been deleted. Legacy media and companies that enabled Gab to sustain itself online are starting to grapple with the prominence of hate speech on the site, but for Gab, extremism has always been a feature, not a bug.
WhileÂ activists had alertedÂ some companies working with Gab that the site was transparently violating terms of service, it took a fatalÂ mass shootingÂ for payment processors Paypal and Stripe and cloud host Joyent to drop Gab. The siteâs CTOÂ has reportedly resigned, Gab was temporarilyÂ inaccessible, and its founder Andrew Torba isÂ âworking around the clockâÂ for the site to remain online. Torba asked for prayers for his plight and in a particularly tone-deaf post characterized the site as being “under attack.”
Trolling and harassment have been part of Torbaâs business model since Gabâs founding in 2016. Torba himself wasÂ sackedÂ from the alumni network of a startup accelerator he was a part ofÂ after he engagedÂ in pro-Trump online harassment of a Latino, and heÂ was photographedÂ next to Milo Yiannopoulos, aÂ Nazi sympathizerÂ who wasÂ booted off of TwitterÂ after organizing racist harassment of Black actress Leslie Jones.
Gab was born inÂ reaction to social media platformsÂ that ban hate speech, extremism, and harassment, explicitly meant to provide a haven to those whose extremist content had gotten them banned from other platforms, specifically Twitter. Since the beginning, Torba and Gabâs chief communications officer, Utsav Sanduja, claimed that free speech came above anything else, and that they included harassment under free speech,Â telling Mic in March 2017: âPolitical incorrectness is a First Amendment right. … We support freedom of speech and reject the politically correct definitions of what constitutes ‘harassment.’ [Social-justice warriors] do not get to define the verbiage, lexicon, culture or societal politics of the internet. Gab … will repeal this politically correct, censorship culture.â
They knew extremism was what motivated users to go on their site. So much that, as SandujaÂ acknowledged in 2017, they were looking into removing the downvoting feature (a feature similar to redditâs in which users can âupvoteâ or âdownvoteâ posts so that posts can jump above others and get more prominently featured) because it was enabling targeted harassment and driving women away from the site. (During the email exchanges with Mic, SandujaÂ addressedÂ journalist Melanie Ehrenkranz in a sexist manner.)
Extremists embraced the platform as an opportunity, andÂ white nationalistÂ darlingÂ Tucker CarlsonÂ hostedTorba during his prime-time show on Fox to promote Gab,Â failing to mentionÂ the extremism that had already festered on the site.
After Twitter enforced new rules in December 2017 thatÂ resulted in a purge of several âalt-rightâ accountsÂ filled with hate speech, users on Gab welcomedÂ Twitter refugeesÂ warmly.
Prominent white nationalist Christopher Cantwell —Â dubbed the âcrying NaziâÂ following his teary reactions to the 2017 Charlottesville, VA, Unite the Right rally — posted a message for newcomers with an anti-Semitic greeting, compelling them to not âworry about the racismâ on the site, while recognizing that âit can be a little weird at first:â
The racism that Cantwell called âa little weirdâ was rampant and uncensored on the site, until neo-NaziÂ Andrew Auernheimer (best known online as weev)Â became the first person to be banned from Gab. weev, who has now migrated to guest appearances onÂ racist shows on YouTube, wasÂ banned after Asia Registry, which used to host Gab, threatened to boot the siteÂ over a post in which weev wrote: âJews have cornered the whole Internet. â¦ And I think the only way weâll have any freedom of speech here is if someone teaches them a lesson.â
Instead of acknowledging that extremism was a problem in the site,Â Torba claimed weevÂ was among users posting extremism to âbreak the guidelines on purposeâ; the idea was that they were trying to goad leadership into banning them to show they would break their commitment to free speech. A Gab user protesting wwev’s ban noted that the hashtag âgas the kikesâ âis a constant statement on here and people are not getting banned.â
After white nationalist Paul Nehlen — whoÂ ran as a Republican in a 2017 attempt to unseat Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI)Â — became the second person to be banned, it became clear that Gabâs application of its own rules was arbitrary. DespiteÂ obvious guideline violations, it wasnât NehlenâsÂ often violent postsÂ orÂ his blatant white supremacyÂ that got him sacked from the site. It was the politics overÂ his revealing the true identity of the white supremacist known online as Ricky Vaughn, to which Gabâs leadership reacted inconsistently. First, Torba shrugged off what was being called a doxxing (revealing someoneâs contact information to enable their harassment), only acting to remove Nehlen from the platform after the overwhelming support for Vaughn among Gab users made supporting Nehlenâs presence on the site untenable.
Nehlen doxxing one of his critics was consistent with other doxxing operations — in which trolls organize to spread the contact information of a person they want to make the target of harassment — going on undisturbed at Gab in waysÂ identical to on anonymous message boards 4chan and 8chan. For example, after Judge William Young ruled in favor of upholding current Massachusetts gun regulations that ban assault weapons,Â pro-gun trolls on Gab set their sight on Young and doxxed himÂ in retaliation. Another instance of organized harassment on Gab was an âoperationâ in which trolls targeted progressive voices on Twitter, instructing each other to use Twitter reporting mechanisms against a list of progressive accounts in what they felt was retaliation for their own banning from Twitter in the first place. Torba not only tolerated such operations: He encouraged them, calling followers to engage in fraudulent mass reporting on Twitter in the name of causing chaos.
For those of us tracking extremism on the site, the ways in which it served as an alternate universe where public opinion was supplanted by hate speech, became obvious. On any given day, activism took the form ofÂ white supremacyÂ and users wouldÂ fearmongerÂ about diversity. Under the siteâs âgroupsâ feature,Â extremists openly organized under explicitly racist categories.
I have logged onto Gab nearly every day for over a year because of work. @getongab — above anything else — is an engine for anti-Semitism and bigotry. Already bloodthirsty posters are calling the killer a “hero” — this is typical Gab stuff: pic.twitter.com/K5jjeSS3iO
â Michael Edison Hayden ð (@MichaelEHayden) October 27, 2018
More specifically, Gab offered racist interpretations of current events daily. After HuffPostÂ reported that an anti-abortion activistÂ was in fact a white nationalist,Â posters on Gab reactedÂ with a shrug,Â complainingÂ that âethnonationalismâ was âsocially controversial,â and saying they hoped mainstream media reports like that would help âmore people become white nationalist or identitarian.â On April 20, postersÂ openly celebratedÂ Adolf Hitlerâs birthday, as evidenced by the siteâs popular topics that day, and theÂ reactions to the verdictÂ that declared Bill Cosby guilty of assault were an intersection of racism and misogyny. OnÂ International Womenâs Day, a sample of Gab takes includedÂ complaints that womenÂ had abandoned their âone jobâ of raising the next generation by joining the workforce, as well asÂ statements like, âWomen only belong in one place, and thatâs in my basement shackled to the radiator; only to occasionally be let out so they can make me a sandwich.â
â cristina lÃ³pez g. (@crislopezg) March 8, 2018
The siteâs extremist content often went beyond hateful words and into explicit exaltations of violence. Before he was banned, Nehlen prompted a discussion of a caravan ofÂ Central American immigrants in 2017Â that included talk of armed militias, killing âevery last oneâ and using them as âtarget practice.â
Neo-Nazi Andrew AnglinÂ openly called for shooting Middle Eastern refugeesÂ and blamed Jewish people for waging âa psychological warâ to push for the right of refugees to come to the U.S.: âAll it would take to stop this is a few bullets.â And that wasnât the first time Anglin had posted about shooting up Jewish people, but Gab leadershipÂ told a journalistÂ asking for a reaction that he hadnât crossed a line.
AnotherÂ postÂ that did not raise to the level of crossing a line for Gab was Anglinâs slur-laced, homophobic endorsement of corrective rape for lesbians.
However, even for someone as toxic as Anglin, unregulated speech on Gab was seemingly starting to get too toxic.Â In March, he complained that the trolling and abuse he was subjected to by fellow posters on Gab was made more burdensome by the siteâs lack of a block button. Anglin felt that Gabâs mute button wasnât enough.
Gabâs SandujaÂ respondedÂ to Anglin, seemingly taunting him to leave the site if he didnât like it. AnglinÂ claimed he used to encourageÂ âpeople to use this siteâ but that posters replying to âevery postâ he made by âpromoting terrorismâ and âposting gay pornâ was causing him to stop. SandujaÂ responded to Anglinâs tantrum and his troll supporters by exchanging slurs with them. After a user seemingly insulted his ethnicity by alluding to a type of visa foreign workers with specialty occupations use, writing âtypical H1B monkey,â Sanduja responded, âYouâre welcome for the free speech, Stormfagâ (in reference to Anglinâs site the Daily Stormer).
Gabâs leadership has always downplayed evidence of the extremism that festered on the site,Â potentially to avoid scaring away investors; leadersÂ once told Daily Beastâs Kelly WeillÂ that they thought âsome of Gabâs Nazis are actually fake Nazis, who are just trying to make Gab look bad.â Neither Torba nor Sanduja offered proof of this claim, relying instead on the conspiracy theory that progressive organizations were supporting fake Gab accounts that post extremism to give the site a bad image, a theory that echoes somewhat theÂ âfalse flagâ reaction the far-rightÂ has faced with instances of right-wing extremism.
This mindset explains why financial pressures have been the only incentives that have made Gabâs leaders act against extremism on their site. Torba has always framed pressure from his third-party providers to regulate Gabâs content as âcensorshipâ to free speech,Â going onÂ like-minded Alex Jonesâ Infowars outletÂ repeatedlyÂ toÂ complain. Heâs apparently aware of the ways violent neo-Nazi groups like the Atomwaffen Division use Gab and has done nothing.
Since people are finally paying attention to @getongab, I want to highlight again that the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division and others plotting violence are organizing on that platform out in the open.
The CEO does nothing about this issue: pic.twitter.com/80QOsdwmqe
â Michael Edison Hayden ð (@MichaelEHayden) October 27, 2018
Back in August, Gabâs hosting provider, Microsoft Azure, gave the site 48 hours to remove two virulently anti-Semitic posts made byÂ defeated neo-Nazi congressional candidate Patrick LittleÂ (who also ran as a Republican in a primary and is verified by Gab on the site). Little was suggestingÂ raising Jewish people âas livestock,âÂ andÂ vowingÂ to attack Holocaust memorials in the U.S. with a sledge hammer. After Azureâs pressure, the site removed the posts in contention, but before the site was taken offline, Little was stillÂ on Gab, where he reacted to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting byÂ urgingÂ his followers to blame the victims.
In anÂ email statementÂ to its users a full day after the synagogue shooting, Gab disavowed and condemned âall acts of terrorism and violenceâ but also condemned the press by saying, âWe refused to be defined by the mediaâs narratives about Gab and our community.â In the statement, Gabâs leadership continued to take no responsibility for the extremism the platform has enabled since its inception by saying, âCriminals and criminal behavior exist on every social media platform.â