(iStockphoto)

In a way, “the purge” was the best thing to ever happen to Gab. Suddenly, the small social network that was built by a conservative Christian Republican and promises “free speech” for all, became more active than it had ever been.

“The purge” is what the alt-right — a small, far-right movement that embraces racist, white nationalist and populist beliefs — called a sweeping series of permanent suspensions carried out by Twitter just after the election, beginning hours after the platform strengthened its policies on “hateful conduct” and made it much easier for users to report accounts in violation.

The bans took out some of the most popular accounts in the various coalitions of the Trump-supporting Internet: self-proclaimed white nationalist Richard Spencer, anonymous self-proclaimed white nationalist “Ricky Vaughn,” Paul Town, Pax Dickinson and John Rivers.

With those figureheads banned from Twitter and suddenly much more active on Gab, the little-known network instantly became more popular. Also helping matters: Facebook’s simultaneous crackdown on “fake news,” which raised suspicions among some conservatives that the much larger platform was going to try to “censor” alt-right friendly sites like Breitbart. When the new users arrived to Gab, they found a whole lot of people who thought a whole lot like them.

“In the last eight days alone, we’ve added 60,000 new accounts,” Gab founder Andrew Torba said in an interview last week. “And that [growth] does coincide with a lot of the bans that we’re seeing.”

Gab behaves like a Twitter-Reddit hybrid. It has a limit of 300 characters, and users can upvote or downvote posts. You can make lists of people to follow, or browse posts by topic or trending hashtag. Gab has just a few rules: no child porn, no doxxing, no threats, no promotion of terrorist groups or agendas. It also has one suggestion: “try to be nice and kind to one another.” It has no user block feature, only mute. Gab also allows people to mute their feeds by keyword, an anti-harassment feature that, Torba noted, predates Twitter’s own rollout of the same idea.

The social network is still in closed beta and invitation-only. Anyone is free to join, Torba emphasized in our interview, not just the alt-right and conservatives.

I didn’t set out to build a ‘conservative social network’ by any means,” he said, “but I felt that it was time for a conservative leader to step up and to provide a forum where anybody can come and speak freely without fear of censorship.” 

Torba decided to do this after leaving Silicon Valley, a place he describes as saturated with progressive agendas. In May, when Gizmodo reported that Facebook’s trending topics might be unfairly biased against conservative topics, he got to work on Gab.

“Every major communication outlet, every major social network, is run, owned, controlled and operated by progressive leaders, progressive workers in Silicon Valley,” he said.

That he is not any of those things has helped him build trust among Gab’s core, who are deeply suspicious of Silicon Valley figures like Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and the platforms they run. 

Right now, Trump supporters who have migrated to Gab seem to regard the space with some sense of ownership. Despite Torba’s near daily reassurances on his own Gab account that his platform is intended for and open to everyone (and not just an alt-right safe space), it remains difficult at this point to picture a warm welcome for members of the online communities that Gab’s current user base appears to despise.


(Gab)

When I asked Torba about that, he agreed that Gab’s current audience skewed heavily toward the right, but he argued that the growth of Gab was more of a reflection of an “establishment vs. normal everyday American people movement.” Torba suggested his site might next become a welcome home for anti-establishment supporters of Bernie Sanders, who “felt that they were suppressed and censored during the primaries.”  

“The user base is still pretty small,” he said. “If we get one influencer on the left to come on and bring even 20,000 from the left, instantly we get a diverse user base and a lot more diverse discourse going on.” 

The trending topics on Gab on one recent afternoon were, in order: #MAGA, #Trump, #GabFam, #PizzaGate, #SpeakFreely, #Gab, #PresidentTrump, #AltRight, #DrainTheSwamp and #News. Recent popular posts include warnings about journalists — specifically BuzzFeed — trying to “infiltrate” Gab, and some criticism of Spencer’s Nazi salute in Washington. Was it an inside job meant to discredit the alt-right or just a really dumb idea? “Criticize it privately if you must but otherwise shut the f— up,” Dickinson advised his followers.

There are also rolling welcome parties for new Gab accounts. Infowars’s Alex Jones joined to much fanfare; reality show star turned Hitler admirer Tila Tequila started posting a lot more on her verified Gab account after Twitter permanently banned her for violating its new safety policies.

Others have tested the limits of Gab’s commitment to free speech. When hacker-troll Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer joined and decided to make his Gab bio a vile statement advocating violence against Jews, Gab censored it as against their guidelines banning threats of violence, provoking a mini rebellion among some of the white supremacists on Gab. Gab and Weev eventually came to an understanding about the matter, and his bio now says something else.

Ricky Vaughn welcomed his Twitter suspension by starting the #TwitterTerror hashtag on Gab, which basically appeared to be a harassment campaign designed to ruin Twitter for everyone else. “Create quick-hit, throwaway accounts that you can use to harass the critics of Trump,” Vaughn instructed in one post.

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(Gab)

More broadly, Gab’s members agree that Twitter is “over,” and are hoping that Gab will take its place. There are plenty of debates over whether Gab’s “echo chamber” will — or even should — ever lift for that to happen.

Gab is growing rapidly in India and Brazil, Gab spokesman Utsav Sanduja said over the course of our phone call, and has more plans to recruit internationally — including in France and other French-speaking countries, where Sanduja said they’re seeing interest among “independent novelists and writers [who] are being suppressed for having politically incorrect views.” 

Torba and Sanduja asked, over the course of our phone call, for patience to prove that Gab can prove that it is designed to be something more than the alt-right version of Twitter. The platform is just a few months old, and they still have a lot to fix and to figure out.

The cautionary tale of what can go wrong with user trust — which is, right now, one of Torba’s biggest assets with the site’s growing right-wing base — is already there in Twitter, a platform it was designed to replace and oppose.

Twitter’s infamously opaque and inconsistent enforcement of its own rules has quite a bit to do with its size, and the large team of moderators the platform employs to make split-second decisions on reported rule violations — an issue that Twitter has struggled to correct over time.

Torba has been personally involved in moderating many of the disputes that happen on the platform, something he admits he won’t be able to do forever. It is barely sustainable with tens of thousands of users; and will soon become impossible in all but a few cases.

The specifics of exactly how Gab will do better than Twitter on this front, Torba said, will be worked out as the site grows, with input from its users. But he is confident Gab will win, “as long as they [Twitter] keep on their strategic path of censorship and we keep on our strategic path of free speech.” 

This post has been updated to clarify the resolution of a disagreement between Weev and Gab. 

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