(Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

Those of us trying to remain sane amid the rising din of digital-age politics must keep one thing always front-of-mind: Extremism has become a business. There seems to be more of it for the simple reason that people think they can make a buck from it.

Media entrepreneurs of the 20th century amassed huge fortunes and great power by gathering the largest possible audiences. How? By finding happy mediums. Their 21st-century counterparts are more likely to follow a different path. They use the Internet to assemble passionate audiences, not always large; niche audiences whose intensity will motivate them to subscribe, to donate, to purchase, to obsess. Coded algorithms operate alongside social networks to steer each of us into communities of the like-minded. Digital entrepreneurs figure out what we crave and then give us more of it — whether it is recipes, college football, inspirational memes or some sexual kink.

Andrew Torba’s business model involves people who really enjoy talking about killing Jews, among other topics. As his company explains it, Torba in 2016 spotted “a unique opportunity to carve a niche in a massively underserved and unrepresented market.” People who relished repugnant rants were being dumped from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Torba’s new company, dubbed Gab AI, would allow their rants to flourish. Through subscriptions, tipping and other expressions of customer passion, Gab would capitalize on “a fragmentation process of the social media networking ecosystem into smaller niche communities with shared values and ideals.”

This plan to cash in on extremism is revealed with unusual clarity in Gab’s annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Yes, you read that correctly. A more traditional purveyor of inflammatory content might rely on wealthy like-minded patrons for private capital, as Breitbart did. Private companies need not disclose their funders, their finances or their downside risks.

Torba instead chose to sell shares to the public — a projected $10 million worth of blockchain-enabled cryptoshares, dubbed “Gab tokens.” Having built a nonpolitical business already in his young life (he reported that he was 27 at the time of Gab’s 2018 filing), Torba understood the public disclosures this decision would entail.

Indeed, his report bears the hallmarks of an experienced legal and accounting team. In it, Torba identifies his target market as the “over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist and populist internet users from around the world” whose views might run afoul of “objectionable content” rules for mainstream social media. Early adopters included the former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and dispossessed fans of the failing neo-Nazi website Stormfront.

Even if accurate — and I’m skeptical — Torba’s estimate of 50 million users amounts to far less than 1 percent of the world’s population — a narrow niche indeed. Only through digital technology could one hope to find them, connect them and make subscribers of them. Gab’s progress thus far: “In just over 18 months, we have attracted more than 394,000 users from around the world who are creating over 1.5 million posts every month,” the company reported.

Among those users and posters apparently was the ardent hater of Jews whose virtual rage and paranoia boiled over from Torba’s virtual cesspool into the massacre on Saturday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. After months of lurid chatter with others who share his anti-Semitism, the Gabber felt called to act: “Screw your optics,” he declared in his final post before allegedly murdering 11 people. “I’m going in.”

It is clear from the SEC filing that Torba had weighed the risks involved in catering to such people. “We rely on third-party service providers to operate,” the company noted. If Microsoft were to stop hosting Gab on its Azure platform; if Google Play were to join Apple in booting Gab from its app store; if PayPal, Stripe and other payment companies were to stop facilitating the flow of money, the result would be “a negative impact on our ability to grow our business.”

That’s exactly what happened. Mainstream companies dumped Gab; the site went dark; and Torba’s plan to sell eight figures’ worth of cybertokens is suddenly in doubt. Lost behind the same cloud of uncertainty is his vision for premium-priced Gab Pro content and subscriber-only chat rooms, along with his dreams for Gab TV.

In reply, Torba huffed about the First Amendment. Implausibly, yet stubbornly, he claimed that criticism of his business served only to strengthen it: Gab had become “a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online.”

But free speech is not the issue. Hatemongers are as free as ever to say what’s on their filthy minds. The question at hand is whether Andrew Torba or anyone else can make bank by amplifying their hate. The noise will grow louder as long as the answer is yes.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.