Immediately after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October, all eyes were on Gab, the Twitter-esque platform celebrated by self-proclaimed alt-right celebrities such as Richard Spencer and Alex Jones for its permissive attitude toward all speech, including speech considered hateful in civil society. In the weeks leading up to the attack, the alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, had reportedly used the platform to espouse anti-Semitic views and conspiracies from what is believed to be his verified account on the site, which bore a bio that plainly stated “jews are the children of Satan.”
From the start, Gab has positioned itself as an echo chamber that would allow people to find a community of like-minded bigots. Even if they weren’t actively engaging in hate speech at any given time, they were offered, by Gab, a platform on which hate was normalized — possibly was even the norm. While more-familiar social media sites may also feature their share of repugnant content, Gab’s free-speech absolutism provides those who engage in such discourse with the tacit, and often explicit, endorsement of their fellow users.
The profile alleged to be Bowers’s was quickly pulled from the platform, which was valued at roughly $1 million last year, shortly after the shooting. Despite that, companies that kept Gab running — among them, its payment processor Stripe and its domain host, GoDaddy — withdrew their support, rendering the site defunct. Once die-hard Gab users, meanwhile, fled the platform en masse. Since then, Gab has reemerged into the digital landscape with a new registrar, the Seattle-based Epik.com. Gab announced its return with the triumphant tweet: “Can’t stop us, won’t stop us. Free Speech LIVES!”
Even before the site came back online, Andrew Torba, its founder and chief executive, used the Gab Twitter account — which he has acknowledged he often runs — to claim that his site was being unfairly targeted. Twitter and Facebook carry the lion’s share of social media traffic, he argued, and along with it, the vitriolic content. In a now-deleted tweet from the company’s account, he suggested that discourse on Gab was comparable to that on Twitter: “According to a massive academic study of all posts ever made on Gab.com, 94 percent of content did not include any ‘hate speech.’ ”
In another deleted tweet, Torba implied that if the site could bring its hate speech problem down to Twitter-like levels — which, according to the research, were half as bad as Gab’s — the site should be allowed to “exist” on the Internet.
The central premise of Torba’s disingenuous defense seems to be that although social media — and the Internet as a whole — begets toxicity, his platform is being unfairly singled out. He cited the case of Cesar Sayoc, who had used both Twitter and Facebook to reportedly spout conspiracies before being caught for allegedly mailing pipe bombs to Democratic-aligned pundits and Democratic politicians. (Twitter, for its part, has acknowledged its shortcomings and is taking steps to squash hateful content as it emerges.)
Why should these sites have the privilege of retaining their spot on the Internet, argued Torba, when they also struggle with hate?
It’s a question that blatantly ignores the gaps in the way that we classify hate speech. According to the “massive academic study” that Torba cited, the estimated 6 percent of the site dedicated to hate speech is possibly a gross underestimate. Looking at the research more closely, that was merely the percentage of posts that contained overt slurs — a narrow slice of what hate speech encompasses.
For reference, some of the most hateful posts that Bowers allegedly wrote wouldn’t fall under this umbrella. Saying that “Jews are waging a war on Western civilization” and re-branding Jewish immigrants as “invaders” wouldn’t fall under that 6 percent, nor would any of the anti-Semitic pictures that elude even the more sophisticated hate speech detection systems. Nor would it include the kind of abuse — most notably, doxing — that Gab users have lobbed at those with a liberal slant.
But even if the platform could whittle down its hate speech content to a smaller percentage, that doesn’t excuse the fact that the site proudly profited off overtly hateful views and courted some of the Internet’s most abhorrent personalities. Some of the most visible accounts on Gab either blamed Jews for the Pittsburgh shooting or flat-out denied that it ever happened.
Since reemerging under a new host, some of the site’s most popular posts ask Torba to “name the Jews” they believe took the site offline. It’s only the latest example of anti-Semitic sentiment that’s long been fostered through Gab’s network of chats and forums. Earlier this year, Patrick Little, the neo-Nazi who ran for Senate in California, twice posted calls for physically harming Jews. Those posts were allowed to safely live on the platform and were removed only when Microsoft threatened to take down Gab’s domain. The neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, meanwhile, has openly used the platform to organize meetings and recruit members, even after being allegedly implicated in at least one murder.
When Torba founded Gab in August of 2016, "it was in response to these accounts getting banned from Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 election,” said Michael Edison Hayden, an open-source intelligence analyst at Storyful who has monitored the online behavior of extremists at length.
The accounts that ended up being the bedrock of Gab’s user base turned out to be created by people who were banned from the more popular platforms, either for violating the rules surrounding hate speech, being involved in targeted harassment or sending violent threats. Some members, such as early Gab user Milo Yiannopoulos, were guilty of all three.
“When the impetus for your company is to find a place for these people who have already demonstrated themselves to be bad actors on other platforms,” Hayden said, referring to Gab’s initial user base, “it’s almost as if you decided to start a village entirely with people that had been convicted of crimes.”
While Torba positions his platform and himself as championing hope, not hate, there’s no escaping the truth that it’s an environment that was built on and for those who support violence. Those hateful posts — and people, evidently — will continue being the bedrock and backbone of Gab for the foreseeable future.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article contained a quote that misstated the year Gab was founded. It was August 2016, not August 2015.