Gab’s Demise Is Just the Beginning of a Horrific New Era of Far-Right Extremism

Gab’s Demise Is Just the Beginning of a Horrific New Era of Far-Right Extremism

By Aaron Jackendoff/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock.

Back in the summer of 2016, in a world that never truly countenanced the real specter of a Trump presidency, the populist-nationalist troll Milo Yiannopoulos was kicked off Twitter for harassing the comedian Leslie Jones. At the time, many wondered what had taken so long, or whether the popular Breitbart editor might see his influence in the darkest corners of the shit-stirring fringe of right-wing conservatism decline. Instead, Yiannopoulos announced a new social-media comeback. “I’m joining Gab today—my username is @m. Come say hi,” he wrote on Facebook, adding that this new platform was giving out “10,000 new invites to celebrate my arrival.”

Yiannopoulos’s embrace of Gab was a coup for the nascent platform, then barely two months old, which appeared to be a better designed, less sketchy member of the growing universe of so-called “alt-right” Web sites, including Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News; Daily Stormer and Vdare, with their anti-Semitic overtones; and 8chan, the anonymous image board full of Pepe the Frog memes. Gab.com’s logo was a cutesy little graphic frog face—a seeming nod to Pepe, but described by its C.O.O. to Vice as “a biblical reference to the ‘plague of the frogs,’” which would rain down “revenge against those who went against mainstream conservative voices on the Internet.”

Yiannopoulos’s own attempt at mainstreaming failed miserably, thanks to numerous scandals and self-inflicted wounds, but he remains one of the most popular figures on Gab, despite—or, rather, due to—his reputation as a white-nationalist sympathizer. Even without Yiannopoulos as a leader, Gab has become a welcome haven for his ideas, which in the following two years became a notorious redoubt for a wide spectrum of far-right pot-philosophizing, from pro-Trump nationalists to outright white supremacists and neo-Nazis. The site soon grew a small but steadfast following, increasing its membership virtually every time a popular far-right figure—such as white nationalist Richard Spencer, or MTV host-turned-Holocaust denier Tila Tequila—got de-platformed elsewhere and moved their online presence to Gab.com. It became a cause célèbre for anti-social-justice-warrior media icons such as Ann Coulter, and received increasing support from figures like Tucker Carlson, who drew criticism after interviewing Andrew Torba, the Silicon Valley programmer who founded Gab.com, on his show. (Naturally, the backlash to Carlson’s interview prompted Breitbart to accuse his critics of being anti-free speech.) But in the past week, Gab has become known as the social media base for a man who committed what is believed to be the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history.

Before he opened fire inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing at least 11 people who had gathered for Shabbat services, Robert Bowers, the alleged shooter, found a safe space to express the anti-Semitic hatred that was consuming him. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k*** infestation,” Bowers wrote on Gab.com. On Twitter or Facebook, Bowers’s views would have gotten him banned; on Gab, he fit right in. “Jews are the children of Satan,” read his profile. And toward the end of his post history—filled with even more violent, anti-Semitic and anti-minority content—he increasingly indicated that he would start acting soon. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” Bowers wrote on Saturday. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Moments later, he began his shooting spree.

Law-enforcement authorities quickly zeroed in on Gab.com, and in the process, the obscure new face of right-wing extremism revealed itself. When the site launched, Torba touted his innovation as one of the last bastions of free speech: “Gab is not FOR any particular group of people, political leaning, race, beliefs, or anything,” he declared, around the same time Yiannopoulos was kicked off Twitter. “Anybody is welcome to express themselves on Gab.” In practice, however, the site quickly became a safe space for the racist expressions that got users kicked off of Facebook and Twitter. Its blind commitment to so-called free speech permitted any sort of discussion to thrive, even if it was hateful, violent, or anti-Semitic in nature. In a Vice article from April, writer Tom Bennett described his experience signing up for the site. “A quick scroll down the Twitter-like home page and I was met with a picture of Joseph Goebbels, quotes from Mein Kampf, pro-gun and anti-trans memes, and a series of posts by former B.N.P. leader Nick Griffin. This was before I’d followed anyone, reposted anything, or been active in any way. This home page wasn’t based on any preferences of mine that Gab’s algorithm had learned—it was a selection of posts that were popular with other users.”

Although the site advertised a strict no-tolerance policy against posts calling for violence, self-harm, or threatening language, moderation was often lax. Eventually, members were evicted for much more arbitrary reasons. Prominent white nationalist Paul Nehlen, who challenged Paul Ryan for his Wisconsin congressional seat, had a rich history of anti-Semitic trolling, but was banned for doxxing one of Gab’s highest-profile members. In turn, Gab’s failure to enforce the rules often led its own members to deliberately test the limits of its policies, practically daring moderators to ban them. When prominent white nationalist Andrew Auernheimer, also known as Weev, got booted, Gab’s users protested, saying the site tolerated far worse than him on a regular basis: “#gasthekikes is a constant statement on here and people are not getting banned, neither should Weev have been,” one wrote.

The internal debate over exactly how much hate speech the community could tolerate reflects a broader argument within the right over how to spread their ideas throughout the Internet—whether by “red-pilling”, a.k.a. sneaking fascist, racist, or anti-Semitic views into larger society by presenting them as reasonable alternatives to apparently strident liberal voices (“social-justice warriors“), or by overt action, such as rallies and marches, neo-Nazi imagery, and racist chants. (Donald Trump himself is a controversial figure in this debate, with some on the far right praising him for helping to “red-pill” the “normies,” while fascist activists accuse Trump and the far right of “paralyzing the supply chain” by providing a moderate alternative to full-on Nazism.) The Charlottesville rally in 2017, which left a protester dead, was intended as a direct rebuke to the “optics cucks,” who preferred the former tactic. The debate became a major dividing point, apparently with extreme real-world consequences. Nehlen was a harsh critic of the “optics cucks.” Bowers, too, wrote “screw your optics” before he began his shooting.

For anyone who followed Gab and observed the stridency of its factions, it was little surprise that its commenters quickly celebrated Bowers’s actions. “I can’t wait to hear about how many lampshades the alleged synagogue shooter made out [sic] these jews in Pittsburg,” wrote @EmilyAnderson, followed by three laughing cat emojis; another user predicted that Bowers’s statement—“All these Jews have to die”—would “be a meme as long as the Internet lives. Which wont [sic] be long after this LOL.”

The revelation of Bowers’s horrifying online presence spurred tech companies to action: GoDaddy booted Gab from its platform; PayPal, Stripe, and Joyent de-platformed the site; Medium removed Gab’s account. Some saw these companies’ hasty actions as hypocritical—after all, they claimed, the tech world had known about Gab’s Nazi problem for months, and done nothing. But the swift punishment did not quiet the Gab community. On the contrary, it seems to have validated the far right’s victimhood complex. “The attacks from the American press have been relentless for two years now and have taken a toll on me personally,” Ekrem Büyükkaya, Gab’s C.T.O., wrote when he resigned from his position on Sunday.

The site’s remaining members and supporters soon rallied behind their founder, painting themselves as casualties of another wave of media criticism. “None of you leftist lunatics are blaming the shooter. You guys can’t seem to grasp the concept of personal responsibility,” one user tweeted, in response to a Washington Post article covering the shuttering of Gab.com. “It’s Gabs fault, it’s the presidents fault, it’s alt medias fault and on and on. Everyone is a victim, 0 responsibility.” (The tweet was re-tweeted by Gab’s account.)

But the existence of Gab reflects a larger trend on the right, wherein those banished from mainstream social-media sites create evermore extreme platforms on which to express themselves. Fox News initiated this trend more than two decades ago: the cable channel was explicitly founded to offer a conservative take on the news, while Andrew Breitbart built his namesake site to cater to an even more conservative audience. The bigger the Internet has become, and the lower the cost of entry, the more likely sites like Gab.com and those further afield will proliferate—not just as social hubs, but as an alternate Internet with its attendant-support networks. (Already, far-right crowd-funding sites like Hatreon have popped up as alternatives to GoFundMe and Patreon, though they’re frequently kicked off of major payment platforms.) By insisting that Silicon Valley is unfairly suppressing and maligning the views of his “deplorables,” Trump has effectively created a feedback loop wherein the right’s persecution complex—and its extremism—grows more pronounced each time it is forced to decamp to a new online home. Where the cycle ends is anyone’s guess, but the story of Gab is far from over. “GAB IS NOT GOING ANYWHERE,” Torba wrote on the now-defunct page. “I don’t care what we have to do, I don’t care what it takes. We will build everything from the ground up if we have to.”

More Great Stories from Vanity Fair

— Why Fox doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to Trump

— How long can Mark Zuckerberg keep convincing teens that Instagram is cool?

— Is the Trump administration ever going to hold Saudi Arabia to account?

— Why working at Netflix sounds terrifying

— Amazon’s flirtation with ICE appalls its workers

Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hive newsletter and never miss a story.

How Much Can We Blame Kanye West for the Terrible Blexit Logo?

How Much Can We Blame Kanye West for the Terrible Blexit Logo?

by Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/Sipa/AP Photo.

Graphic design is his passion. Kanye West is now dipping his toe into logo-making, crafting—or, at least, helping to craft—the “X” in the logo for Blexit, a self-described “frequency for those who have released themselves from the political orthodoxy” started by conservative commentator Candace Owens. Teal and orange T-shirts and hats featuring the Blexit logo and “We Free” on them were handed out at the Young Black Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., last weekend, where, according to Page Six, Owens credited West with their design. With their bright colors, they do look a little more fashionable than your average MAGA hat—but the human-shaped “X” in Blexit is about on par with the Trump administration’s efforts at a Space Force logo. So, is the Blexit logo what happens when MAGA Kanye overtakes Fashion Kanye?

Don’t worry too much about that just yet. On Monday, Owens seemed to backtrack a bit on West’s involvement and, as per usual for a Trumpworld denizen, blamed the media for getting it wrong: “I said on stage that my friend and fellow superhero helped me design the ‘X’ for BLEXIT. This may shock the world, but Ye is a world renowned designer. Everyone who knows him asks him for advice on design. Ye supports various people in different regards, because at the end of the day—his [is] a message about unity and love.”

While West’s Yeezy line usually sticks to muted colors and neutrals, the bright colors of the Blexit merch touch on the 90s nostalgia taking over the fashion industry, so it seems likely that West had some say in the design process, even if Owens would rather you not talk about it.

Shortly before he re-tweeted Owens, West tweeted, “We’re about love unity and we design for the world.”

The much-discussed “X” that West helped design, to whatever degree, isn’t much to look at, just a shapeless figure outstretching its hands and legs in the shape of the letter. The new logo was reportedly released in tandem with a broader launch of the organization’s Web site, which includes articles with headlines like “Democrats vs. Civil Rights Protests” and “President LBJ’s True Motivations” depicting Democrats as those perpetuating racism and Republicans as misunderstood heroes.

Owens ended her statement echoing a common thought of West’s, writing, “Let’s not politicize love.”

It’s an interesting ask coming from the woman who proudly posted a photo of a Blexit hat next to a MAGA hat and accused “angry leftists” of keeping the black community apart. While West enters into his controversy-of-the-week with Blexit, his wife, Kim Kardashian, seems to be going out of her way to stay out of it, staying busy on social media to promote her new line of fragrances.

More Great Stories from Vanity Fair

— Meet the woman changing what it means to be a model in 2018

— When Stormy Daniels became a radical feminist for one night

— Why we blush and how to hide it

— Meghan Markle’s most charming move yet

— Why this is the golden era of Kate Middleton

Looking for more? Sign up for our daily newsletter and never miss a story.

Get Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour

Our essential brief on culture, the news, and more. And it’s on the house.

Full ScreenPhotos:
Ivanka Trump’s History of Sitting in Inappropriate Seats
Her Second Desk

Her Second Desk

There is no official Trump family creed, at least one that is publicly known, but it could be something like: what’s dad’s is ours and again, what’s dad’s is ours. That, apparently, includes the desk in the Oval Office, which Ivanka has kept warm on multiple occasions, including this phone call with the astronaut who broke the record for the longest stay aboard the International Space Station.

Photo: Pool

Merk Perk

Merk Perk

Before Ivanka Trump even had an official title, a security clearance, or a West Wing office (in fact, she was still denying that she would be a government employee at this point), she still managed to score a spot directly next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her visit to the White House in March. We’ll call it an unofficial official work perk.

Photo: Pool

A Berlin Chill

A Berlin Chill

There was an elected head of state, a head of the International Monetary Fund, a foreign minister, and a real live queen on stage at the W20 summit in Berlin in April. Ivanka Trump was there, too, after her former seat-mate Merkel invited her to join. But even the panel’s moderator was unsure of why she was there—asking her to clarify whether she was representing the interests of the U.S., her father, or her business. Members of the crowd later groaned when she highlighted her father’s support of women in business.

Photo: Sean Gallup

Thirsty at G20

Thirsty at G20

Some 24 decades ago, America signed its Declaration of Independence to form a nation free of of a monarchy. So it rubbed people the wrong way when the president’s eldest daughter took her father’s seat at the G20 this summer in Germany when alongside other world leaders. While it is common for heads of state to take breaks, typically their seats are warmed by people who do not share their D.N.A. Perhaps Rex Tillerson would have been a safer choice.

Photo: NurPhoto

World Leader Next Door

World Leader Next Door

The way in which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau carries himself like diplomatic Disney Prince makes him easy to watch. And that is exactly what Ivanka Trump did when the two sat next to each other in the Roosevelt Room at the White House earlier this year in a meeting about entrepreneurship. What was discussed at said meeting got overshadowed by photographs snapped of the First Daughter eyeing Canada’s First Man. Weeks later, she took another seat next to him, that time, at a Broadway show in New York, at which Ivanka was his guest.

Photo: SHAWN THEW/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

North Korea

North Korea

Many people questioned the fiery language President Donald Trump used in describing his reaction to North Korea while on his summer vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey earlier this month. He doubled down when a reporter asked him what he meant by his tweet in which he said the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond to a Pyongyang provocation. “If [King Jong Un] utters one threat in a form of an overt threat…he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast,” he responded. The only thing more upending than these comments was the fact that he was giving them while his daughter was seated at the table with him, in the frame, as cameras rolled. It was supposed to be a workforce development meeting, after all, and that is on her White House slate. Perhaps this is why First Daughters don’t typically work in official capacities in the White House.

Photo: Jonathan Ernst

The Ultimate Chair

The Ultimate Chair

Putin’s chair in his Kremlin office? Impressive. The Resolute Desk in the Oval? Historic. To Merkel’s left and Trudeau’s good side and the G20 stage? That’s all any ambitious 35-year-old could dream of. But even at an early age, long before the White House was in view, Ivanka Trump knew the best seat—the one that would get her more in life than anything else—was closer to home.

Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd.

Her Second Desk

Her Second Desk

There is no official Trump family creed, at least one that is publicly known, but it could be something like: what’s dad’s is ours and again, what’s dad’s is ours. That, apparently, includes the desk in the Oval Office, which Ivanka has kept warm on multiple occasions, including this phone call with the astronaut who broke the record for the longest stay aboard the International Space Station.

Pool

Merk Perk

Merk Perk

Before Ivanka Trump even had an official title, a security clearance, or a West Wing office (in fact, she was still denying that she would be a government employee at this point), she still managed to score a spot directly next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her visit to the White House in March. We’ll call it an unofficial official work perk.

Pool

A Berlin Chill

A Berlin Chill

There was an elected head of state, a head of the International Monetary Fund, a foreign minister, and a real live queen on stage at the W20 summit in Berlin in April. Ivanka Trump was there, too, after her former seat-mate Merkel invited her to join. But even the panel’s moderator was unsure of why she was there—asking her to clarify whether she was representing the interests of the U.S., her father, or her business. Members of the crowd later groaned when she highlighted her father’s support of women in business.

Sean Gallup

Thirsty at G20

Thirsty at G20

Some 24 decades ago, America signed its Declaration of Independence to form a nation free of of a monarchy. So it rubbed people the wrong way when the president’s eldest daughter took her father’s seat at the G20 this summer in Germany when alongside other world leaders. While it is common for heads of state to take breaks, typically their seats are warmed by people who do not share their D.N.A. Perhaps Rex Tillerson would have been a safer choice.

NurPhoto

World Leader Next Door

World Leader Next Door

The way in which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau carries himself like diplomatic Disney Prince makes him easy to watch. And that is exactly what Ivanka Trump did when the two sat next to each other in the Roosevelt Room at the White House earlier this year in a meeting about entrepreneurship. What was discussed at said meeting got overshadowed by photographs snapped of the First Daughter eyeing Canada’s First Man. Weeks later, she took another seat next to him, that time, at a Broadway show in New York, at which Ivanka was his guest.

SHAWN THEW/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

North Korea

North Korea

Many people questioned the fiery language President Donald Trump used in describing his reaction to North Korea while on his summer vacation in Bedminster, New Jersey earlier this month. He doubled down when a reporter asked him what he meant by his tweet in which he said the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond to a Pyongyang provocation. “If [King Jong Un] utters one threat in a form of an overt threat…he will truly regret it and he will regret it fast,” he responded. The only thing more upending than these comments was the fact that he was giving them while his daughter was seated at the table with him, in the frame, as cameras rolled. It was supposed to be a workforce development meeting, after all, and that is on her White House slate. Perhaps this is why First Daughters don’t typically work in official capacities in the White House.

Jonathan Ernst

The Ultimate Chair

The Ultimate Chair

Putin’s chair in his Kremlin office? Impressive. The Resolute Desk in the Oval? Historic. To Merkel’s left and Trudeau’s good side and the G20 stage? That’s all any ambitious 35-year-old could dream of. But even at an early age, long before the White House was in view, Ivanka Trump knew the best seat—the one that would get her more in life than anything else—was closer to home.

Ron Galella, Ltd.

Inside the Tree of Life Congregation, the Prayer for the Dead Brings Hope

Inside the Tree of Life Congregation, the Prayer for the Dead Brings Hope

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018.

By Matt Rourke/AP Photo.

The first time I went to Tree of Life synagogue this year, it was to say a prayer for the dead.

It was February, a week after I had moved back to Pittsburgh from Brooklyn, and my mother requested that I accompany her to show support. We were at temple for the customary morning service, shacharit, and when the time came we recited the mourner’s Kaddish, a prayer to memorialize loved ones we have lost, in honor of my stepfather’s father, on the anniversary of his death. My mother picked me up from outside my apartment early in the morning and we drove through my old neighborhood, Squirrel Hill, for the five minutes it took to get to the synagogue.

The trip was its own sort of ritual, cataloging the places of my youth and the memories they contained. Blocks away from the synagogue is the kosher pizza place I ordered falafel from once a week, the ceramic-filled Judaica store where my mother and I bought my first and only set of tefillin, the alley where my friends and I smoked pot in high school, scattering whenever we heard cops were coming up the street. This is the meaning of home: the reflex of memory.

My stepfather, the executive director of the synagogue, was already there when my mother and I arrived. We were helping to complete a minyan, a gathering of at least 10 worshippers, so that the morning services could begin. I shrouded myself in a prayer shawl, and with the scant congregation there in the early hours of a weekday, we began, reciting prayers in Hebrew with a fluid roteness, a language made effortless by a collective past.

Before the service began, I was given an aliyah—a call to receive a blessing in front of the congregation as the Torah portion is read, my Hebrew name recited as a summons. I walked down the aisle to the bimah, the pulpit, and faced the congregants as the portion was read, chanted in a lilting minor key. This is the place where I saw my stepfather marry my mother, where my stepbrothers had their Bar Mitzvahs, cracking their voices on the trope of their haftorahs. It is the bimah in the chapel where, eight months later, a shooter carrying an assault rifle would burst through the doors. The members of the congregation who had arrived early would not be facing him—their eyes would be attuned past the place where I stood, facing east, where we’re told a promised land awaits us.

Unlike most Jewish communities in the United States, the majority of Pittsburgh’s Jewish population lives within the city limits, creating a shtetl-like atmosphere that our Jewish-European ancestors would find more familiar than not. According to a recent study conducted by researchers from Brandeis University, 26 percent of an estimated 49,200 Jews in the greater Pittsburgh area reside in the traditionally Jewish neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, with an additional 31 percent claiming other urban neighborhoods as home. While this same study traced a significant drop in membership rates for local synagogues, a substantial portion of Pittsburgh’s Jews came of age within the hallowed halls of one of the city’s many temples.

These places are more than just houses of worship: they are where children run freely through the halls in between Hebrew school classes, rattling around in unoccupied rooms with curiosity and rebellion; where teenagers slow dance at Bar Mitzvah parties, hoping for their first kisses; where adults beat their fists against their breast bones in atonement for their trespasses during Yom Kippur. It’s where my stepfather blows a resounding, primal note on a shofar at the conclusion of every Rosh Hashanah service to usher in a New Year. To say everyone knows everyone is hardly an exaggeration; it’s a given.

In the days following the shooting at Tree of Life during a morning Shabbat service on October 27, the fact that we all know each other lends itself a complex and cruel terror. After my partner tells me about the shooting as I’m ironing a shirt, after my mother texts to assure me that she and my stepfather were not in synagogue that day, after my youngest sister and I sob together on the phone, the terrible wondering begins. Michael, the immediate past president of the synagogue, is the father of my first childhood friend. Augie, Tree of Life’s maintenance man, used to come over to our house for dinner on Thursday nights. Cecil, a congregant with Fragile X syndrome who calls my stepfather his “BFF,” visits him every day and confides in him his fears of death.

We call friends and family, panic straining our voices, to find out who was where. And as the news reports a rising death toll—first 8 dead, then 10, then 11—there is one undeniable fact: no matter who the victims are, they will be people we know. My father, the son of Holocaust survivors, relays this horrible fact on the phone: that the shooter targeted us because we are Jews, and because we were together.

The day after the shooting, I went to a vigil hosted by a local chapter of If Not Now, an activist group I belong to. The organizers made sure to state, with blunt candor, that anti-Semitism is an interlocking symptom of white supremacy, of xenophobia, of a particularly American kind of racist rot. The rain did not deter the candles the crowd holds, flames cradled in our palms.

“More cops in shuls will not make us safer,” one speaker said, “Building a wall will not make us safer. Silence will not make us safer.” After each sentence, the crowd agreed. I thought of certain headlines I’ve read, certain declarations, blaming the massacre on the unlocked doors of the synagogue, rather than the shooter or the 21 guns registered to his name; I thought of the president, who blamed the victims by suggesting an armed guard could have saved them.

The crowd sang, joining hands, gripping each other, holding each other up. Miles away, my stepfather was curled up in his bed, inconsolable, remembering what Augie told him as he fled from the building: how he saw Cecil Rosenthal, a giant of a man, “just laying in blood,” how he died alongside his brother, David. Another speaker at the vigil, a non-binary trans person, remembered Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, who made sure to learn their proper pronouns after they began transitioning with the same compassion he showed each of his patients. Daniel Stein, another victim, was their B’nei Mitzvah tutor. A few of us knew the grandson of Rose Mallinger, who was gunned down while attending services with her daughter. She was 97 years old.

As the vigil continued, the media reported more details about the shooter, how he earmarked Tree of Life because of the synagogue’s ties to HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit organization that provides aid to immigrants and refugees. One New York Times article quoted friends and neighbors who described him as a man in “his own little world,” a loner who built pipe bombs for fun as a teenager, “a ghost.” He blamed Jews for helping migrant caravans, the same caravans President Donald Trump has incorrectly alleged are filled with “gang members” and criminals.

But for now, there we were, this growing crowd of grievers. Once again, we recited a prayer for the dead, our voices in unison. I’ve heard many people say how words cannot express their pain, but in this moment, I find that these ancient words bring hope. Here we are in Pittsburgh, a people. And a people we will continue to be, no matter what may come.

Get Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour

Our essential brief on culture, the news, and more. And it’s on the house.

Lena Dunham Is Taking a Controversial New Career Step

Lena Dunham Is Taking a Controversial New Career Step

By Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images.

Three months after dissolving her producing partnership with Jenni Konner, Lena Dunham has turned a surprising new page in her career by announcing that she will adapt a Syrian refugee’s survival story for a film co-produced by Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.

For Dunham—an artist whose outspokenness has led to some high-profile gaffes, controversial creative decisions, and subsequent apologies—the collaboration might be her boldest yet. Dunham’s most popular entertainment output, Girls, was criticized for its depiction of white, privileged women and lack of diversity. Now, she has signed on to adapt a story on the opposite end of the human spectrum—the 2017 novel A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, written by Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The book, published last year, chronicles the harrowing journey made by one young woman, Doaa Al Zamel, out of civil war-torn Syria. Hoping to find asylum in Europe, Al Zamel boarded a smugglers’ ship only to face tragedy again when the vessel wrecked—resulting in the deaths of nearly 500 fellow refugees, including Al Zamel’s fiancé. Al Zamel was one of only 11 survivors, and eventually resettled in Sweden.

Dunham confirmed the project on Twitter Monday, writing, “Very lucky to have this job, to tell this story, to support this truth with these people. ❤️”

Fleming similarly shared her excitement about the collaboration on Twitter, writing, “I feel very lucky to have the remarkable @lenadunham adapting my book, A Hope More Powerful than the Sea to a screenplay, and the masters, Steven Spielberg & J.J. Abrams making it into a film.”

The news was also greeted with criticism on Twitter by users who felt the Emmy-nominated Dunham an odd choice for the assignment.

Dunham has already responded directly to one critic. After the news broke, Syrian and Cuban author Suzanne Samin asked Dunham whether she has donated to Syrian-refugee organizations or relief efforts, explaining, “Just curious if you’ve at least done that before you profit off my people’s pain!”

Dunham responded, “I’m actually donating every penny I make. Every step of the way. Not a single one kept. Very honored to be able to do that and I’ll ‘share the receipts’ so to speak.” She later followed up, “If you’d ever like to discuss the project, I like to receive perspectives and engage in dialogue ❤️.”

Last year, Dunham revealed that she has learned to tune out her critics. “I used to think the worst thing in the world could be for someone to have a thought about you that you didn’t have yourself,” Dunham explained. “Now I’m like, ‘Have at it, guys!’”

Get Vanity Fair’s HWD Newsletter

Sign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.

Trump’s Post-Facebook Tech Strategy Could Seal His Fate in 2020

Trump’s Post-Facebook Tech Strategy Could Seal His Fate in 2020

Scott Olson/Getty Images.

The radicalization of Robert Bowers and Cesar Sayoc provides a terrifying window into the evolution of right-wing extremism in the Trump era. As Facebook and Twitter have gotten better at policing hate speech, they have also pushed their most extreme members into deeper, darker corners of the Web. The proliferation of “free speech” social-media alternatives like Gab—where Bowers spewed his anti-Semitic bile—attests to the mutability, and resilience, of the fringe. But it is also being driven by establishment Republican leaders, who have enthusiastically endorsed conspiracy theories about Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey. Earlier this year, as Facebook and Twitter worked to de-list some of their worst offenders, congressional Republicans held a hearing on “filtering practices of social-media platforms,” starring Diamond and Silk. In August, Donald Trump began tweeting about how Google search results are “rigged.” Jeff Sessions threatened to launch an investigation. More recently, Ted Cruz adopted anti-tech messaging as a midterm bludgeon, accusing Silicon Valley of tipping the scales for his Democratic challenger, Beto O’Rourke. “California Big Tech is ALL IN behind Beto,” he wrote over the weekend. “Ever wonder why your social-media posts disappear? Are tech companies censoring? Shadow banning? As they say, follow the money . . . . ”

The G.O.P.’s swelling antagonism toward Silicon Valley reflects a dramatic shift for a party that arguably achieved its most shocking political victory, in 2016, with the help of Facebook and Twitter. Trump, for all his complaints about Big Tech, previously enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with both companies. Since then, however, Republicans have bet that Silicon Valley can be just as useful as an adversary. (A recent poll found that 65 percent of conservatives believe that social-media companies are purposely censoring the right.) But on another level, Trump’s frustrations reflect a real paranoia, with significant strategic implications. Last week, Politico reported that his 2020 re-election campaign will be reducing its reliance on traditional social-media channels in lieu of its own, direct-to-voter communication pipelines. “This is how Donald Trump stays president for four more years,” campaign manager Brad Parscale boasted during a recent rally for Cruz, gesturing to his iPhone. “Now this phone is how we connect with you. It’s how we turn you into the army of Trump.”

The merits of the new strategy are an open question. The upshot, of course, is that Trump’s campaign will be able to deliver its own unfiltered content straight to millions of supporters, bypassing fact-checkers and content-moderation filters. It could also give the campaign more control over its message. After spending the last two years telling Republicans that the mainstream media cannot be trusted, and that the only accurate source of information comes from the White House, Trump has created a vast audience, and hunger, for sympathetic media. Much of it is provided by Fox News, which has become largely indistinguishable from state television. But the Trump campaign also appears poised to provide its own stream of MAGA-friendly content. As Politico reports, Parscale now has the ability to push that content directly to supporters’ phones.

The digital infrastructure to take advantage of all those new cell numbers is already being laid. Gary Coby, Trump’s director of digital advertising and fund-raising in 2016, who is working with the re-election campaign, is co-founder of the largest peer-to-peer texting company on the Republican side, OpnSesame. Parscale also talked up the potential of text messages in an interview last spring.

People involved with Trump’s re-election campaign see the texting medium—not just SMS written messages, but MMS videos and images, too—as a way to directly and instantly communicate and organize voters without having to rely on media or tech platforms that they suspect of bias. Parscale has been particularly critical of Twitter, Facebook, and Google, dubbing them (on Twitter, no less) the “#PaloAltoMafia” and spreading the hashtag “#StopTheBias.”

It’s somewhat ironic that Parscale and Trump suspect the value of social media may have peaked. Trump’s election, after all, was the inciting event that forced Silicon Valley to reckon with political disinformation, and ultimately prompted Facebook and Twitter to clean up their act. Parscale still can’t pull the plug on tech platforms entirely. Since May, the Trump campaign and joint fund-raising committees have spent $4.8 million on more than 100,000 ads on Facebook alone, per Politico. But those ads mostly focus on fund-raising and collecting voter contact information—apparently with the goal of fortifying a voter database that doesn’t rely on Zuckerberg or anyone else. “They are spending a lot of money on the platforms to talk supporters off of them,” Republican consultant Eric Wilson tells Politico. “It’s the right strategy. I think a lot of people have learned the hard way about relying solely on social media. Just one tweak of the algorithm, political or not, could wipe you out.”

In the short term, that means that the campaign cannot yet fence itself off from the broader social-media world. But it does suggest that Trump is moving toward creating his own controlled campaign ecosystem. That could mean less political extremism on mainstream tech platforms like Twitter and Facebook, as the Trumpists recede to their own gated communities. Or, more likely, the radicalization of the far right will simply continue on a separate, increasingly unaccountable track of its own.

Matt Drudge and Fox News Had a Very Public Falling-Out on Twitter

Matt Drudge and Fox News Had a Very Public Falling-Out on Twitter

by John Lamparski/Getty Images.

With midterm elections barely a week away, and conservative talking points like the caravan doing their best to shore up the base, it’s no time for dissent in the conservative-media ranks. And yet, on Monday, a big rift opened up between the Drudge Report and Fox News on Twitter—a place where Donald Trump, an avowed fan of both, was bound to see it.

In two back-to-back tweets Monday morning, Matt Drudge claimed that Fox News hosts “laughed and joked their way through a discussion on political impact of terror” less than 48 hours after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh:

It’s the conservative-media equivalent of one celebrity unfollowing another on Instagram: a very public statement that something has gone wrong in this friendship. Like Fox, the Drudge Report, which has its own “Fox News Insider” section, has been warmly embraced by the president; as recently as this past summer, on Fox News, Trump called Drudge a “great gentleman,” and said he “really has the ability to capture stories that people want to see.”

Perhaps it’s a case of sibling rivalry, the less flashy media outlet taking a shot at the cable network in hopes of currying favor. Then again, with Trump making up lies about 9/11 to justify holding a campaign rally just hours after the synagogue shooting, he might not be the target audience this time. Either way, Drudge’s critiques hit a nerve—Fox released a statement Monday afternoon that claimed “there was absolutely no joking or laughing about the events of this weekend,” and that the screenshot Drudge tweeted was misleading.

Get Vanity Fair’s Cocktail Hour

Our essential brief on culture, the news, and more. And it’s on the house.