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.”
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