The social network Gab.ai started in August 2016, three months before the world changed. The timing was not a coincidence. Founded in San Mateo, California, by onetime Silicon Valley–based Trump supporter Andrew Torba, a former ad-tech CEO, the network was initially built by just four people and with no outside investment. Torba, who was once kicked out of the influential startup accelerator Y Combinator for violating its harassment policy, had grown frustrated with what he described to BuzzFeed as the “entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly” that decided what news deserved to be trending and what did and did not count as harassment on the internet. Now, a year later, Gab has more than 240,000 users and has raised $1 million via crowdfunding, which it celebrated with a middle-finger tweet to “Silicon Valley elitist trash.”
Branded with the face of Pepe, the anthropomorphic frog that has become the emblematic meme of the alt-right, Gab is a digital playpen for Nazis, white supremacists, men’s rights activists, anti-PC crusaders, Gamergaters, anti-feminists, free speech absolutists, and anyone who loves a solidly offensive joke. Notifications are sounded with the croak of a frog. If an anti-Semitic or racist or sexist remark isn’t the first post you come across, it’s likely the second, third, or fourth. It’s a “safe space” for the kinds of people the rest of us want to feel safe from. The users feel their perspectives have few homes elsewhere on an internet shaped by the left-tilting values of Silicon Valley, the rejection of which has propelled Gab’s rise.
On Aug. 17, the week after Nazis and white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, and two days after Gab’s first anniversary, Google booted Gab from its app store.
That made Gab only the latest in a recent spate of online offings. In the past few weeks, American hate groups have found themselves being shut out of the internet, where for years they’ve gathered, growing into thriving and increasingly organized communities online. The gutting began before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when companies like Airbnb and Facebook booted some of the event’s organizers from their platforms. After the weekend turned deadly and scenes of white-supremacist mobs marching in the streets saturated social media and television, more online businesses began to kick neo-Nazis off, too.
Most prominently, the Daily Stormer, the white-supremacist website that served as the primary organizing hub for the rally, lost its hosting with GoDaddy after mocking the counterprotester who was killed by a white supremacist’s car in Charlottesville. The website moved to Google the next day for hosting, but only hours later the online search giant also banned it, effectively excommunicating the Daily Stormer from the open internet. Last Friday, the oldest and most prominent forum for hate groups online, Stormfront.org, lost its domain hosting, too.
What’s new about that latest group of bans is that, rather than Facebook, OkCupid, or Airbnb revoking individual and group accounts, the internet’s gatekeepers are now kicking out whole organizations. The Gab removal, for instance, made an entire platform essentially unavailable to Android app users (Apple had already rejected Gab). Though Gab is still accessible through web browsers, a social media startup without an iPhone or Android app has a massive disadvantage. But Gab already had a plan in motion.
A week earlier, following the firing of Google memo writer James Damore, Gab announced the advent of a new movement. “Enough is enough,” read the Gab-makers’ Medium post from Aug. 10, two days before the Unite the Right rally. “The time is now for patriots and free thinkers inside and outside of Silicon Valley to organize, communicate in a safe way, and start building,” the post read, calling for the formation of a new group called the “Free Speech Tech Alliance,” which would build an alternative infrastructure where the alt-right wouldn’t be burdened by the social-justice priorities and liberal values of Silicon Valley—nor by the arguably monopolistic powers of the major nodes of the information economy, like Facebook, Google, Apple, and their peers.
Gab, and a growing number of its compatriots in the “alt-tech” movement, want to build their own internet, one that can be a haven for hate.
It’s not easy to build an internet. We may think of the web as an abstract, open field owned by no one in particular—a legend grounded in its origin as a government project, as well as our tendency to imagine its hard-wiring the way we do other communications infrastructure, like cable or radio airwaves. But the internet is really a series of core services, most of them privately owned and managed, that host content and give users directions to find it. If those core service providers don’t want something on the internet, they can do a pretty good job of disappearing it.
If the alt-right wants to escape the web that the rest of us live on, the platforms of the alt-tech movement that Gab has ignited will, for one, need to find domain name registries that will work with them. But already major companies like GoDaddy and Namecheap have decided to refuse service to sites like the Daily Stormer—a change from these companies’ long-running stance of generally not interfering with what customers decide to run on their websites.
Alt-right sites have other, more underground options, like using an unnamed, raw numerical address, or trying to find sympathetic managers of top-level domains outside the U.S., or going to the dark web, a part of the internet where websites can be hosted anonymously but are only accessible via a special browser, like Tor (that’s one thing the Daily Stormer did after being banned). If these websites hope to be publicly accessible, they will also need to find hosting, as well as shielding from technical attacks, like DDoS protection. But even Cloudflare, a web services company that specializes in defense against distributed denial of service, or DDoS, attacks and is famous for not discriminating against clients, decided to pull support for the Daily Stormer after Charlottesville, too. So while it’s not impossible for the alt-tech movement to grow into something bigger, if the big web service companies like domain registrars, security providers, and app stores refuse to do business with them even before they build their own systems, it’s not going to be easy.
It also takes resources.
The early iterations of whatever Gab’s movement produces may very well be funded by its builders, many of whom purportedly have high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley. Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the Daily Stormer, told Mother Jones in March that the majority of his site’s traffic comes from Santa Clara County, in the heart of Silicon Valley. “The average alt-right-ist,” the white supremacist Richard Spencer told the magazine, “is probably a 28-year-old tech-savvy guy working in IT.”
Utsav Sanduja, the chief operating officer of Gab, described the “Free Speech Tech Alliance” to me as “a group of 100 engineers plus from Silicon Valley who are working with us behind the scenes to create an alternative infrastructure.” The movement’s goal is to own its own servers and run its own web hosting, domain registrar, DDoS protection software, cloud storage services, and encryption technology, not to mention social networks like Gab and other “free-speech”–centric alternatives, like a YouTube replacement called PewTube. Sanduja claims Gab has received “hundreds of applications” to join the alliance, which he says is purposefully being kept small in order to protect the identities of its members who fear losing their jobs at Silicon Valley companies. Though it’s unclear where exactly they work, at least a handful are on Google’s campus, Sanduja claims.
Gab is building off the work of a number of existing alternative web services hailing from the far right. Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer of Business Insider who left the company after Gawker revealed his racist- and rape joke–filled Twitter account, has started his own alt-right crowdfunding platform called Counter.Fund. There’s also Hatreon, a free speech–centric Patreon alternative, which states in its guidelines that “Hate speech is protected speech.” There’s an alt-right-friendly version of Wikipedia called Metapedia. There’s even a small alt-right dating website, Wasp.love, with the tagline, “Preserve your heritage! Be fruitful and multiply! Join WASP.love today!” Though these services are platforms for people who traffic in hate speech, they’re different from the message boards and forums of Stormfront and Gab, where white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideas are discussed and incubated, and where perpetrators of hate crimes like Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik find encouragement and become indoctrinated.
Dickinson is trying to appeal to investors, though he doesn’t seem hopeful. “Leftist VCs leap at the chance to signal their Leftism, regardless of how stupid the project is,” Dickinson lamented last week on Gab. (He declined to be interviewed for this piece.) Still, alt-tech adherents are convinced that there is a market for their services. “I expect the earliest adopters will be those with the most fringe and radical views who have already been kicked off of YouTube and other platforms,” said Anthony Mayfield, creator of PewTube. “But as the definition of someone who is a bad person who isn’t allowed to say things online begins to grow, I think the users of my platform and others like it will continue to become more and more mainstream.”
Since Google fired Damore and Gab lost its spot in the Google app store, the effort to found an alt-right internet has taken on a new urgency. Dickinson released a slide deck on Friday to try to appeal to investors and new entrants who wish to join the budding movement. “Alt-Tech promises to restore and revive the old libertarian ethos of technology as a leveler and tool for increasing liberty,” read his slides, which proclaim that the movement doesn’t care about race, gender, or pedigree and that its motto is “Shut up and code.” The plan promises to revitalize rural and small-town America by providing engineering jobs to people who will build the new “anti-Marxist” internet. “The first VCs to fund these alternatives will be the ground floor profit-makers of the Alt-Tech revolution,” reads one of his slides.
In the past two weeks, a handful of far-right video bloggers have jumped onboard to promote the nascent movement, including Styxhexenhammer666, a popular libertarian video blogger, whose two videos about the effort have notched almost 70,000 views. Others have posted “call to action” videos, rallying technologists to join the movement to build “new ‘free speech’ platforms,” which have also attracted thousands of viewers. While these might not read as huge numbers, they suggest a movement with a groundswell of grassroots support.
Browsing Gab itself reveals a constant daily stream of posts from self-identified engineers asking how they can get involved. One group that’s formed on Gab, the Right Wing Dev Squad, described its plans for the weekend following the Charlottesville protests: “My weekend is living la dolce vita: a beer in my hand, code on my screen, and a jew in my oven.”
The easiest way to describe Gab is as Facebook but with more racism. Not even the recent solar eclipse was exempt from becoming a racially charged meme. (Wrote one user: “The sun now identifies as black and it’s demanding reparations!”) Gab has private, invite-only chats including one called Alt-Tech Alliance, as well as topic-based message walls and individual profile pages. The wall to discuss the aftermath of Texas’ disastrous Hurricane Harvey, for example, is packed with posts about how Black Lives Matter activists are taking “advantage of #HurricaneHarvey to shoot #Whitey, and then post it on #Twitter.” Another post on the Harvey wall reads: “I hear God’s fucking up the blacks with some good ol nature cleaning tactics. God bless that Klan wizard goddamn he’s brilliant.” Of course, it’s not all rabidly hateful. Some users simply shared links to popular news sources and hopeful messages that victims of the hurricane would be able to find shelter.
Users can comment on and up-vote other people’s posts. When I joined the network for this story and posted looking for members to speak to me about the alt-tech movement, I was immediately asked by one Gab user how many Jews work at Slate. Others politely declined, saying the media couldn’t be trusted, while some were open to talking.
“Most of the people that I see migrating to alternative social platforms identify as either Conservative or Libertarian,” one member of Gab who asked not to be named told me in an email. “They see how there is a double-standard when it comes to enforcing so-called ‘hate-speech’ by Google, Facebook & Twitter. Much of what is being censored or shadow-banned is not hate filled. It is often simply an idea that the loudest do not agree with.” Unlike legacy white supremacist sites, Gab isn’t centered on any one political ideology, even if many hate-filled ideologies gravitated there. Rather, it’s ostensibly a place that values free speech first, no matter how offensive it is.
While Gab prides itself on providing a forum for unbridled speech, it does have rules against inciting violence, sharing illegal pornography, trading arms, and promulgating terrorist groups on the platform, and users can flag a post for review. Sanduja, of Gab, told me that the network has taken action to remove users who threated to kill Muslims and spread revenge porn, though he wouldn’t share any evidence of those account deletions.
What Gab does, like Facebook, is foster community. In this case, it’s a community that hasn’t always been comfortable showing its face in the real world. White supremacists have long found a home on the internet. On message boards and on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Reddit, communities of alt-right neo-Nazis and white nationalists have found a safe place online to share memes and validate each other’s hate-fueled theories.
That’s how it’s been in the past, at any rate. But this year, emboldened by the Trump presidency, they’ve made a show of spilling onto the streets, too, making it impossible to pretend that they were ever merely constrained to an online sandbox. It’s this real-world presence that is provoking louder calls for the major internet companies to do something about it. For better or worse, they are.
We don’t know whether the alt-right will be able to bring its dream of a second internet to fruition, but its complaints about censorship have underscored an essential truth: Control of the internet is effectively centralized among a few massive companies, something these tech giants may not want you to be aware of. However distasteful its views, the alt-right has smartly framed its battle in terms of “free speech.” This argument has currency elsewhere on the right, too. President Trump is fond of calling out Amazon, perhaps chiefly because of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ ownership of the Washington Post. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said on his show earlier this month that “Google should be regulated like the public utility it is, to make sure it doesn’t further distort the free flow of information to the rest of us.” Former Trump aide and Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon has also argued that tech platforms should be regulated like utilities. Combined with Democrats making antitrust regulation a central tenet of their new policy platform, the internet’s gatekeepers could soon be put on notice as never before.
It would be hard not to spot the irony if one of the most significant threats to big tech’s monopolistic power ends up being caused by hate groups. Gab’s Sanduja believes that Apple and Google shutting out his company from their app marketplaces prevents it from accessing 70 to 75 percent of its potential U.S. market. Even if you agree with banning Gab, the power of a handful of companies to banish anyone from the internet should give you pause. And it is one reason why the arguments of alt-tech advocates may find more and more friendly ears in Silicon Valley, where many entrepreneurs increasingly worry they can’t compete.
It’s also hard not to see this conundrum as big tech’s fault from the start. In a way, the alt-right is calling out the essential tension of the major internet companies, which espouse “don’t be evil” philosophies and want to “bring the world closer together,” yet also owe their popularity (and profits) to an internet where seemingly anything goes, until they say it doesn’t. Banning Nazis may be a perfectly defensible stance, but given the inconsistent transparency and enforcement of community guidelines from tech companies, it also has the whiff of the arbitrary.
In a more plural market, Facebook and Google and GoDaddy would be just as free to boot odious ideologies—but they wouldn’t face the same accusations of speech suppression, because places like Daily Stormer would have more places to go for their social-networking and domain-hosting needs. The early ideal of the internet was that of a great commons where all kinds of diverse opinions could be shared, where people could come to understand each other and to be convinced of new, challenging ideas. That particular utopian wish list may have always been naïve, but the notion that an open internet should not be controlled by a small group of corporations beholden only to shareholders continues to hold sway for a reason. Facebook was only ever supposed to be part of the public commons; the walled garden was never meant to subsume it.
Which may be why Gab and its Free Speech Tech Alliance has gained the trust of Nazis but can also invoke the rhetoric of left-wing antitrusters—well, to a point. “If Google and Apple are straight-up corporations for their political sides, they should openly declare their discriminatory behavior. They should be proud of it,” said Gab’s Sanduja. “They should not be mendacious and talk about change and be different. Stop engaging in sophistry. Come out to us as the major SJW platforms you are.”
Top image: Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.