On Oct. 27, 2018, a mass shooter killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The shooter, Robert Gregory Bowers, was an active user of Gab, an alternative online social media platform favored by the far right where he posted nativist and antisemitic content. “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” Bowers wrote a few hours before commencing the attack. Bowers’ posts on Gab soon attracted media attention, and that’s when Gab’s founder and CEO, Andrew Torba, realized he had a serious problem.
With an estimated 800,000 users, Gab was one of the fastest-growing alternative-tech, or “alt-tech,” platforms on the internet at the time. It had also become infamous for serving as a haven for extremists motivated by racial and ethnic violence, due in large part to Torba’s philosophy about free speech (which has been echoed recently by Elon Musk in discussing his plans for Twitter, should his purchase go through): If it’s legal, it’s allowed. But for several of Gab’s key business partners, the Tree of Life shooting was a bridge too far. In response to the massacre, payment processors PayPal and Stripe announced a day after the shooting that they would ban Gab from their platforms. Gab’s web host, Joyent, and the domain name registrar, GoDaddy, followed suit, forcing Gab offline for a week.
Until that point, the promise of monetizing a new online ecosystem designed by and for conservative and far-right movements had electrified proponents of the alt-tech approach to online platforms. Along with Gab, platforms like Parler and Rumble were early experiments in blending the design features of mainstream services like Facebook and Twitter with an anything-goes attitude toward content moderation. But when major payment processors cut Gab off for good after the Tree of Life shooting, the viability of the alt-tech business model itself came into question.
Torba resolved his domain issue by switching to Epik, a Seattle-based domain registrar and web hosting company. Gab’s exile from mainstream payment processors, however, proved to be a stickier wicket, and one that cost the company significant revenue. In a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that December, Gab reported that losing access to applications for PayPal and Stripe “has resulted in a 90% decline in payments for our subscription services.”Torba is not the only alt-tech CEO to experience the whiplash of early startup success and a precipitous fall from grace after running afoul of the terms of service provided by backend infrastructure tech companies. After the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, a similar pattern played out when tech providers, such as Amazon Web Services, deplatformed Gab’s alt-tech competitor Parler, shutting down the site for a month. Nor is the problem of building independent digital infrastructure limited to politics. The marijuana industry, for example, has long operated in legal gray areas that have forced suppliers to roll out their own tech and payment options.
For many on the political right, Amazon’s decision to pull hosting for Parler following the Capitol attack was a clarion call to build a parallel web, and prominent players—including Trump’s own companies—have since flocked to the task. But in 2018 and 2019, movement leaders were still discovering how vulnerable their dependence on mainstream services rendered them.
The years leading up to the assault on Congress saw alt-tech finance evolve in dramatic ways, maturing from ad hoc arrangements and small-scale operations to sophisticated businesses backed by venture capital and hosted on private technology stacks. New America’s Future Frontlines program, where I work, has traced this evolution by plumbing several open-source data sets, including a tranche of Parler data published in the wake of the Capitol attack. (Disclosure: New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) This Parler data set contains many of the posts from the first iteration of the social network, sometimes referred to as Parler 1.0, and it is the source for all unlinked quotes and references from Parler posts throughout this article.
After the Tree of Life shooting in October 2018, Torba needed to find a new payment processor, fast, but banks were reluctant to do business with a platform associated with alt-right, white supremacist, Christian nationalist, and violent domestic extremist movements. “Gab has been denied by multiple banks during the underwriting process for a new payment processor,” Torba wrote on Nov. 21, 2018, urging supporters to make payments by bank check or cryptocurrency.
Then, on Jan. 22, 2019, Gab announced that it had found a new payment processor, a company called 2nd Amendment Processing, whose website urges customers to join and “fight anti-American ideologies that are controlling big tech and the banking industry.” According to Michigan state business records, 2nd Amendment Processing was created in December 2018, when Thomas Troyer registered the company as an LLC based in Brooklyn, Michigan. Troyer is also listed as an officer for several other payment processing–related businesses in Michigan. A 2019 Southern Poverty Law Center investigation found evidence that Troyer, who once went by a different name, was convicted of passing bad checks and had a criminal record.
In an April 2022 phone interview, Troyer and John Turner, chief operating officer, referred to 2nd Amendment Processing’s statement online about the company’s mission and emphasized that they do not support violence or property destruction. Troyer and Turner also said they could not discuss their clients, citing confidentiality agreements.
“We’re just an American business helping out other businesses,” Turner said. “We don’t even care about a political agenda. We care about America and the Constitution.”
“We do not support the Jan. 6 thing,” Turner added. “So, if that’s what that’s about, then you have our statement on that.”
2nd Amendment Processing marked its partnership with Gab with a newly created account on the platform, taking the opportunity to solicit new business and promote two web stores: 1776.shop, which was associated with Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio, and proudofyourstore.com, an online shop for merchandise of the all-male, street-brawling, pro-Trump group. A review of 2nd Amendment Processing’s Gab account showed that between February and September 2019, the company promoted 1776.shop a total of 13 times.
These promotions of Proud Boys–affiliated web stores suggested that 2nd Amendment Processing was more than a small-town payments company that lucked into serving a prominent, albeit controversial, social media brand. Rather, 2nd Amendment Processing was part of the critical financial infrastructure that kept figures like Torba and Tarrio afloat as they faced escalating scrutiny from mainstream platforms and legacy media outlets in the years preceding the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. As pressure ramped up to rein in anti-government and white supremacist content online, 2nd Amendment Processing offered a lifeline to this extremist movement and its allied alt-tech industry leaders that might otherwise struggle to keep the lights on.
Long before Feb. 22, when Proud Boys chairman Enrique Tarrio and his lieutenant Joe Biggs were indicted for conspiracy to obstruct an official proceeding (namely the certification of the Electoral College vote), among other crimes, they had already run afoul of tech providers that claimed the Proud Boys violated their terms of service. This happened so often that Tarrio and Biggs (whose lawyers declined my requests for comment) bounced from one tech company to another, a pattern they documented in their online accounts.
For example, in July 2019, Biggs used Parler to solicit donations to a PayPal account, writing that “many of us can [no] longer get jobs because of our activism” and adding, “Venmo is [the] only other thing I have. I use these two because they are instant.” But by the end of the month, PayPal and Venmo had both banned Biggs from their platforms after he announced plans to host a counterprotest against antifa in Portland.
On July 3, 2019, Shopify, the online commerce platform, banned Biggs for “violating hate speech,” according to a post on Biggs’ Facebook page. Weeks later, Biggs announced on Parler that his unnamed replacement web store was also “taken down. Again. But this next one won’t be. No more using companies that cave to left wing mobs. I’m going underground.”
One such “underground” web store is the aforementioned 1776.shop, which recently went offline. The site sold Proud Boys apparel and tchotchkes, as well as preorders for Tarrio’s autobiography American Warlord. The importance of 1776.shop to the Proud Boys’ ecosystem of online fundraising was evidenced by the frequency with which leading members promoted it. For example, Joe Biggs promoted the web store in seven separate posts on the 1.0 version of Parler before it was taken offline. Tarrio made 24 posts that expressly referenced 1776.shop. Proud Boys–linked influencers also promoted the store. On Feb. 5, 2019, for example, Roger Stone posted a video to his Instagram account of himself wearing a “Roger Stone Did Nothing Wrong!” T-shirt and writing, “Help me fight the Deep State and help fund my Legal defense fund! Go to 1776.shop to get your T-shirt.”
Keeping 1776.shop online and profitable was not easy. At the beginning of 2019, Square, JPMorgan Chase, and PayPal pulled support for the store in rapid succession, according to reporting by April Glaser for this site. By the summer, 1776.shop was touting its reliance on 2nd Amendment Processing. According to Tarrio’s Parler, the company remained the payment processor for 1776.shop at least until August 2020, when his account posted that “@2ndAP [2nd Amendment Processing’s Parler handle] has been the credit card processor that has kept www1776.shop for 2 years.”
2nd Amendment Processing is one of several companies registered to the same Brooklyn, Michigan, address. Others include Wholesale Processing Systems LLC and Critical Processing Solutions LLC. The website for Wholesale Processing Systems avoids the conservative branding of its sister site and instead presents itself as a generic payment processing company. Notably, in a January 2019 SEC filing, Gab stated that it relies “on Wholesale Processing Systems, LLC, to handle our payment processing,” not 2nd Amendment Processing, even though Gab announced a partnership with 2nd Amendment Processing to supporters that same week. This suggests that the two companies are essentially interchangeable.
State business records list Thomas Troyer as the principal of both businesses, along with two other men. Troyer and his companies’ online activities suggest that his ties to the Proud Boys extended beyond providing them with critical financial services. For example, in April 2020, Troyer commented in the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group that the “best part of [the Proud Boys] man is the camradery. I’m a veteran and the comradery is just as strong.” Another Facebook comment by Troyer read, “I hope the Proud Boys number swell up massively as they are 60% or better made up of veterans […] who are sick of seeing antifa and BLM burn down cities and destroy people’s lives.” On Gab, 2nd Amendment Processing’s account shared Proud Boys content and social media feeds. On Parler, the company’s account replied to posts by Proud Boys leadership. One Oct. 11, 2020, post, made in reply to Enrique Tarrio’s @noblelead account promoting a Proud Boys ring, read, “Take my money how much.” The account also promoted Tarrio’s campaign for Florida’s 27th congressional district.
“I support any group of people that believe in the Constitution,” Troyer said in an April 2022 phone interview when asked about his social media posts. “I believe in the Constitution. I took an oath to the Constitution.”
As the presidential campaign season heated up in 2020, the Proud Boys’ financial difficulties continued to mount. In June, Capital One canceled Tarrio’s credit card, citing “adverse past or present legal action involving an individual or entity associated with the account.” Gateway Pundit, a far-right site known for publishing conspiracy theories and the most-linked-to source in the first iteration of Parler, interviewed Tarrio about the incident and listed a Zelle account—a digital payment application—and a Bitcoin address for readers who wished to donate to Tarrio.
The improvised payment and fundraising options on which Proud Boys leaders relied in the months before the Capitol attack point to an alt-finance ecosystem that was still nascent and ad hoc. The events that took place on Jan. 6, 2021, would make the development of more lasting solutions a matter of survival.
After the Capitol attack, members of the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, as well as their families, flocked to crowdfunding sites like GiveSendGo and GoGetFunding to raise funds for legal fees. Some, like Oath Keepers member Joshua James, were able to raise sums north of $100,000.
As the year wore on, alt-tech figures and those connected to the Capitol storming showed a growing interest in more lasting, institutional solutions. In August, Cynthia Hughes, a conservative activist and frequent guest on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, formed a New Jersey–based organization called the Patriot Freedom Project, which solicits funds to support what it calls the “political prisoners” of the Jan. 6 investigation. By the end of the year, the group claimed to have raised nearly $900,000. On Gab, 2nd Amendment Processing teased a forthcoming “conservative bank.” After surviving for months on “checks and bitcoin,” Torba announced that Gab would launch GabPay, a PayPal competitor forming the basis of “an alternative economy.”
Alt-tech entrepreneurs like Torba, initially concerned with the need to provide social media platforms for like-minded folks whose views were no longer welcome on Big Tech’s sites, have long called for a robust, alternative internet ecosystem, one that won’t be vulnerable to a handful of hosting and finance companies leveraging their market power and terms of service to act as indirect arbiters of online behavior. A right-wing social media platform, however popular, cannot thrive in isolation. Serious money is starting to move in to build this parallel internet. In 2021, media personality and Parler investor Dan Bongino launched a payment processing company called Parallel Economy. Like its predecessors, Parallel Economy promises to take a hands-off approach and to protect merchants from authoritarianism and “cancel culture,” while dialing up the sleek professionalism of its presentation. In January, alt-tech video streaming service Rumble—itself backed by billionaire Peter Thiel—acquired a stake in Bongino’s Parallel Economy.
It is on this alternative digital infrastructure that the next major domestic extremist attack will likely be planned—or broadcast. Over the weekend, a gunman massacred 10 people in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket while livestreaming the attack on the popular streaming platform Twitch. Twitch said that it removed the stream in less than two minutes. The next shooter might opt instead for one of Twitch’s growing array of alt-tech streaming competitors, where the absence of such moderation is the point.
That said, alt-tech and alt-finance are not exclusively the domain of violent extremists. Some of those drawn to these startups are simply free-speech maximalists. Others are entrepreneurs in burgeoning but legally gray industries like cannabis sales. Keeping an eye trained on this rapidly developing ecosystem will be key to recognizing threats before they erupt into real-world violence.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.