A demonstration against the mandatory wearing of face masks in Montreal, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press via AP)
The past week has been a pretty tumultuous one for the QAnon community. Not only did they see Congress certify Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election and their hero President Donald Trump publicly acknowledge defeat for the first time, but they were also booted off several online platforms they called home.In the wake of the Capitol riots, where QAnon played a leading role, Twitter purged over 70,000 QAnon-linked accounts. Days later Parler, where many QAnon personalities had set up accounts, was de-platformed over its perceived role in fomenting violence ahead of last Wednesday’s attack.
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But a week after the unprecedented scenes in D.C., QAnon has already found a new home: Gab.The so-called free-speech social network was set up in 2016 by Andrew Torba, who grew disillusioned by what he saw as Silicon Valley’s censorship of conservative voices. It quickly attracted users from the far-right and was widely criticized for being a cesspool of hate speech.In the last couple of days, Torba claims that over 1 million new users have signed up, many of them QAnon adherents. While Gab’s user base has been growing for some time, its growth since the 2020 election has been exponential.Evidence of this growth is seen in the main QAnon groups. At the time of the election, the biggest QAnon group had around 24,000 members. On Wednesday its membership stood at over 162,000 and rising fast.There are at least two other public QAnon groups with over 100,000 members, and many more with smaller memberships.Some QAnon influencers have been on Gab for years, including the recently-unmasked “Neon Revolt,” who runs the largest QAnon group on Gab and who has 645,000 followers. But there’s been a massive influx of almost all the big figures within the community in recent days and weeks, including Ron Watkins, the former administrator of the message board where QAnon’s creator posted updates.Watkins, via his now-deleted Twitter account, was one of the main pushers of baseless election fraud conspiracies and Trump repeatedly boosted his posts in recent weeks. Watkins has already amassed over 400,000 followers on Gab, where he continues to spread these conspiracies.
But unlike Parler, which relied on Amazon’s cloud services, Gab has spent years building its own infrastructure, and while it will never reach the scale of a Twitter or a Facebook, it’s also much less likely to ever be kicked off the internet, meaning QAnon could have found its permanent new home. Gab drew little attention — and few users — until 2018, when it was propelled into the headlines after it was revealed that the man accused of shooting 11 worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue had been posting vile anti-Semitic rhetoric on Gab for years.“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” the shooter wrote in his final Gab post before the attack.This week’s de-platforming of Parler, which saw Apple, Google, and Amazon all withdraw their services in quick succession, would have felt like deja vu for Torba, who went through an almost identical de-platforming in the wake of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, with the likes of PayPal and GoDaddy withdrawing their services.Gab went dark for a week, but it came back thanks to Epik, the web hosting company that facilitates neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer, and 8kun, the message board where QAnon originated.In the years since, Torba has sought to protect himself and his site from any outside interference, and in September, Gab announced that it had migrated its platform to its own servers. While the site has struggled this week under a flood of new users, it has remained relatively stable.
According to Torba, over 46 million people visited Gab.com with over 80 million page views, though those figures have not been independently verified. When asked if he had any reservations about the influx of QAnon on his platform, Torba directed VICE News to a post from November, where he said: “Based on what I have observed for the past several months, the core philosophy of the QAnon community is to be inherently skeptical of what legacy media elites report, conduct your own research, and share the truth far and wide. I see nothing wrong with this and we gladly welcome it on Gab.com.”Parler was backed by money from the Mercer family, who also backed Cambridge Analytica and were seeking to develop a platform that would gain widespread adoption, at the level of Twitter.Gab, however, appears to be funded entirely from donations, merchandise, and subscribers who sign up for the platform’s “Pro” service.This makes the platform much more sustainable in the long term, but it also means it’s unlikely to even grow to a size where it’s comparable to the mainstream platforms — especially without a way to widely distribute its apps.“Without distribution in app stores, the maximum possible size of an app like Gab or Parler is maybe 3-7 million highly dedicated users,” Dave Troy, a network analyst, told VICE News.
“For Torba, that may be seen as a win. For the Mercers, that would be a loss.”Gab has also so far failed to attract mainstream conservative figures — though the newly-elected, QAnon-supporting Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene does have an official account. While mainstream figures like Sean Hannity and Sen. Ted Cruz had opened accounts on Parler, Gab has yet to land any of those big fish.After Facebook and Twitter banned Trump last week, Torba told users in an email that he was "in the process of connecting with President Trump’s team as we speak.” But this is a line Torba has said before, and the platform has long had an account reserved for Trump. It already has hundreds of thousands of followers.Even without getting Trump on board, Gab is likely to grow its user base, though the influx of QAnon followers may once again put it in the crosshairs of those who want to take it offline because of widespread hate speech, racist, and anti-Semitism on the platform.Asked if he has any worries about being de-platformed again, Torba told VICE News,“ If I did, I certainly wouldn't share them with you.”