Hours before a mass shooter killed 11 people inside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, he posted an anti-Muslim rant to his account on Gab, a little-known social network that sold itself on protecting free speech.
Gab was quickly forced offline when domain service providers, hosting companies and a slew of payment companies all pulled support for the site. Many saw it as the beginning of the end for a website that was branded an “online cesspool” of antisemitism, hate speech and racism.
But Gab didn’t die. In fact, it has thrived.
It was back online within a week and despite being instantly flooded with anti-Semitic comments, the site stayed online. In July it migrated its entire infrastructure to a decentralized platform as a way of insulating itself from being taken offline in the same way 8chan was two weeks ago after a racist screed thought to have been written by the El Paso shooter was posted there.
With 8chan still offline and its owner subpoenaed to appear before Congress, its former users are looking for new homes, and Gab is welcoming them with open arms. But before the influx of 8chan users, Gab had experienced a huge growth spurt in the first half of 2019, a worrying sign for those concerned about the spread of hateful ideologies and radicalization online.
Traffic to Gab’s website between January and July this year has grown almost 200% while unique visitors to the site are up 180%, according to figures provided by SimilarWeb to VICE News. The company, which estimates traffic based on a wide array of data sets combined with machine learning algorithms, says the visitor numbers for the month of July were just shy of 1 million.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba claims Gab had 1.8 million unique visitors in the 30-days ending August 7, and claims the network now has over a million accounts.
The disparity may be down to an influx of users from 8chan in early August, but either way, the fact remains there are now a lot more people using Gab than the 330,000 who were visiting it in January — and Torba believes that this is just the beginning.
“Drudge has 136 million visits a month. Fox News has 381 million visits a month. Breitbart has 64 million visits a month,” Torba, who is based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, told VICE News. “Do you really think it's unrealistic for Gab to capture even 50 percent of that market? Because it's happening.”
In the wake of El Paso, Gab attempted to exploit the attack that left 22 dead to try and drum up new members, with its Twitter account highlighting what it perceives as a Silicon Valley bias against free speech and conservative views.
One of those targeted was President Donald Trump’s son, Eric, after he began following Gab’s official Twitter account. Torba encouraged his members to mass-message the president’s son and urge him to join the social network.
And while experts dispute the size Gab can get to, there is agreement that it is likely to continue growing in the near-term.
“I don’t doubt that it can grow, not just due to de-platformed extremists washing up there, but no doubt libertarians or others concerned about greater restrictions on the main social media sites,” said Matthew Feldman, director of the Center of Analysis of the Radical Right.
“Iron fist of censorship”
Torba created Gab in 2016 after growing disillusioned with Silicon Valley. He wanted to build a refuge for people who were kicked off other sites and social networks for espousing racist or anti-semitic views. Torba, who identifies as a “conservative Republican Christian,” was soon after kicked out of the influential Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator for using profane, anti-immigrant language towards other members.
Gab immediately became a hub of alt-right activity online, but Torba took pains to say Gab was not a far-right or alt-right social network but was a “free speech social network.”
But one look at the site, which looks like a version of Twitter crossed with the content you would expect to find on 8chan, and its membership — which includes such right wing luminaries as Ann Coulter, Stefan Molyneux, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Alex Jones — and you can see that the overwhelming majority of the content is far-right focused.
Torba now admits Gab does have a right-wing leaning.
“Any online community that is explicitly pro-free speech will inevitably become right-leaning,” he told VICE News in an interview. “This is because in the free market of ideas right-leaning ideas win. Which is why we see these left-wing tech companies censoring. No one is buying their progressive, globalist bullshit anymore, so it must be force-fed down the throats of users and dissent must be stamped out with the iron fist of censorship.”
Torba claims Gab’s success boils down to its focus on protecting free speech and the influx of users banned by “Silicon Valley tyrants and their centralized privacy-nightmare data silos.”
But experts warn allowing hate speech to go unchecked, even if it isn’t illegal, leads to serious problems.
“Hate speech is dangerous because it can influence, or even incite others, leading to the potential risk of abuse or attack,” Feldman said. ”Allowing hate speech to fester is like leaving a wound unattended. At best it is unpleasant. At worst it can make other parts poorly or sick, and in extremis even kill.”
Gab relies heavily on its own users to flag problematic content rather than employing automated systems or teams of moderators. Gab bans very few things: threats of terror, direct threats of violence, child pornography, pornography, and doxxing. This policy means racists and anti-semitic comments are allowed to flourish on the site.
When asked if Gab has a policy in place to actively flag posts from possible mass shooters, Torba said it was like asking “if Gab has Minority Report-esq pre-crime systems in place? How absurd. Of course not.”
When asked if Gab had moderators in place to specifically monitor for such content, he declined to answer.
Feldman said that “‘free speech’ in Gab’s context has too often meant ‘free to engage in hate speech and incitement’ with minimal curation by site moderators or, it seems, owners.”
The business of Gab
But Gab has become expert at staying on the right side of the law, and that has allowed Torba to cash in on his site’s newfound popularity.
Gab has already introduced a paid-for tier called GabPro, which gives users larger video uploading sizes, the option to be verified, and a free email address from Gab’s new email service — which will also be monetized.
Earlier this year, Torba launched Dissenter, a browser extension that lets users comment on news articles, YouTube videos and even individual social media posts — even if those sites don’t have comment sections or have comments switched off.
Gab has also launched affiliate marketing with VPN services, as well as its service provider Epik as well as others. There’s also Gab merchandise, and a soon-to-be-announced partnership with a bitcoin company that “will empower our users to purchase bitcoin through that partner.”
"It is best viewing Gab as a business, predicated on this idea of freedom of expression,” Adam Hadley, project director with Tech Against Extremism, a UN-backed advocacy group fighting extremism online, told VICE News. “Presumably, the people behind the site believe that, but it is also quite lucrative for them."
Torba declined to comment when asked if Gab was making money and declined to say whether the site has investors and how much money they’ve put into the company.
Torba last week welcomed Amazon’s decision to pull support for a fundraising site it was running, claiming that the media coverage of the incident brought Gab more attention as well as offers of investment.
Not only is Gab booming in terms of popularity, but it has also radically overhauled the site’s architecture using a decentralized model that it believes make it virtually bulletproof in terms of censorship and being taken offline.
Mastodon was developed as a kinder, more tolerant social network, or “Twitter without the Nazis.” It was a platform that allowed anyone to create their own network which operated independently of the other networks, but all of which were interconnected.
When Gab arrived in July however, it upset the Mastodon universe, and pretty quickly the hate-filled Gab network was blocked by the other networks with one Mastodon fan calling for a permanent ban of the far-right network.
“Gab has inspired mass shooters and murders,” they wrote. “You do not understand the type of threat they represent.”
But Mastodon is an open-source platform, making it difficult, if not impossible, for such an action to be taken. The result means that there is no way for one person or one company to take Gab offline.
So, how big can it get?
"I think there is a substantial risk for it to become pretty big indeed,” Hadley said. “Platforms like Gab can become much more mainstream. I think it would be foolish to say the growth is going to stop, at least not in the near term.”
Cover: A Trump supporter holds a sign featuring 'Pepe the Frog' at a rally for Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump in Bedford, New Hampshire on September 29, 2016.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.