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Kicking Gab off the internet won’t kill online extremism. It may make it worse.

Pushing extremism to darker corners of the web may do more harm than good.

by Tess Owen and Carter Sherman
Oct 31 2018, 4:55pm

Just days after a lone gunman opened fire and killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Gab was gone. Tech giants GoDaddy and PayPal pulled the plug on the site as soon as public scrutiny zeroed in on the shooter's account, where he regularly shared violently racist and anti-Semitic content.

Displacing an online haven for extremists with an estimated 500,000 global users would, in theory, be a massive blow for the far right. Except just as Silicon Valley was cutting ties with Gab, another site, called “FreeZoxee,” joined the far-right online galaxy and rolled out the red carpet for “Gabfugees.”

The site, co-founded by Matt Bracken, announced itself with crossed-out images of a swastika, a communist sickle and hammer, the symbol of Islam, and the symbol representing the European Union. “FreeZoxee is not a home for the enemies of freedom,” it proclaimed.

And yet the crowd on FreeZoxee seems to be pretty similar to the users who congregated on Gab. Suggested groups to join include “Deplorables,” “Confederates,” and “White Nationalist SeaSteading,” which is dedicated to “building a white nation at sea starting with a nomadic crypto nation of white nationalists on boats,” in addition to “Gabfugees: A gathering area for refugees from the Gab blackout.”

Read: Gab booted off the Internet after Pittsburgh shooting

We don’t know yet if Gab is gone for good, but experts who study the far-right world doubt whether shoving extremists into other dark corners of the internet will actually make a difference. Some wonder if it might actually make things worse.

“We’re kicking the firestarters out of our house, and they’re all moving next door to a smaller house”

“We’re kicking the firestarters out of our house, and they’re all moving next door to a smaller house, where they’re bringing all their gasoline, matches, and hatred,” said Brian Levin, who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “So there’s always a risk when that house next door goes up.”

The truth is when it comes to online communities, the alt-right is spoiled for choice. There’s Voat, a mirror image of Reddit, on which “subverses” (a play on “subreddits”) cater to conspiracy theorists, people with very specific sexual interests (famous people in leotards, for example), and general hate of all kinds. Voat has been a safe harbor for Pizzagate conspiracy theorists and people sharing hacked nude photos of celebrities, which was dubbed “the Fappening.” More recently, members of the vast QAnon conspiracy set up shop on Voat after they were booted off Reddit.

Online extremists, including the hardcore National Socialist Movement, have also found a welcoming home on VK, a Russian online social media and social network service that is modeled on Facebook. Meanwhile, some of the other early “alt-tech” options had a short shelf-life, such as “PewTube” (an alt-right YouTube) and “WrongThink.Net.”

Read: Neo-Nazi convicted for domestic terror on Amtrak train was part of Unite the Right rally

Founded in August 2016 by Trump supporter and entrepreneur Andrew Torba, Gab coincided with the explosion of the “alt-right,” the loose conglomerate of online trolls, white nationalists, men’s rights activists, and neo-Nazis who suddenly found a shared language through racist memes and Trumpian anti-immigrant rhetoric. As Twitter and Facebook started reining in online hate speech and harassment, Torba positioned the site as a beacon of free speech. In SEC filings from March, Gab said they had nearly 400,000 users, nearly 4,000 of whom were paying for Gab’s “premium subscription service.”

Since the creation of Gab and the emergence of the alt-right during the 2016 election, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center have tracked a spike in hate crimes, aggressive recruitment efforts by white nationalists, and a slow creep of hateful rhetoric into the mainstream.

One of the alt-right’s founding tenets was the concept of “red pilling” — an allusion to the “red pill” in the movie "The Matrix," which makes people see reality as it is. Racist posts use this term to describe the brainwashing process, whereby they recruit curious travelers by inundating them with memes and other propaganda.

Confining extremists also gates them off from more moderating voices and reinforce extremists’ bigotry. “What these segregated places on the internet will do is validate their scapegoating and help determine who is a legitimate target for aggression,” Levin said.

“Extremists will continue to organize and to be violent even if they are deplatformed”

But JM Berger, a research fellow with VOX-Pol, a think tank dedicated to research on violent online political extremism, thinks there's merit in turning out the lights on the likes of Gab, even if the benefits are short-lived.

“Extremists will continue to organize and to be violent even if they are deplatformed, but deplatforming makes it more difficult for them to accomplish their goals, whether violent or just organizational,” Berger wrote in an email to VICE News. “The more time they spend trying to figure out a platform, the less time they have to work on advancing their more serious goals.”

And you don’t have to hang out on Gab or other “alt-tech” sites to become a violent right-wing extremist. It can happen on sites like Twitter, which supposedly has the mechanisms in place to police that kind of activity.

Read: The NYPD has started arresting Proud Boys involved in violent Manhattan brawl

Various Twitter accounts linked to mail-bomber Cesar Sayoc were full of direct threats at his intended bomb targets, including at least 240 direct threats to least 50 people and news organizations, according to an investigation from CNN. With the sheer volume of hate online, that runs the gamut from coded, political rhetoric to explicit racism, it’s hard to determine which user will be the next Sayoc or Robert Bowers (the synagogue shooter).

“They don’t stand out from a lot of hateful ideas that are being expressed online,” said Pete Simi, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Chapman University. “How do you know within a culture where hate and extremism are so prominent, which person stands out as the one most likely to go out and do something like what Bowers did?”

Cover: A mourner prays after laying flowers at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)