Mastodon was launched as a decentralized, social justice friendly Twitter alternative that was free of Nazis and harassment. But two years later, the biggest Mastodon instance is now Gab, a far-right social media network known widely as a gathering space for white supremacists.
Despite getting attention as a healthier Twitter alternative, most Mastodon "federations" have remained small. Mastodon—which functions much like an open-source Twitter—is decentralized in that anyone can set up their own "federation," or server, but those servers can interact with each other.
Gab—which has been tied to the suspect responsible for the Pittsburgh synagogue terror attack that killed 11 worshippers—announced on July 4 that it had switched its backend to run on Mastodon’s software, instantly making it the largest Mastodon user, with more than double the number of users as the next largest federation.
Because Gab is simply implementing Mastodon's open-source code, there's no functional way for Mastodon to shut down Gab. This, of course, was part of the appeal for Gab in the first place. In the past, Gab had lost its webhost GoDaddy and had been banned from accepting donations via PayPal.
“Gab is now unstoppable and can never again be taken down as a whole ever again,” Gab said to Motherboard in a series of email exchanges.
Mastodon released a statement denouncing Gab for using its tool and claimed it will do everything in its power to isolate the site. It also said some servers in its “Fediverse” were blocking Gab domains, meaning Gab can't interact with them.
“Mastodon is completely opposed to Gab’s project and philosophy, which seeks to monetize and platform racist content while hiding behind the banner of free speech,” it said in a statement posted on its website. “The Mastodon community does not approve of their attempt to hijack our infrastructure and has already taken steps to isolate Gab and keep hate speech off the fediverse.”
In a statement to Motherboard, Mastodon said "at Mastodon we are creating a truly decentralized network, our software is free to use and modify by anyone, but this does not mean that we are under any obligation to support any project which uses our code. While we respect the right to free speech, we believe that human dignity is inviolable above all else."
"While the free software license means anyone can use our code, we as developers of Mastodon and the servers we choose to promote on joinmastodon.org are under no obligation to support or associate with those other projects which do use this code in a way that violates our values," it continued.
Though larger social media companies like Twitter and Facebook have banned neo-Nazi and far-right content outright, Gab has not meaningfully cracked down. The effect has been to drive militant neo-Nazis to Gab and other fringe social media sites like Minds. While Gab says it enforces a strict content policy outlawing extremism and hate speech, neo-Nazi terror groups have enjoyed months-long, unfettered stints posting their content on Gab to a significant audience.
Over the past year, there have been posts on Gab calling for terrorist attacks, killings against minorities, and advertisements for offline recruitment and armed training, among more general white supremacist propaganda.
In one post, a Gab user and member of a known militant network—which once comprised hundreds of Gab profiles across approximately five groups in Canada, the US, South Africa, and Europe—explicitly calls for followers to target the electric grid. The groups are connected to the broader Atomwaffen Division and its affiliated network, which is a well-known American hate group connected to five killings in the US. Several posts connected to the same network on Gab are even more explicit, calling on sympathizers to join local neo-Nazi affiliates and commit violence against Jewish and Muslim communities.
British police arrested two men in England in June on terror offences for posting propaganda on Gab encouraging followers to carry out attacks and threatening the assassination of Prince Harry. In the US, early this month Florida state police arrested a man for posting racist, threatening images to Gab in which he brandished a gun and called for the mass murder of people of color in America.
The FBI declined to comment specifically about Gab but told Motherboard in a statement that online radicalization through the propaganda of domestic terror groups can lead to real world violence.
“While the FBI has no comment on specific social media sites or groups, individuals often are radicalized by looking at propaganda on social media sites and in some cases may decide to carry out acts of violence,” it said. “The FBI only investigates matters in which there is a potential threat to national security or a possible violation of federal law. In such instances, we use all our mandated authorities in conducting a thorough investigation.”
The FBI also pointed Motherboard to congressional testimony from last month by its Deputy Director of Counterterrorism, Michael McGarrity, who highlighted the internationalization of white nationalist terrorism and the use of social media as a vector of radicalization leading to violence.
Amarnath Amarasingam, a terrorism expert and associate professor at Queen’s University in Canada, said that Gab's proximity to the mainstream—neither an obscure dark web service, nor a hugely popular platform—has allowed its extremist base to proliferate and gain access to an online crowd of viewers that it otherwise could not attain on more well-established social media sites that would ban them.
“These individuals used to have to choose between being on places like Twitter or Facebook or basically existing in the bowels of the internet, where they were less likely to encounter new recruits or talk to the public,” Amarasingam told Motherboard in an email. “It's not mainstream, but it's also not completely out of reach. It's dangerous for this reason.”
Gab’s platform has enabled members of domestic terror groups to grow within a community of far-right users. And because of that, groups have seized upon the site to spread messaging campaigns that mimic early ISIS recruitment on social media; specifically sharing violent propaganda and creating covert highways of communication between the group and potential members.
“ISIS was effective in 2013 and 2014 not only because they put out content, but because they were able to build an online community around them. This community translated for them, spread content for them, and generally gave people—miles apart—a sense of common purpose,” said Amarasingam.
Gab denied that neo-Nazi terror groups are thriving on its site and said it swiftly bans any militant acitivities it sees on its site, and it removed posts identified to it by Motherboard.
“We vigorously deny your assertion that terror groups ‘thrive’ on our site. We don't want them, we strongly discourage them from joining and we ban them when they cross the line, as they often do,” read an emailed statement to Motherboard.
“Gab has always been attractive to fascist and neo-Nazi groups that advocate violence,” Joshua Fisher-Birch of the Counter Extremism Project said. “In the past, Gab has actively promoted itself as a social media alternative when Twitter has banned extreme right groups and individuals.”
The company says it operates a small moderation team and has noticed the repeat offenders connected to the Atomwaffen network.
“As Gab has nearly 1 million accounts, our small team relies on independent reports to bring [terms of service] violators such as these to our attention.”