The CEO Trying to Build a White, Christian, Secessionist Tech Industry

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The CEO Trying to Build a White, Christian, Secessionist Tech Industry

“It’s time for us to resist,” Rand Paul says, railing against vaccine and mask mandates, “lockdown measures,” and other pandemic interventions, in a new video making the rounds on social media. “They can’t arrest all of us.” The video, defiantly titled “Do Not Comply,” has more than 105,000 views on Gab TV, the video site affiliated with a similarly named social network. While Paul was suspended earlier this month from YouTube for spreading misinformation about masks, he is a featured presence on right-wing alternatives like Gab. Paul tweeted that the suspension was “a badge of honor” from the “leftwing cretins at Youtube” and encouraged people to watch the video on a site called Liberty Tree. (Paul later made a different kind of pandemic headline after belatedly revealing that his wife bought stock in drugmaker Gilead in February 2020, just as Covid was taking hold in the United States.) Featured in a recent newsletter by Andrew Torba, the CEO and co-founder of parent company Gab AI, the video, down to its title, perfectly expresses Gab’s editorial line: a mix of faux expertise (Paul is a former eye surgeon), populist outrage, and selective analytical insight that invariably lands in a place where the elites are lying to you, America has lost its way, and white Christian values are under attack. The video also signifies Torba’s own rising profile as a right-wing, Christian (he signs all of his newsletter posts “Jesus is King”), conservative tech mogul, one who seeks to create his own alternative technological and epistemological universe, free of Facebook-deputized fact-checkers, interventionist government bureaucrats, and censorious liberal tech companies. If Torba has his way, a conversation-generating (or disinfo-disseminating) social network and video site are only the beginning. Like right-wing entrepreneurs behind sites such as Rumble (which former President Donald Trump joined this summer and which recently doled out money to journalists including Glenn Greenwald), Parler, and Gettr, Torba wants to build “alt-tech” alternatives that are immune to the censorship, government influence, and monopoly power of Silicon Valley. Unlike conservative provocateurs like Ben Shapiro or Dan Bongino, both of whom have their own media and tech investments but also profit enormously from platforms like Facebook, Torba, who’s banned from Twitter, says he is ready to do away with Silicon Valley entirely. And compared with his peers, who sometimes struggle to keep their services online, Torba seems better positioned to succeed. As he told his readers in February, “it’s time to build our own economy”; it’s time, he said, to conduct an exodus from big corporate concerns to local and decentralized efforts—and to Gab, of course. But after spending merely a few minutes on Gab Social or Gab TV, one can see the grim character of this vision in action.The problem is not Gab’s independence but what it’s become: a hotbed of bigotry and racial hatred.The problem is not Gab’s independence but what it’s become: a hotbed of bigotry and racial hatred, and part of a growing tech empire that seems to have few principles beyond preserving a certain vision of free speech at all costs. Whether Gab ever rivals Twitter, the social network it most resembles, matters less than the example it sets: a way for disinformation artists and hate-mongers to thrive on their own terms, as long as they have the requisite technical resources behind them. In Gab, Torba is creating his own alternative techno-political reality, based on radical pique toward non-Christian elites and a merging of QAnon-style and Covid-skeptic outrage. In forging his own tech future, he is creating a model for others, becoming a leader in the fetid swamps of social media–borne disinformation, and showing how a boutique tech company can be ostensibly independent of the tech giants—and perhaps of any sort of formal accountability. In early August, for example, The New York Times singled Torba out for spreading a baseless rumor that members of the military would be court-martialed for refusing to accept the Covid vaccine. Torba was undeterred. After scooping the Times reporter by posting their back-and-forth on his newsletter, Torba issued an ominous warning to his readers, seeing the moment as the branding opportunity that it was: “I am sharing this all with you now to let you know how these wicked people operate and to shine a light on their lies, deception, and anti-Christian attacks. They aren’t just attacking me, they are attacking any and all dissent and opposition to their libido dominandi (lust for power).”Gab AI debuted in the summer of 2016, as a raucous and frequently offensive online culture began forming around Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and the nascent alt-right, when Pepe the Frog troll armies were besieging liberal social media users, and new crises around online harassment and free speech appeared with regularity. Even as right-wing forces were using Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social networks to elevate their candidate of choice, some were looking for opportunities to forge new online spaces away from the strictures of Big Tech. “I felt that Silicon Valley was unfairly censoring conservative viewpoints, Trump supporters, etc.,” said Torba, who founded an advertising startup before starting Gab, in a 2018 interview. Under these conditions, Gab AI introduced its eponymous social network, a moderation-light Twitter clone, with the kind of posting and sharing features found on many popular social platforms. Its early Reddit-like up-voting features—along with loud entreaties to free speech fundamentalists unsatisfied with moderation-happy mainstream platforms—ensured that some of the site’s worst content, which featured sexism, racism, and homophobia, became some of its most popular. That culture took root and metastasized. Gab’s user base has been pegged at about four million people. (Torba has more than three million followers.) In a recent newsletter, Torba claimed that the site has 15 million unique monthly visitors. He described a typical Gab user as “a Conservative Christian with a family and interests in hunting, fishing, cars, camping, news, politics, rural living, homeschooling, privacy, free speech, cryptocurrency, guns, and cooking.” Torba’s own frequently echoed concerns center around threats to free speech, the true nature of misinformation, imperiled personal liberties, and the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He is particularly incensed at Covid restrictions and vaccine mandates. “Vaccines are causing the variants,” according to a video Torba shared in a newsletter. A recent post featured a meme of a Christian being beaten by Gab’s enemies: the Anti-Defamation League, Silicon Valley, Big Government, and Big Pharma. (Torba did not respond to a request for an interview. He once said that he has a “policy of not communicating with non-Christian and/or communist journos.”)Despite some attention in the mainstream tech press, Gab was essentially considered a sideshow, an also-ran in the social media wars, destined to fade away like Yo, Ello, or other mostly forgotten platforms that could never hope to compete with Silicon Valley monopolies. That changed in October 2018, when a Gab user posted violent antisemitic comments and then murdered 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. The attack immediately tagged Gab as being in the same league as 4chan, 8kun, or other unmoderated forums known to host macabre posts about mass shootings and acts of violence. It also called attention to the site’s abundance of antisemitic content, which has made it a target of criticism from Jewish civil rights groups. For Torba, the Pittsburgh murders became an opportunity to condemn violence, tout his company’s cooperation with law enforcement, and once again push the platform. Calling the murders “a clear act of terror,” he added that he “fundamentally believed in freedom of expression” but didn’t tolerate threats of violence. “I do think that more speech is always going to be the answer to combat bad speech or hate speech,” Torba told an interviewer for a Pennsylvania news station. Torba’s rhetorical double-step didn’t stop Gab from being “unilaterally removed from the internet,” as he told the interviewer. Criticism came from many sides, as the site’s CEO exhibited a contradictory display of principle: offering condolences to bereaved families, berating the media for not going after big social platforms instead, and, in managing Gab, continuing to provide a digital environment where hate speech seemed endemic. There were material consequences, too: Gab lost access to its domain registrar and various payments services. “For most of 2019,” the company said in an SEC filing, “we were unable to obtain payment processing services … [which] resulted in a substantial decline in our revenue.” Therein was a lesson: Gab would have to build its own payment tools, a parallel system from which Gab, its owners, and its users could not be blocked.Gab AI’s financing is somewhat opaque, but SEC filings mention more than $2 million raised in various stock offerings—a decent sum for a startup but apparently an insufficient one. “We may not be able to obtain adequate financing to continue our operations,” warns the 2020 filing in bold text. Enumerating other risk factors, the report mentions that the company may have to raise more debt—if it can—and that it has yet “to earn a substantial profit or substantial operating revenue,” making its “business prospects” uncertain. Among its revenue streams, the company accepts donations, offers a subscription product called Gab Pro, and sells merchandise. Practically stating the obvious for a platform that tolerates a welter of hate speech, the document concludes, “We are particularly susceptible to negative press.”That negative attention seems inescapable. Gab was hacked earlier this year, and Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency collective, shared a major archive of user data with journalists. Subsequent reporting on the hacked material showed that Torba personally courted prominent misogynistic and antisemitic online personalities, asking them to spend more time on Gab. One of them, E. Michael Jones, whom the ADL calls “an anti-Semitic Catholic writer who promotes the view that Jews are dedicated to propagating and perpetrating attacks on the Catholic Church,” later began uploading videos to Gab TV. It was not a surprise that Torba might cultivate extremists in private, but the leaked communications put the lie to his claim that Gab is simply about encouraging free speech and the ability to engage in a little politically incorrect behavior. In his writings and in whom he solicits for contributions, Torba expresses a clear preference for right-wing Christian extremists. Perhaps the most widely promoted presence on Gab TV and in Torba’s newsletter is Nick Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist banned from a number of mainstream social media platforms. The Gab empire is being built on an ideology—and a social and professional network—of hatred.With its own experiences, and those of competitors like Parler, serving as a cautionary tale, Gab AI has made an effort to stay away from Big Tech products and to build its own. The company’s goal is to never be kicked offline again because one of its users went on a killing spree or because it violated some tech giant’s terms of service agreement. And to do that, it’s building its own tech stack that can’t be controlled by Amazon Web Services or Microsoft’s cloud division, creating a company that can operate by its own rigidly held philosophy, with less ability for public pressure to hold it to account. “Gab isn’t just building an alternative social network,” wrote Torba in September 2020. “We’re building an alternative internet.” Andrew Torba’s tech secession has been several years in the making. In 2016, the entrepreneur was removed from the alumni network for Y Combinator, a prestigious Silicon Valley startup incubator program that had hosted Kuhcoon, an adtech company Torba founded. Later named Automate Ads, the company nearly shut down before it was sold for scrap to AdHawk in 2017. (In a sign of Silicon Valley’s frequent pivots to nowhere, AdHawk is now part of a network of sites on a “mission to transform the way flooring is bought and sold.”) It was around that time that Gab AI was founded. With a logo that resembled Pepe the Frog and a promise to never censor, Gab’s allegiances were clear, though Torba later would criticize Donald Trump from the right. The site’s toxicity—and the way politics can inform design and culture—has also become all too clear. (None of this is to excuse the myriad built-in problems of traditional Big Tech platforms.) One study found that “Gab tends to have more hate speech than Twitter.” What’s more, people banned from some mainstream apps tend to go to lower-moderation sites where extremism thrives. “You can’t just ban these people and say, ‘Hey, it worked.’ They don’t disappear,” said a researcher from Binghamton University. “They go off into other places. It does have a positive effect on the original platform, but there’s also some degree of amplification or worsening of this type of behavior elsewhere.”A handful of monopolistic big tech companies means users have insufficient choices, while misinformation travels with greater velocity and impact than truth.This is the vexing conundrum represented by large platforms and by the alternative social media outposts that would provide refuge to extremists or other users who see the status quo as unacceptably censorious and authoritarian. The monopoly of Big Tech companies means users have insufficient choices, misinformation travels with greater velocity and impact than truth, and problems of content moderation and government and corporate surveillance remain unfixed. Meanwhile, the alternative platforms are led by some of the same extremists kicked off of places like Twitter and Facebook—not that the leadership of these companies is any more inspiring. An alt-tech secessionist movement wouldn’t fix the problems of Big Tech, free speech, and online discourse; it would spur members to find new ways to innovate on them, possibly animated by even worse politics.For Torba, this seems to be a welcome challenge, something akin to a holy war. His newsletters overflow with references to militant Christian duty—which is to say, with authentically held belief. “They want to gaslight us into violence. Don’t fall for it,” wrote Torba on a pinned Gab post. “We are going to sit back and watch as the woke American Regime consumes itself. While this happens we are going to peacefully build.”
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