In a short amount of time, Gab.ai, a 7-month-old social network, has developed a notorious reputation as a magnet for the alt-right and a safe haven for banned Twitter trolls, Gamergaters, Pizzagaters and high-profile white nationalists to congregate and "shitpost" to their hearts' content. It's a place where self-proclaimed "edgelords" can spew racial slurs in good company, and it currently boasts 160,000 users and another 250,000 on a wait list to join, according to Utsav Sanduja, Gab's chief communications officer.
Now Gab aims to expand beyond its current demographic. Its goal is to bring in a diverse new audience of progressives, "ethnic minorities," the LGBTQ community, "those concerned with cyberbullying," "members of the left" and "millennial women," according to an emailed statement from Sanduja.
What will this young, multicultural audience find on Gab, a culture that takes the idea of "free speech" to extreme ends? When I joined, I found a barrage of Pepe memes, climate change denial, anti-Muslim rhetoric, sexist jokes and comparisons of Black Lives Matter to terrorist groups. Because this type of hateful conduct is permitted on the platform, the environment on Gab is significantly more vicious than on a site like Twitter. Gab is proud of its refusal to moderate just about anything. The default bio Gab gave my profile was a quote from Julian Assange: "Stopping leaks is a new form of censorship."
The community's whole-hog embrace of xenophobia, hate speech and gleefully offensive humor would surely repel anyone who already feels alienated by Twitter. So why would progressive young women and minorities — who are disproportionately harassed online by the trolls Gab has attracted — purposefully join their abusers in one of their central hives?
Do Gab's leaders really believe this is the online discourse most people want, or is it just an elaborate marketing stunt?
Gab's new image
To reach its goal of diversifying its audience, the company has done only one thing: It removed the downvote button. Like on Reddit, users had the ability to vote a post higher or lower, determining its relevancy on the forum. Now items can only be voted up.
Sanduja is convinced the change will make the platform more positive and inclusive. In a phone call, he said Gab removed downvotes because trolls were doing it for entertainment and to harass women who were defending themselves. Also, "there were a lot of social justice warriors and members of the far left coming into our site essentially trying to start a brouhaha."
After I spoke with Sanduja, Gab CEO Andrew Torba followed up with an email, which Sanduja forwarded to me with the message "hi beautiful."
Torba explained why he thinks the Facebook and Twitter crowd will feel more welcome on Gab: "People are afraid to express their thoughts for fear of being ostracized, banned, attacked by a mob of social justice warriors or even fired from their job."
Torba himself was booted from startup accelerator Y Combinator after posting a screenshot of a Latino founder's Facebook post and tweeting it with the caption "Build the wall." He then "reacted in a hostile way when other YC founders engaged him with honest, straightforward questions," Kat Mañalac, a partner at Y Combinator, told Mic in an email.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba followed up with an email, which Sanduja forwarded to me with the message "hi beautiful."
Mañalac said that there have been "very few instances" that the accelerator has had to invoke its code of ethics to remove someone from their network. "And in the past, we haven't made public statements about removing members of the YC community because we're not in the business of publicly shaming people," she said. "But this time we agreed to speak publicly about it because Andrew was very vocal, and he spread lies about why he was removed."
Torba was a registered Democrat until 2016, but voted Republican presidential elections. He described himself as a "cultural libertarian" and a "classical liberal" and an "American nationalist patriot. Not a cuck. Woke."
Torba said Gab's goal is to "empower millions of people to speak freely while Silicon Valley continues to double down on censorship."
What about some of the negative effects of "speaking freely," like hate speech, abuse and coordinated harassment campaigns — like the violations that got infamous troll Milo Yiannopoulos kicked off Twitter? "Some users are very mature and can laugh off playful trolling," he said. "Others are traumatized by words on the internet."
Of course, "playful trolling" ignores the reality of social media today. Individuals from marginalized communities — the ones Gab is trying to bring onto its platform — are statistically more susceptible to harassment, which can have consequences greater than hurt feelings. The abuse women and people of color experience on Twitter has been documented extensively. So has the real-life terror they face when they become targets of online mobs. Twenty percent of kids who have been cyberbullied think about suicide; one in 10 attempt it.
For Gab's leaders, political incorrectness is a human right
Gab's guidelines essentially allow for the same type of abuse comedian Leslie Jones experienced on Twitter — racial slurs and racist memes, misgendering someone to taunt them, calling a black woman an ape or calling a woman a cunt and a bitch. In fact, when I asked Gab if those specific examples violate its community guidelines, Sanduja doubled down.
"Gab is a free-speech site. Political incorrectness is a First Amendment right," he said. "We support freedom of speech and reject the politically correct definitions of what constitutes 'harassment.'"
He continued: "[Social-justice warriors] do not get to define the verbiage, lexicon, culture or societal politics of the internet. Gab ... will repeal this politically correct, censorship culture. This is our promise to the world. 1984 will not happen under our leadership."
Sanduja said that Gab upholds the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of what constitutes a threat. In fact, some Gab users have been banned: One, for spreading revenge porn; another, for threatening to kill President Trump; and a few others for spreading spam and malicious malware.
Does Gab encourage political correctness, or just the freedom to speak offensively? "We believe users should have the right to express controversial views, so long as it does not break any laws," Sanduja said.
The law is where Gab's acceptance of harassment gets tricky. California, Illinois and Massachusetts are states that do have laws in place specifically to address cyberstalking and harassment. Victims can press charges in these states, but as Marlisse Silver Sweeney wrote in the Atlantic, many don't, since the publicity can lead to more harassment or unwanted attention, and cases themselves can be emotionally draining and expensive.
According to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland's Francis King Carey School of Law, "Cyberstalking is a repeated course of conduct that's aimed at a person designed to cause emotional distress and fear of physical harm," the Atlantic reported.
In short, the harassment that Gab views as simply freedom of speech, such as hurling slurs at another user, may not be so protected by the law after all.
What type of users are really going to show up to a platform with the promise of political incorrectness?
In our phone and email conversations about Gab's push for a mainstream audience, Torba and Sanduja kept falling back on a familiar argument: Free speech above all else, and little, if any, censorship. They seemed unwilling to accept the premise that people may not flock to a place where they feel unsafe.
Gab predicates itself on three core principles, Sanduja said. One is freedom of speech. The second is freedom of expression. The third is "taking on" the "massive billion-dollar corporations in the social media complex."
Sanduja said that unlike Facebook and Twitter, they are not "beholden to the shareholders in some bizarre corporate office." He said that Gab is currently raising money and that the company is focused on investment and recruiting, but that they aren't taking money from venture capitalists or the government. Instead, they are taking money from community donations.
"We don't like lying, we live in reality, we don't live in Walt Disney World, although I love Walt Disney World and I go every year when I can to Florida," Sanduja said. "But that's a different story. The fact still remains that here on Gab, what we want to do is we want to say to people, we're going to be honest and frank with you. Life's not pretty. Life's a mean and nasty place. Are we going to censor and give you delusions, or are we going to be frank with you like Uncle Frank?"
"I'm not a fan of idealism, I'm a fan of reality," Torba said. "The best and strongest arguments will always and have always won in the marketplace of ideas and discourse. The internet just magnifies that and speeds up the process. This is why Big Social has resorted to censorship: Their globalist idealism has failed and the commonsense populism of the people is rising." (Here, Torba echoes Trump right-hand man Steve Bannon, even using his popular anti-Semitic dog-whistle, to defend Gab's philosophy.)