On 8 January 2018, the alternative social network Gab set its 300,000 users a challenge. “Write a haiku!” prompted the year-old site, and many merrily responded with poems about cats, university and snow. The most popular haikus, however, were a little different. “Saving refugees/Is like helping rattlesnakes/enter a daycare,” read one of the most shared haikus on the site. Another user, seemingly misunderstanding the ancient Japanese art form, began their poem: “While attending a torch lit rally/I walked by a kike and a tranny…”
Gab is a social media platform just like Facebook or Twitter – except in the crucial ways it is not. Founded to take on “the left-leaning Big Social monopoly”, Gab prides itself on its dedication to free speech. As a result, much of the far-right is attracted to the site, with many migrating there after Twitter banned neo-Nazis from its platform in December.
On Gab, anything goes. Unlike traditional social media sites, Gab has no policies against hate speech, meaning both Google and Apple have banned the app from their phones. Particularly fond of this free-speech premise are the alt-right and the British National Party’s Nottingham branch (“ability to talk with other nats is vital to the Resistance. Numbers will follow as libtard intolerance grows”, it tweeted about its move to Gab in December). Although the social network is ostensibly more than just a home for extremist views – one of its selling points is that it is free of advertisements – again and again Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and racist content is the most popular on the site.
“We are not alt-right,” retorts Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, when I contact him. Since it was founded in August 2016, Gab’s logo has been the cartoon face of a green frog. In September 2016, the Anti-Defamation League declared a green cartoon frog named Pepe to be a hate symbol, thanks to its association with the alt-right.
A 29-year-old male Gab user tells me, over an online messaging service, why he was attracted to the site. “I heard about Gab as a place where lots of conservatives were moving to as an alternative to Twitter,” he says, explaining that he is a “politically right-leaning person”. Yet this user left the site after just a few months. “I got tired of the endless Jew-bashing,” he explains. “A lot of the anti-Semitism stems from conspiracy theories – of which there are plenty on Gab – of Jews ruling the world.”
Gab isn’t the only newly founded website offering a safe space for the far right. Over the past year, traditional social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have banned many extreme right-wing users, particularly after August’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville resulted in the murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer. The alt-right’s internet is now made up of pun-based, hate-filled websites. Instead of Patreon, the mainstream crowdfunding website that allows fans to pay creatives money, they have Hatreon (one creator earning £100 a month promises to make “pro-white music for a better future”).
A censorship-free alternative to YouTube also exists in the form of “PewTube”, although critics note the site’s fifth most viewed video in August – an audiobook of The Communist Manifesto – was deleted by those who run the site. WASP Love is a US dating site for people who are any combination of Christian, confederate, home-schooled, white-nationalist and alt-right. Most amusingly of all, after Twitter’s December purge, far-right users decided to “colonise Myspace”, the early Noughties social media platform once popular with teen goths. “It’ll be great once we turn it into Meinspace,” one user confidently stated online.
Some may be thrilled that the far right have carved out their own online spaces, where angry voices can echo around in dark corners undetectable to innocent ears. Yet Jacob Davey of counter-extremism think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), tells me users of these new platforms can engage in “mutual radicalisation”.
“Using these sites, they can wage raids on other platforms,” he says, explaining how Gab and others allow the extreme right to plan online and offline attacks. Many mock these new platforms for being slow, ugly, and difficult to use – for example, when I click on one of PewTube’s most popular videos, “A Word To The Criminal Migrant”, it refuses to play – but Davey says mockery is misguided. “It doesn’t matter whether the sites are any good, it’s whether or not new users are going to them. And they are.”
Perhaps the most troubling of these new social networks is Voat, an online forum that hosts an abundance of conspiracy theories, most notably “Pizzagate”. The Pizzagate conspiracy posits that Hillary Clinton is at the centre of a paedophile ring run out of a Washington DC pizzeria. In December 2016, a man attempting to “self-investigate” the conspiracy fired three shots inside the restaurant.
In less immediate ways, the fragmentation of social networks also damages the left. Davey warns that the exodus of the far right from Twitter and Facebook allows the online left to engage in so-called cumulative radicalisation. “The more insular you are, the less you listen to opposing voices,” he says. “There’s a danger people become more closeted and only engage with people who tacitly confirm their world view. ”
The alternating silliness and scariness of the new alt-right internet can make it difficult to comprehend. In many ways, it is summarised best by another of Gab’s most popular haikus. “Sitting all alone,” begins user Tommy L, “Reading Haikus made by you/I am pretty sad.”
Amelia Tait’s Digital Native column will feature fortnightly.
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief