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“Let’s colonise MySpace!”: inside the alt-right’s internet

An echo chamber of hate is being created as the far-right flee Facebook and Twitter.

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.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge