Gab, the Alt-Right’s Very Own Twitter, Is The Ultimate Filter Bubble
The Internet has a speech regulation problem. To a lot of people (including WIRED), harassment and hate speech are corruptions of the democratization promised by the Web, and websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram take constant flack for not dealing with the problem adequately enough. To the group calling itself the alt-right, which is really another word for white supremacists, any moderation looks like censorship. Their anger at being supposedly sidelined and silenced has spawned hashtag campaigns, think pieces, and now, a brand-new social media platform, Gab. Its primary schtick is promising an end to censorship. But by sequestering itself, Gab has managed to sideline it members further into an echo chamber so far removed from the rest of the conversation that its message has no chance of reaching unfamiliar ears.
Gab is less than a month old, so it may well flame out like Peach or Ello. But for now, the platform looks like an artifact from a dystopian universe where the alt-right completely took over Twitter. Gab has over 42,000 people on its waitlist, more than 11,000 active members, and among them are nearly all the alt-right’s online kingpins, including the Internet’s self-styled super-villain, Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos himself, who was recently banned for life from Twitter. And Gab’s appeal for that crowd is obvious. The only posting guidelines are no illegal porn, no threats of violence, no terrorism, and no doxing. Oh, and a fifth commandment that literally says “try to be nice.” Everything else is fair game. Notably absent? Any explicit stipulations against hate speech.
“We promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online,” says Gab CEO Andrew Tolba. “We want everyone to feel safe on Gab, but we’re not going to police what is hate speech and what isn’t.” Yet in its first weeks, rather than create a free-speech zone where all voices are heard and anyone can say anything to anyone, Gab directly caters to a narrow, conservative, provocateur sensibility. The trending hashtags? Usually stuff like #HillarysHealth and #HitlerPickUpLines. So far Gab is less a censorship-free utopia than an alt-right safe space—which is ironic, considering how much the alt-right loathes the very idea of safe space.
“People say we’re an alt-right echo chamber,” says Tolba. “But if there are any centrists, progressives, libertarians, or apolitical people interested in trying something new, I say, please join us.” Thing is, so far, few seem to have answered that call. In the #GabFam, as Gab users call themselves, #Trump seems to always chart. The word “deplorable” is getting a lot of play after Hillary Clinton used it last week, and Gab’s logo is a distinctly Pepe-ish looking frog. The frog logo might seem unrelated, but it’s not. The alt-right has taken the once versatile and universally popular Pepe the Frog meme as its mascot. For a flood of anti-Semitic, white supremacist tweets from people with variations on Pepe as their profile image, check out #frogtwitter. Or poke around on Gab.
Here are some very typical Gab posts, screen-shotted from the site’s Popular page.
Of course, that’s not all that’s happening on Gab’s popular page. Whatever else you want to say about Gab users, they seem to be pretty nice to each other.
And interestingly, if you join Gab, you can filter out some of the more inflammatory kinds of talk. First, the site has a Reddit-style upvote/downvote mechanism—so on Gab as well as Reddit, downvoting trolls to oblivion is a decent way to limit their reach. Because another irony of Gab is that despite being anti censorship, users have the option to deploy what are called “self censorship settings.” (The idea possibly being that Gab won’t censor you, but you can censor yourself if you really must!) You can mute people and posts that contain keywords of your choosing, without triggering a notification that lets the poster know you blocked them.
That does seem like a pretty good way to avoid both being harassed and feeding the trolls. And actually, it’s pretty much the same measure Instagram enacted Monday to curb harassment on its own site. Granted, on Gab or Instagram, it’s a far from perfect system. “This is just the Whack-a-Mole approach,” says Nicole Ellison, a professor of information at University of Michigan who studies social media. “And if you have someone who is very motivated to get a message through, it wouldn’t be too hard to figure out a workaround where you using other words to send the same kinds of messages.”
On Gab at least, trying to remove the alt-righty vibes would require entering an enormous amount of keywords—there’s just not much else there. That in itself would seem to run counter to Gab’s own aims. For a group that’s so outraged by the idea that their voices aren’t being heard, they sure have created an insulated corner of the Internet for themselves. And although its tempting to take a glib “and don’t let the door hit you on the way out” kind of attitude, you probably shouldn’t. “Not knowing about negative behavior online doesn’t make that behavior any better,” Ellison says. “It doesn’t solve the problem in an enduring way.” Sending people to go sit in the corner isn’t a great way to change their minds. You won’t even know what’s on them. Reinforcing the idea that people of different ideologies can’t even share the same website is a filter bubble taken to its logical extreme. And if that’s not self-censorship, we don’t know what is.