One of the most fascinating things about the alt-right is how tech savvy its members are. They embrace the meme as a legitimate political tool and use message boards and websites to communicate their ideas with a semblance of privacy.
Social network Gab.ai requires users to register before they can interact with the site in any way. You’re given a number and told that it may take up to one week before an invitation to join is sent. I received mine about 24 hours later. It came with something claiming to be a George Orwell quote – “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” – but there’s no substantive evidence Orwell ever wrote that.
Once you’re in, Gab is something like a Bizarro-world Twitter: alt-right & ‘white-nationalist’ ideas make their way into everything, including travel photography, and derogatory language like #rapefugees is common. It has an unusually minimalist user interface given its pedigree. Most extreme right-wing sites tend towards a cluttered and ugly UI, but Gab looks very much like a product of Silicon Valley. That’s because it is; founder Andrew Torba was kicked out of start-up funding machine Y Combinator for online harassment, and Gab itself is headquartered in San Mateo, California.
The website was created as an alternative to Twitter, promising total free speech in the face of conservative writers being banned from the aforementioned network for racial vilification. Torba himself denies being a part of the alt-right, instead identifying as a “conservative Republican Christian“, and says that Gab is not explicitly for the alt-right.
“We promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online…We want everyone to feel safe on Gab, but we’re not going to police what is hate speech and what isn’t.” Torba told Wired.
Regardless of whether Gab was meant for the alt-right, it’s become a safe-space for people who believe that the Democratic party is a huge child sex ring or who’d enjoy putting an end to institutions like feminism and multiculturalism. It reads like the kind of social network that they’d use in The Handmaid’s Tale; overbearingly white, Christian, and misogynist. In fact, it’s exactly the kind of bubble that members of the alt-right accuse those on the left of living in; a place where news that you don’t like can’t reach you.
One of the central ideas of the alt-right is that of ‘red pilling‘ – waking people up to the alleged failings of modern America (immigration, women’s rights) and bringing them over to the side of white nationalism & exceptionalism. It’s kind of a modern day allegory of the cave for people who don’t think Muslims should be allowed into Western nations. The term is taken from a famous scene in The Matrix where Neo, the protagonist, is given a red pill to free him from the control of artificially intelligent killing machines.
The problem with things like the red pill and Gab is that people are trading what they believe to be a false reality, where conservative thought or hate speech is censored on Twitter, for one that is deliberately & openly false – built from the ground up to serve a particular worldview. On the bright side, everybody in Gab is exceedingly nice to each other – one of the few positives of existing in a space with no dissenting opinions.
Of course, there are some problems with how Gab came to be. As vile as hate speech is, it’s now being conducted in a place that the people who fight it won’t go. White-nationalism is free to bloom in fertile ground, safe from interlopers who might try to nip it in the bud. While nobody wants to see this sort of thing in the more public places, it might be the only safe way to combat it. If you can’t see the enemy, you can’t fight it.
My three days exploring Gab have proved enlightening. While I never took the red pill, I was woken up to a new kind of political discourse – one conducted, for all intents and purposes, in the shadows. Safe from prying eyes, the good people of Gab will continue to spread a gospel of hatred that many Americans will take to heart. The battle for the soul of a nation has moved online – who will fight it?