From Silicon Valley to social media: The radicalization that led to Gab

From Silicon Valley to social media: The radicalization that led to Gab

The man accused of opening fire at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27 linked to anti-Semitic comments on Gab, an online hub for racists, anti-semites and white nationalists. (Gene J. Puskar / AP)

Like many young entrepreneurs drawn to California's technological gold rush, Andrew Torba brought a familiar mix of smart, ambitious and big ideas when he arrived nearly four years ago.

Torba – an advocate of traditional Christian values ​​amid secular Silicon Valley – which is frustrated and increasingly alienated. Those emotions, he would later say, helped inspire his creation of Gab.ai, the freewheeling social media platform that has become an online hub for racists, anti-semites and white nationalists.

Among them would be a troubled middle-aged trucker, Robert Bowers, whose alleged hateful rants against Jews appeared on the site in the month before he was married to a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday. Messages on a Gab account Bowers's name and image have been turned down on the site, which went offline Sunday as some long-standing partner companies search as GoDaddy and PayPal backed away from Torba's creation.

Torba said he and his site are blameless for the alleged actions of Bowers. Torba said that the shooting is a "horrific tragedy" and that he is working with law enforcement to "see to it that justice is served."

So he has grown increasingly testy with journalists exploring extremism on gab, writing in an email to The Washington Post on Monday, "To try and place blame on me or is absurd and you know it."

There have been a lot of bad news on this topic as well as Twitter and Facebook have dismissed as being hateful, extreme or threatening in their posts as part of a crackdown on extremism. The Pittsburgh tragedy has made a key voice in growing debates over free expression and hate speech – and which technology companies are making the right decisions.

Torba is chief executive of Gab, which has only a handful of employees, and controls 90 percent of Its shares, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

His dark turn is now an indelible part of the history of online radicalism in the United States. In a series of emails with The Post on Monday, Torba described his disenchantment with Silicon Valley.

He was co-founded in his native Pennsylvania. But just a year later, Torba came to believe the tech mecca was hostile to him and his political ideas Tommy sometimes echoed.

"I became incredibly disillusioned after just one year living and working with some of the 'top names' and companies," said Torba, 27.

"These are not good people," he adds. "Many of them have America and freedom. They are authoritarian cultural marxists. Some, many of whom I am happy friends, are great people who I love, but the overwhelming majority are egomaniacs lusting for power and wealth. "

Gab said it was more than 50 million "conservative, libertarian, nationalist and populist internet users around the world" and that its full-featured, far-right sites like Breitbart and Infowars.

"As mainstream social networks continue to crack down on objectionable content and censor conservative views," the company said in SEC filing, "we believe the need for alternative platforms only continues to rise."

Shunned. In just over two years, Torba and his site have shunned. They've been kicked out of Google's app store and parts with Microsoft, the site's data-hosting service, after the giant tech in August lashed out at anti-Semitic comments from users.

Like many of their user content, Gab's own messages sometimes raise questions about whether they cross the line into impropriety. A post from Gabon's Twitter account in June replied to a suggestion that there should not be any national borders by writing, "Let a bunch of Somalians migrate to your neighborhood and see you," according to archived version of the tweet.

Another post Office, from September, showed images of two men, one with the traditional sidelocks worn by many observant Jews. "These two guys show up at your front door. Who do you let in and who you call the cops on? "Tweeted the gab account. It's just a quick reply, "I mean I'm getting the cops on and getting my shotgun ready, just saying."

When asked about these postings, Torba initially questioned their authenticity and suggested they might be doctored images. Later, he said they were "clearly satire / comedy. , , to get people discussing the importance of free expression for satire, comedy, political discourse, and legitimate criticism. "Later, Gab's Twitter account Described them as "a few edgy tweets posted by interns."

****

Who's most infamous user now is Bowers, who faces more than two dozen federal charges. He allegedly wrote on his gab site that Jews are "the children of Satan." He said, "I slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in. "


A post allegedly by Pittsburgh Synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers on Gab before the massacre. HIAS, mentioned in the posting, is a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps refugees find safety and freedom around the world. (AP)

Torba has said he's working with law enforcement on the case and has staunchly defended GW against growing criticism that it aids and abets radicalization. "Gab did nothing wrong and has nothing to apologize for," Torba said. "We proactively and immediately worked with both the FBI and DOJ. I am on three-hour sleep because of my number one priority, even ahead of getting back.

The site prohibits content that is illegal, such as child pornography, or that specific threats of violence, but it does not prohibit bullying and hate speech, as most mainstream platforms do. One year old boy wearing a Jewish yarmulke with a knife poised over his head. The caption read, "7 places you can stab a baby without killing it."

Joan Donovan, researcher for the think tank Data & Society who has studied Gab. "He was always building a platform for people who feared they could not say what they wanted to say on Facebook or Twitter."

It's a puzzling turn of events for those who remember Torba from his pre-gab days.

"I do not know what in God's name happened to the young man. I really do not know what happened to him, "said Richard Yarmey, who taught Torba in Entrepreneurship at the University of Scranton in 2011." Based on things he's quoted as saying. , , I just scratch my head and say what happened to this bright young man?

****

Torba grew up in the Faded Coal Country of Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he worked as a FedEx courier, according to his LinkedIn page, and said he's dreamed of being an entrepreneur since Eighth grade. Torba's father, reached via Twitter, said, "Your vision should be laser focused on the madman shooter, not my son.")

As a philosophy student at the University of Scranton, he wrote for the college paper, criticized then-President Barack Obama and, according to one former professor, showed a strong affinity for Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance and independence – becoming especially taken with a quote from Emerson's about the importance of speaking frankly, that's the course through tech culture.

He is a very traditional person, said Utsav Sanduja, at executive at Gab until earlier this year, who described Torba as a bible-quoting Christian who is "very deeply spiritual."

But Silicon Valley called to Torba. Kuhcoon has started working on Facebook. Torba was ecstatic at the prospect of gaining access to more than $ 100,000 in capital and an elite network of entrepreneurs and investors.

"Scranton always wants to be home," Torba wrote on New Year's Eve 2014, announcing his move to California for the three-month program, "But Silicon Valley has always been our destiny."

Things did not go as Torba had imagined.

Torba and his co-founder, a friend from eighth grade, as mild-mannered and largely unremarkable. The ad-tech company said they were in the top of that year's batch of start-ups.

Torba started to support him and make his comments Y Combinator members say they are offensive. So Torba took his frustrations to Twitter, calling out Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, who was not very involved with the organization, and his liberal president Sam Altman.

Gab said August, said Sanduja, Gab's chief operating officer from October 2016 to June 2018. Gave arrived on a wave of social media bans for prominent white nationalist and far-right users searched as Milo Yiannopoulos, who was getting married from Twitter after encouraging a series of racist verbal abuse and became one of Gab's first big names.

It has been "censorship-free" for some time. Refugees for those who have heard of the "cancer" of political correctness. The app's logo is a frog that resembles the far right meme Pepe, and the app makes a croak sound every time a user receives a new notification.

We genuinely believe in free speech. It's not our fault that … neo-Nazis joined our site, "Sanduja said. "Happened to be congregate, happened to engage in tomfoolery and the rest of your life," he said.

But in the emotionally raw days after Trump's election in November, Torba clashed with fellow Y Combinator entrepreneurs in the organization's close-knit alumni network. Torba posted on image made by a Latino Y Combinator member on Facebook, expressing fear for the safety of women and minorities, and added, "Build the Wall."

The post sparked a heated discussion within the Y Combinator community on Facebook. Torba jumped in and reiterated his call to "Build the wall" before calling fellow members of the Y Combinator community "cucks" – a pejorative description common in far-right circles.

"Take your morally superior, elitist, virtue-signaling …. and shove it, "Torba wrote in a profanity-laced post on Facebook. "I call it like I see it, and I meme a president into office, cucks."

Shortly after, Torba received a call from Y Combinator's general counsel notifying him on the decision to kick him out of the alumni network for harassing other members.

Torba said he was kicked out because of his support of Trump and his words were not threatening. "Y Combinator supports the feelings of their international, non-US founders (which they have a vested equity interest in) over the national security of the United States of America. That's very telling, "Torba emailed to the Post.

Y Combinator declined to comment.

****

Gab's clashes with Silicon Valley did not hurt his business. Rather Torba has positioned the platform as "Big Tech."

When Google fired Conservative Engineer James Damore in August of 2017 for making degrading comments about women, Gab called for a "Free Speech Tech Alliance," a movement among engineers to build an online alternative infrastructure of the liberal values ​​of Silicon Valley.

In the days following Charlottesville's "Unite the Right" rally in August 2017, as technology companies cracked down on white-supremacist accounts, gave it a parallel Internet for people who have banned from other services.


The "Unite the Right" rally at Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 drove more users to Gab. (REUTERS / Stephanie Keith / File Photo)

Andrew Anglin, Creator of the Neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, started posting on Gab, according to reports at the time. The site exploded with new, pseudonymous users posting viral misinformation, hate speech and memes that echoed white-supremacist or anti-Semitic tropes – what Donovan called "an echo chamber of the most disgusting content offered online."

Google then banned the service from its app store, saying that "social networking apps need to demonstrate a sufficient level of moderation, including content that encourages violence and advocates against groups of people." In response, Gab sued the search giant.

But the bans and crackdowns have not been curbed by Gab's growth. There are now about 800,000 users, said Sanduja, compared with 10,000 two years ago. Torba and his wife, Sanduja said. The company's employees are all under 30 years old.

But there are signs that the company's fractious image has taken a toll on its leadership. Ekrem Büyükkaya, a Turkey-based developer who co-founded Gab with Torba, said on Sunday he would step down as the company's chief technology officer because of "attacks from the American press." The company has previously stated that in SEC filing that Büyükkaya's work was crucial to its "future success." Büyükkaya did not respond to requests for comment.

The growth of Gab's fan base, however, has helped fund aggressive expansion designed to bring new users into the fold. In a SEC filing in March, said it had more than $ 600,000 in cash, up from $ 16,000 in 2016, and had made $ 100,000 in revenue, mostly from subscriptions.

One week before the shooting in Pittsburgh, the company Said it had raised more than $ 1 million from users over the previous month.

On Tuesday, the University of Scranton. "As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we condemn hate and violence," president Scott R. Pilarz wrote.

University of Scranton theology professor Maria Johnson recalled Torba as bright, enthusiastic and child. He contacted her when she had cancer several years ago, and she attended his wedding earlier this year.

"My impression I guess that's his dedication to free speech has led to some really bad company," Johnson said. "But I find it something malicious in any way."

Andrew Ba Tran added to this report.

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