Upstart social network Gab.ai is just over three weeks old, but it's adding thousands of people to its waitlist every day by promising them almost total freedom of speech.
Gab, founded by Silicon Valley-based Trump supporter Andrew Torba, is promoting itself as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter, which are both trying to find a balance between free speech and the inflammatory discourse such freedom sometimes begets. Facebook, which relies on users to flag objectionable content, has temporarily removed political speech multiple times, later chalking it up to glitch and error. Twitter seems caught between reining in harassment and giving people room to speak freely on its platform.
Gab’s message seems to be resonating, at least with some people. As of this week, the social network has 12,000 users, with another 42,000 on its waitlist. It's registered more than 2.7 million pageviews on 240,000 posts, with people spending an average of 12 minutes on the site each time they log in. The site is built on a follow model, and people can upvote or downvote the posts they see from people they follow in a central feed. Posts with the most upvotes are collected in a popular tab within Gab.
As of now, you could put Gab in the category of an Ello or Peach, social networks that grew temporarily popular when they debuted, but faded as alternatives to the big, established platforms. Torba, formerly the CEO of ad-tech company Automate Ads, just resigned from that job in an effort to give Gab a shot to move past that. He’s building the platform, along with 3 other people, with no outside funding.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Torba wrote that his frustration with existing social networks’ content moderation policies was one catalyst for creating Gab. “What makes the entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly qualified to tell us what is ‘news’ and what is ‘trending’ and to define what "harassment" means?” he said. “It didn't feel right to me, and I wanted to change it, and give people something that would be fair and just.”
At the moment, Gab feels like a conservative chatroom. Some popular posts from earlier this week include: “Everytime Hillary coughs, the souls of her victims escape her body,” and “I will not attack any Liberals until they say stupid shit.” It also appears that Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative writer who was permanently suspended from Twitter in July after his attack on actress Leslie Jones, has joined Gab. Yiannopoulos did not respond to a BuzzFeed News email seeking to confirm that the account is indeed his.
But Torba said the platform isn’t meant just for those of one ideology. “Gab is not FOR any particular group of people, political leaning, race, beliefs, or anything,” he wrote. “Anybody is welcome to express themselves on Gab.”
To deal with the inevitable harassment that occurs on the social web, Gab offers a number of features, including keyword filtering and user muting. And Gab plans to verify any user who presents a valid form of ID to confirm their identify. Users will be able to choose whether or not they want to see posts from verified users only. “We’re placing the onus on the user to handle harassment, and we’re giving them the tools to handle harassment themselves, as opposed to us taking an editorial stance,” Torba said. Both Facebook and Twitter have compelled users to remove posts in the past.
Despite its strict freedom of speech policies, Gab has some guidelines: Users can’t make threats of violence, post illegal pornography, or expose personal information without that person’s consent. None of its users have been banned to date, Torba said.
And though far from a surefire hit, Gab may be more than simply a blip. The United States is in the midst of a contentious Presidential election, and some conservatives feel a growing unease on Facebook and Twitter, platforms they see as being biased. If anything, Gab’s early, ideologically-narrow success plays into a larger trend in social media: people are moving towards smaller groups.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.
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