Facing a call for criminal investigation into his platform’s role in last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, the CEO of Gab, a self-branded “free speech” social media site that heavily pitches itself as an alternative for conservatives disillusioned with Facebook and Twitter, told Forbes he won’t accept blame for the deadly violence.
Andrew Torba, the co-founder and CEO of Gab.Andrew Torba
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) called for the federal government to investigate Gab and CEO Andrew Torba to determine whether the platform “intentionally aided” individuals who carried out the Jan. 6 attack in a Wednesday letter, citing posts in which Torba told users “heading to DC” to record “video footage in landscape mode” in anticipation of “communist violence” and wrote (he claims in earnest) that it “would be a real shame if the people outside stormed the Senate.”
Torba denies culpability in the attack and insists his platform did a “phenomenal job” of mitigating violent content in the weeks prior, flagging and reporting to law enforcement a notable increase in posts threatening public officials that began to accumulate in early December (Torba declined to say which law enforcement agency Gab worked with or how many times it reported users or posts, citing an “ongoing investigation”).
“We’ve been removing this stuff for weeks and weeks, working 18 to 20 hours a day to make sure no illegal activity, no threats of violence are happening on Gab,” said Torba, who instead deflected attention toward the bigger social media sites, claiming it was “organized using Facebook’s technology, not Gab’s.”
The #StopTheSteal rally that devolved into the Capitol siege was at least in part planned on Facebook—though Facebook has been quick to also blame Parler and Gab—but it’s also true that many Gab posts slipped through the cracks of what Torba described as a no-tolerance ban on violent content, which the site leaves largely up to community members to flag.
The ADL’s Center for Extremism, which has been tracking activity on Gab, sent Forbes multiple posts still live on Gab’s site dating back to December 2020 that include calls to “storm the capital,” “make citizens arrests of these criminals” and “do violence.”
“I can send you several violent posts that are still on Twitter,” Torba countered when asked about these posts, which appear to violate Gab’s policy of “no threats of violence, no pornography, no doxxing, no spamming” (hate speech is protected by the Constitution and is therefore allowed on Gab, per Torba).
Among the top 10 most populous groups on Gab are three dedicated to Trump, three dedicated to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which purports that a deep-state, satanic cabal of Democrats and Hollywood figures are orchestrating a child-trafficking ring President Trump wants to expose, and one dedicated to “Stop The Steal,” a movement of those who falsely believe the 2020 election was rigged against Trump. These groups have anywhere from 100,000 to 190,000 members each.
“There’s a difference between lawful First Amendment-protected speech and violence, which we have always had no tolerance for,” said Torba. “I’m not going to censor lawful, First Amendment-protected speech.”
It’s this unwavering anti-censorship approach that’s causing Gab’s troubles, says Sarah Roberts, a professor of information studies at UCLA, who specializes in social media content moderation. A platform “like Gab that has very much self-defined as being a right-wing alternative to, say, Twitter and other social media platforms,” runs into problems, she say, because if its community members, responsible for the site’s moderation, are “comfortable with anti-Semitism and right-wing invective and instigation of violence... how will that be reported?”
Gab appealed directly to the mass exodus of users either disillusioned by mainstream social media’s constantly tightening regulations, which led to the near-uniform expulsion of President Trump’s accounts over the past week, or displaced by de-platformed right-wing social media sites like Parler. Torba claimed in a Wednesday post Gab had clocked over 52 million visits in the past week and 1.7 million new users in the past four days (Forbes has been unable to independently verify this claim). The Gab website has been so overwhelmed by the influx of new customers that it struggles to load and often crashes. Gab first drew heavy public scrutiny in 2018 after it was revealed that Robert Gregory Bowers, the 46-year-old who killed 11 people and wounded six others at a Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, had frequently posted anti-Semitic comments on the platform, and even indicated that he planned an attack.
Gab was dropped by its hosting provider and shunned by several payment processors after the synagogue shooting, driving it temporarily offline. From there, the site decided it would depend on no one. “We built our own web browser, we built our own servers, we built our own social network, payment processor … everything that they got us banned from, we built our own and they couldn’t stop us,” said Torba.
What To Watch For
Gab—and competitor Telegram—may see an even greater boost in popularity as Parler’s CEO told Reuters on Wednesday his platform may never be able to get back online after it was dropped by Apple, Amazon and Google’s hosting services.