Last year represented a breaking point of sorts for major online platforms. The swelling tide of abuse, hate-speech, and politicized misinformation finally grew too big to be ignored. But the ensuing crackdown—as painfully slow and largely ineffective as is—has led to a concurrent rise in largely-unknown sites and services clamoring to be the Most Free for free speech absolutists.
Many of these anti-“censorship” platforms and imageboards are either UI disasters or digital ghost towns that quickly fall into disuse or are flooded by spam and child pornography. What few users those sites accrue flee to so-called “bunker boards” like Endchan and Freech after their inevitable shutdowns.
Among those for whom the relative lawlessness of mainstream sites is too restrictive, the clear victor in the race to be the freest freeposting site that people actually use is Gab.ai. It has a sizable audience—it told Gizmodo in an email it has about 140,000 users—and an interface that’s far more polished than those of competitors.
Antithetical though it may be, however, even the freest free speech site has its limitations.
Since Gab’s launch in August of 2016, the Twitter-like social network—which makes use of similar reply and repost features, but with a Reddit-ish upvoting system—has attracted the likes of Milo Yiannopolis, Mike Cernovich, and a variety of other mainstays within the loose coalition referred to as the alt-right. According to CEO Andrew Torba, the impetus for building a site expressly tolerant of intolerance was “the suppression of conservative sources and stories by the incredibly biased Facebook Trending Topics team,” referring to a story Gizmodo reported last May.
A month after its launch, Wired described the social network—which intentionally limits its community size, and currently has a waiting list over 400,000 potential users deep—as “the ultimate filter bubble.”
It’s easy to see why. The trending hashtags currently are #MAGA and #Trump, and Torba’s rambling profile on the site describes him as a “patriot” who is “fighting for a better internet that puts people first and promotes free speech for all.” It ends with a Bible reference—Exodus 8:2-7—a passage related to the “plague of frogs” that catalyzed the Jewish peoples’ mythological escape from ancient Egypt. Taken in tandem with the site’s logo, a green frog, it’s hard not to see the obvious winks and nods to alt-right mascot Pepe and the clique for whom memes are a cultural weapon.
But while Gab might claim to be the most active site that lets users write whatever they hell they want, it’s still a website. Websites have guidelines, and guidelines are made to be enforced. Gab’s rules are fairly unsurprising: No doxxing, revenge porn, credible threats, spam, or selling drugs or weapons. So far, it’s already banned three users—and the long waiting list means a banned user can’t immediately return.
“One had incited calls to action and violence against President-Elect Trump, a threat we take seriously as this was worded with serious intent, immediate action and a clear plan,” Gab’s chief communications officer Utsav Sanduja told Gizmodo in an email. “Another user was banned for spreading revenge porn, something that violates our community guidelines.” Credible threats on an incoming President are definitely illegal and an increasing number of states have passed laws against involuntary pornography.
The most recent ban was leveled against the owner of a site called boycottbitches.com, which aims to convince American men to only pursue non-American women. He wasn’t banned for being narrow-minded, however—he was banned for spam, a form of speech which users are not free to engage in on Gab. While he admitted to “aggressively promoting my site,” he also unleashed a hissyfit on his personal blog, describing the average Gab user as “a racist, psychotic nutjob” and calling Torba “a mangina and hypocrite.” (Gab claims to have warned him prior to banning him, but stated bluntly in an email to Gizmodo, “spam is not free speech.”)
While this particular scrap is, in the scheme of things, unbelievably petty, it does raise the question of what happens when the network opens its artificial floodgates to those 400,000 prospective users and starts to scale. Users who show up expecting zero restrictions will surely be disappointed to learn that Gab has rules—fewer than some sites but a far cry from none—because truly unfettered speech online puts site owners like Torba at risk of a swift visit from the FBI, depending on the severity of what’s being hosted. It may well turn out that Gab’s core intent might also be its downfall.