By Jordan McSwiney and Greta Jasser
Gab.com is an alternative social networking platform closely associated with the so-called ‘Alt-Right’. Since its public launch in 2017, Gab has provided a safe space for all manner of online far-right communities, a significant portion of which place themselves squarely in the ‘#MAGA’ camp. Our research shows the important role it has played in connecting supporters of President Trump across the ideological spectrum.
As one of the biggest platforms of the broader ‘Alt-Tech’ movement – an assortment of alternative digital platforms embraced by the far-right – Gab explicitly markets itself as the alternative to what its founder Andrew Torba calls the ‘left-leaning Big Social monopoly’ of Facebook and Twitter. Gab mimics the microblogging format of Twitter and adds the ranking functionality of Reddit. However, what really distinguishes the platform is its almost non-existent content moderation. Users are free to post whatever they like, with the exception of private information that would identify other people (doxing) and child abuse material.
It is this absolutist approach to ‘free speech’ that has made Gab not only a haven for white supremacists and the so-called ‘Alt-Right’, but for tens of thousands of Trump supporters who believe they are being ‘censored’ on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. As our ongoing-research into the far-right communities on Gab highlights, this sense of persecution is the reason why many join the platform, while an overarching shared sense of victimhood – whether as members of a ‘white race’, free-speech absolutists, or Trump supporters – unites the broader community.
Our findings therefore challenge popular perceptions of the platform as one used principally by the ‘Alt-Right’ and neo-Nazis. While many of the most prominent accounts on Gab do fall into these brackets, their audience is in fact largely self-described Trump supporters and Right-Libertarians. ‘MAGA’ was the most frequently used term on Gab between August 2016 and January 2018. ‘Trump’ came third, (right after ‘Twitter’) and ‘Trump Supporter’ was the most frequent combination of terms.
These findings are consistent with our own regarding the structure and population of these communities. Although our research set out to uncover and qualitatively analyse only the most explicitly extreme far-right communities, Trump related content and accounts nevertheless ended up the most prominent groups in our analysis.
This underscores the important overlap between the ‘mainstream’ and the extreme, or what has been described elsewhere as the ‘Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline’. In effect, Gab serves as a space which connects ‘regular’ Trump supporters to figureheads of the Alt-Right and leading neo-Nazis. At a time when Trump’s relationship with major social media platforms continue to sour, and an election looming, Gab not only offers a safe space for the President’s supporters to coalesce online, but also a potentially dangerous space for radicalisation.
Jordan McSwiney is a PhD candidate in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, Australia. His research focuses on the far-right, with an interest in their ideology, organising practices, and use of technology. Jordan’s research has been published in Information, Communication & Society and Journal of Australian Political Economy. On Twitter @jordan_mcswiney.
Greta Jasser is a PhD student at Leuphana University Lüneburg, and a research associate at University of Hildesheim, Germany. She researches far-right and misogynist online networks, with an interest in technology, platforms, affordances and ideologies. On Twitter @GretaJasser.
This article is republished with permission from the October 2020 edition of e-Extreme (Vol. 21, No. 3). e-Extreme is the newsletter of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Standing Group on Extremism & Democracy.