UPDATE: On November 7, the official @getongab Twitter account revealed that domain registrar Epik had received a subpoena from the Pennsylvania Attorney General requesting all documents and communications relating to Gab. An archive of the tweet can be seen here. The full text of the subpoena was shared in spite of a non-disclosure clause stating that publicizing the information could jeopardize a civil investigation. Epik CEO Rob Monster told BREAKER that he could not talk about the subpoena, but he said, “It should not have been leaked by Andrew Torba…we’re cooperating with the state AG, and that’s all I can say about that.” In a response to commenters on his original blog post about supporting Gab, Monster also hinted that the social network might be “cooking up” a “peer-to-peer payment” solution for its users.
It’s a familiar story. White supremacists and neo-Nazis use the same platforms most do (PayPal, Patreon, GoDaddy, Twitter) until one commits a hate crime that makes national news. That’s when the PayPals, the Patreons, the GoDaddys, and the Twitters respond, banning known members of hate groups and the people and platforms that facilitate their actions. Hatemongers and related groups then turn instead to decentralized alternatives, sometimes using cryptocurrencies for payments and peer-to-peer web hosting, like the Daily Stormer does.
A version of this narrative played out again after Robert Bowers shot and killed 11 congregants at the Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha synagogue in Pittsburgh’s predominantly Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood on Saturday, October 27. Using a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, Bowers killed 11 temple-goers ranging in age from 54 to 97 and injured several others. Shortly before the mass shooting, Bowers took to “free speech” social network Gab, where he wrote, “HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Two days following Bowers’ hate crime, Gab went offline. Companies offering payment services, like PayPal and Stripe, and web hosting services, including GoDaddy and Joyent, had stopped supporting the social network.
Now, Gab is back up and running—but glitchy—thanks to web hosting and domain registrar service Epik. (See Gab’s “press release to the media” below.) The social network is also raising money through an ICO on StartEngine, a crowdfunding platform that specializes in helping companies launch their own security tokens. So far, Gab has reserved more than $5.6 million from 1,830 investors willing to put their money into GAB tokens, according to its StartEngine page. But what does raising money through an ICO mean for Gab, and how does this move compare to how other neo-Nazi-friendly platforms have, let’s say it, “pivoted to blockchain”?
First, it’s important to note that Gab’s ICO fundraising efforts began before Bowers committed mass murder in Pittsburgh. The company, led by founder and CEO Andrew Torba—a former ad tech executive known to wear a green “Make Speech Free Again” hat who has in the past described himself as a “conservative Republican Christian”—submitted its ICO paperwork to the SEC on September 10, 2018. About 635,000 people had registered with Gab as of September 1, according to the filing, and 2 million GAB tokens went up for offer at the price of $5 each. Each investor has to buy a minimum of 50 tokens for a total of $250. “The proceeds of this offering will be used primarily for further development of our technology platform, including, but not limited to, the launch of new services,” the offering states.
All this activity indicates that people are rallying around a platform that claims to promote free speech but in doing so has fostered a welcoming environment for those espousing hateful views like anti-Semitism. Gab’s policy has a section on “threats and terrorism,” which notes that “Gab follows the U.S. Department of State’s definitions of terrorism and list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s proscribed list of terrorist groups, organizations and/or individuals,” so Torba is apparently keeping tabs. Gab’s StartEngine page insists that it “stands for bringing people together of all races, religions, and creeds,” and Torba even wrote on Gab that he provided law enforcement with “Bowers’s account data” after the anti-Semitic shooting.
A study titled, “What Is Gab? A Bastion of Free Speech or an Alt-Right Echo Chamber?” from early 2018 found that 5.4 percent of posts on the platform included “hate words,” a rate 2.4 times higher than Twitter’s (but lower than 4chan’s “politically incorrect board”). The study spanned August 2016 to January 2018 and looked at 22 million posts from 336,000 users, which include Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones—both of whom have been banned from mainstream platforms like Twitter. (Twitter has also suspended Torba.) Though the study doesn’t seem to specify particular “hate words,” it does list high frequency hashtags on the social network. They include “AltRight,” “FakeNews,” “BanIslam,” “MAGA,” “Trump,” “Pizzagate,” and “DrainTheSwamp.”
Torba has positioned Gab as a platform for those who feel alienated by the liberal-leaning media and internet giants like Twitter, Google, and Facebook, which have banned people who use hate rhetoric. His stance, like Gab’s story of falling out with big-name tech platforms, is familiar. Developers disgruntled by what they see as tech giants’ increasingly leftward lean have written long missives about how they’re perturbed by the “political monoculture” in Silicon Valley. Similarly, Torba wrote in an August 2016 Medium post introducing Gab, “Political correctness has risen up at the expense of freedom of speech and has become a cancer on discourse and culture [emphasis his]. We think that people shouldn’t treat unpleasant, counter-cultural, or conflicting ideas, words, or behaviors as full-scale criminal offenses.” (To be fair, getting banned from a social platform isn’t typically a criminal consequence.)
Web hosting service Epik appears to align with Torba’s views. “De-platforming is digital censorship,” CEO Rob Monster wrote in a post about how Epik has decided to host Gab.com. His post’s defense of Gab spans Ancient Greece and Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben before getting into the pros of “decentralized ownership” and how Gab is gunning for it through its Ethereum-based ICO. (Epik did not respond to BREAKER’s request for comment.)
“One of the unique features of Gab is their democratic approach to capitalization,” Monster wrote. Gab’s ICO promotes that by creating a low barrier to entry for investors—with its $250 minimum—and an easy-to-access funding page on StartEngine. Since GAB are security tokens, not utility tokens, owners won’t be able to trade them as they would most other Ethereum-based tokens. Instead, the tokens stand for equity in Gab. GAB token holders will not have any voting rights in the company, but they will be entitled dividends from “legally available funds,” according to the company’s SEC filing.
The Gab team seems to believe there’s an overlap in its user-base and cryptocurrency holders. “The crypto community inherently understands the importance of defending a free and open exchange of ideas on the web,” reads Gab’s StartEngine page. However, funding for the ICO isn’t necessarily coming in cryptocurrencies. StartEngine only accepts payments directly from banks (in the form of ACH payments), wire transfers, credit cards, and bitcoin. Once bitcoin makes it over to StartEngine, it is converted to US dollars within “about five days.” In other words, Gab’s ICO isn’t necessarily targeting cryptocurrency holders, making it more widely accessible than the average coin offering.
Perhaps that’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks well known white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and alt-right members’ bitcoin transactions, hasn’t been keeping tabs on Gab’s fundraising, as a representative from the SPLC told BREAKER. Cybersecurity expert John Bambenek, who also tracks bitcoin payments among the alt-right, said he’s been getting a lot of questions about Gab after Pittsburgh. So far, it doesn’t appear that any money has changed hands in the ICO—people have only promised certain investments through StartEngine. On Monday, November 5, Torba commented on Gab, where he has over 75,000 followers, that people who’ve committed money on StartEngine need to “reconfirm” their investments. “Please check your spam folders,” he entreated. He also wrote that Gab is currently “working on getting a new payment processor.”
Bambenek told BREAKER on November 1, “If someone wanted to de-platform Gab, they’d have to do it from StartEngine”—but this was before Epik started hosting the social network. (StartEngine did not respond to any of BREAKER’s requests for comment.)
Besides “democratizing capitalization,” Gab’s use of ICO funding brings up the possibility of donors obscuring their identities. While bitcoin transactions are transparent, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to connect them to specific users. However, since Gab filed its ICO with the SEC, donors will have to disclose their social security numbers, said Bambenek, and the SEC will at some point have access to all of Gab’s donors’ information.
Still, bitcoin payments to Gab through StartEngine could be difficult to track. Though each bitcoin transaction would generate a unique address attached to each investor, all bitcoin donations through StartEngine go to StartEngine, not directly to the startup they’re funding. “It would be hard to disambiguate, based purely on looking at the blockchain, which person is donating to which startup [on StartEngine],” said Bambenek.
Overall, white supremacists and neo-Nazis’ bitcoin activity has been quiet as of late, said Bambenek, at least “nothing big, like it used to be.” For a time after the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, during which a white supremacist killed a protestor, cryptocurrency donations among the alt-right surged. Then they died down, in part because donors realized their donations were traceable, and partly because the price of bitcoin took a dive.
Bowers’ attack left more people dead than the Charlottesville rally, but by the time it took place, many white supremacist, anti-Semitic platforms had already been “de-platformed” by major tech companies. Gab, Bowers’ social network of choice, remained, thus finding itself in a place similar to the Daily Stormer’s position a little over a year ago. Unlike the Daily Stormer, however, Gab is a home to hate speech, not necessarily a creator of it. And unlike the alt-right platforms that sought direct-to-wallet bitcoin and other cryptocurrency funding, Gab’s ICO funnels through an established crowdfunding platform and seems to be working within SEC regulations. Gab’s account on Twitter even includes a dove-with-olive-branch emoji.
Meanwhile, Gab is cultivating an image of innocence. It claims not to support hate speech and terrorism, but at the same time it provides a platform for Daily Stormer head Andrew Anglin. Offering a platform for violent speech isn’t the same as condoning violence, but it’s not a strong rejection of it, either.
“Mr. President, hate speech leads to hateful actions,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life said to President Trump when he visited Pittsburgh shortly after the mass shooting, according to CNN. “Hate speech leads to what happened in my sanctuary, where seven of my congregants were slaughtered. I witnessed it with my eyes.”
Pittsburgh shooter Bowers used Gab to broadcast his desire to “kill Jews.” They were just words when he wrote them. It remains to be seen what kind of words Gab’s “new services,” to be funded through its ICO, will embolden.