So­cial net­work Gab draws ‘alt-right’

Kuwait Times - - TECHNOLOGY -

NEW YORK: Squeezed out of Twit­ter and other so­cial me­dia web­sites crack­ing down on hate speech, far-right ac­tivists are find­ing a home on a new plat­form that promises never to cen­sor content. Launched in Au­gust, Gab has be­come known as a safe haven for the “alt-right” move­ment dom­i­nated by the white su­prem­a­cists who are help­ing fuel Amer­ica’s deep­en­ing po­lar­iza­tion. The so­cial net­work cur­rently has 100,000 mem­bers and an­other 200,000 on its wait­ing list, ac­cord­ing to the com­pany. “All are wel­come to speak freely,” spokesman Ut­sav San­duja says.

Gab is un­able to ac­com­mo­date all those who want to join, he adds, be­cause it is still in its test phase. The so­cial net­work’s rise comes amid Twit­ter’s sus­pen­sion of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists for pur­port­edly pro­mot­ing racist and ha­rass­ing com­ments. One of the new “Gab­bers”, Richard Spencer, heads the white su­prem­a­cist Na­tional Pol­icy In­sti­tute, whose ac­count Twit­ter has sus­pended. Spencer, whose “Hail Trump” com­ments were seen as evoca­tive of the Nazi era, joined the Twit­ter ex­ile along with Milo Yiannopou­los, ac­cused of fo­ment­ing a so­cial me­dia cam­paign against the African-Amer­i­can ac­tress Les­lie Jones.

Ris­ing Ac­ri­mony

Gab’s ap­pear­ance fol­lows the launch two years ago of an­other free-speech la­beled plat­form, Voat, which has had lim­ited suc­cess. But the new site comes amid es­ca­lat­ing ten­sions and ac­ri­mony over pol­i­tics in so­cial me­dia. Some say the new guide­lines for ma­jor plat­forms rep­re­sent an ef­fort to curb ha­rass­ment and hate, oth­ers call it cen­sor­ship. Red­dit, an on­line news and mes­sag­ing board, an­nounced last month that it would crack down on “toxic users” in an ef­fort to curb some in­cen­di­ary com­ments from sup­port­ers of Pres­i­den­t­elect Donald Trump. “We have iden­ti­fied hun­dreds of the most toxic users and are tak­ing ac­tion against them, rang­ing from warn­ings to time­outs to per­ma­nent bans,” Red­dit chief Steve Huff­man wrote.

Gab mean­while pledges no cen­sor­ing or fil­ter­ing, al­low­ing users to post mes­sages of 300 char­ac­ters, com­pared to Twit­ter’s 140-char­ac­ter limit. Head­quar­tered in the Caribbean is­land An­guilla, Gab is “boot­strapped,” or self­fi­nanced, with some do­na­tions from the “Gab com­mu­nity”. De­spite its user base, Gab de­nies hav­ing a po­lit­i­cal agenda. “Gab is for every­one and our mis­sion is to chal­lenge cen­sor­ship on a global scale,” San­duja says. “Whether it is from au­thor­i­tar­ian gov­ern­ments per­se­cut­ing their own peo­ple, po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect cit­i­zens en­gag­ing in peace­ful and civil dis­course or whistle­blow­ers in estab­lish­ment in­sti­tu­tions seek­ing a safe refuge, Gab will al­ways be there for them and the peo­ple.”

Overtly racist

Al­though the plat­form’s terms pro­hibit calls for vi­o­lence or “ter­ror­ism”, many mes­sages on the site are overtly racist or anti-Semitic. That re­flects the be­lief of Gab’s founders “that free speech is a fun­da­men­tal right, one that is ab­so­lute and can­not be vi­ti­ated in any way,” San­duja says. That means “a free ex­change of ideas” on the site “with­out pro­scrip­tion”. In­stead of cen­sor­ing content, Gab en­ables its users to fil­ter their news feeds by block­ing mes­sages with cer­tain key­words or from spe­cific users. San­duja points to the startup founders’ back­grounds as a re­flec­tion of di­ver­sity.

He is a Cana­dian Hindu with roots in In­dia. The other co-founders in­clude Ekrem Buyukkaya, a Mus­lim of Kur­dish ori­gin, and Andrew Torba, the chief ex­ec­u­tive who calls him­self a “Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive”. How­ever, that kind of sym­bol­ism does lit­tle to mol­lify the con­cerns of those wor­ried that ser­vices such as Gab keep users in­side “fil­ter bub­bles” that re­in­force their own ideas and block out other view­points.

“The ser­vice that they have cre­ated is an echo cham­ber for ex­tremely con­ser­va­tive opin­ions,” says Lau­ren Copeland, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of the Com­mu­nity Re­search In­sti­tute at Bald­win Wal­lace Univer­sity. “It may be open to every­body, but it cer­tainly doesn’t ap­peal to every­body.” — AFP

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