It’s quite surreal to see a Tweet from the official White House account filtered by a warning stating that its content violates rules on glorifying or promoting violence.
Of course, it’s not surprising that the censored tweet came from the official White House account; flagrantly offensive content inciting hate and division has become the unfortunate criterion for social media posts from the current President over the past four years. But what is noteworthy is that the Tweet was censored at all.
Twitter and its CEO, Jack Dorsey have taken the controversial step in tackling misleading information from world leaders on the site, by tagging potentially erroneous information and filtering inflammatory remarks. Trump previously seemed above being held to account for his comments online, and some will praise this as an action well overdue, while others will criticise the censorship such a move promotes.
That discussion is certainly one to be had, but what’s curious to me is the potential rise this move gives to certain other, smaller social media platforms and the increased motivation these sites have in wafting their platform under Trump’s nose and the noses of his supporters. Americans are rightfully proud of their First Amendment, but for many, Twitter’s actions threaten this, and fuels interest in alternative sites where such restrictions are non-existent.
Gabbing the attention
One of those alternative sites is Gab. Gab is a social media site heavy on the promotion of the First Amendment, free speech, and the right to post essentially whatever you like. Naturally, it has become known for its accumulation of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, with the gunman in a 2018 synagogue shooting being an active user.
It has grown by almost 1 million monthly visits since November 2019 with 3.5 million hits in April, 62% of which are Americans. The top destination sites of users include Breitbart News, (far-right news site), the Daily Mail, and Zero Hedge, (right-leaning financial blog).
One of their biggest referrers is InfoWars, the conspiracy fuelled right-wing baby of Alex Jones (banned from most social media sites), who has previously announced his aversion to tap water, asserting that chemicals are being used in the water “that turn the freakin’ frogs gay”. This should give you an idea of the company they keep.
To understand the content offering of Gab, I created an account and explored the trending topics and top comments from its users. What is supposedly a utopia of free speech is the most venomous pit of vitriol you are ever likely to come across.
Under a trending article on Gab about the African American Mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, who had been critical of President Trump, the top comments include:
- “imagine voting for that thing hahaha. Chicago gets what it deserves”
- “Whorie Lightfart is a stupid sheboon. We give ZERO shits what she says.”
- “Fuck you Jogger!* No human cares what the fuck a sub-human offshoot has to say. Monkey in a suit. LOL It was funny back in the day, now it is a sick joke.”
- “Fuck you, Lori Lightfoot, you fucking made-up-name, fucking cunt!”
Notice the use of the word “jogger” to describe the African American Mayor. This is a trend across many commenters on the site when referring to black people; a thinly veiled substitution for the “n word” emerging from the recent story of an African American jogger, Ahmaud Arbery being shot and killed by two white men in Georgia.
Similarly, an article on American football player and activist Colin Kaepernick’s reaction to the recent murder of George Floyd saw top comments such as:
- “Who the fuck cares what this mutant thinks? Who says his opinion is important?”
- “I can wait to react to Colon Krapsondick death.”
- “Round up these rioters and put them on a slow boat back to Somalia!”
- “Kneeling is now a white supremacists gesture. White people should start kneeling at Nascar to support the police.”
These kind of comments are prevalent throughout the site.
Many people can be seen echoing Trump’s penchant for giving those he disagrees with bizarre nicknames (“Nazi Barbie” in relation to Taylor Swift). Many are frothing with an uninhibited violent rage (“Set the police loose. Beat these Leftist scum to DEATH! Smash their skulls. I want to see brain matter. KILL THEM ALL! And then visit their families homes! KILL KILL KILL KILL KILLL!”). And many are just pure embodiments of toxic masculinity, puffing their chests out and flexing their muscles behind their screen, reeking of insecurity and a paralysing fear of those opposing them and stripping them of their rights.
It says a lot about Trump’s Presidency that the above described social media site is begging for him to join them.
Fuelled by Twitter’s latest actions against him, Gab have been tweeting under most of Trump’s posts, seeking to drive his supporters to their platform, while regularly encouraging their own users to message Trump and his campaign in an effort to persuade him to come on board.
But they’ve now even taken the step to create a verified Gab account for the President himself, which they say is “reserved” for him, and where his “uncensored” Tweets are posted:
“This account is reserved for the President of The United States of America, Donald J Trump. All posts will be mirrored here from Twitter and uncensored. If you want to see the President join Gab, send him a message and let him know!”
Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale has previously said that he’s “all for a Twitter replacement” and “not against Gab”, but would the campaign be keen to so shamelessly embrace such an extreme platform?
Indeed, they believe the self-promotional tactic is working. They posted on 29th May that “230,000 people came to Gab in the last 24 hours” and as they continue their push to reel right-leaning Trump supporters in, this number may continue to grow – Trump or no Trump.
Highlighting a Real Issue
What can we therefore learn from the platform?
Gab see themselves as the future. They want to overtake and replace Twitter which they see as a broken platform full of liberal elites who stifle free speech and suppress their views. However, the fact that Gab is made up of painfully narrow, far-right minds, actually degrades their mission to promote free-speech, an 18-month study found.
William Adler, associate professor of political science at Northeastern Illinois University said: “Unfortunately, Gab’s stated mission of totally free speech creates an environment in which significant hateful and divisive rhetoric flourishes and paradoxically impedes debate.“
But there is another mission that Gab is also unintentionally promoting. The whole purpose of the site is to protest the fact that their right-wing views are being oppressed, constrained and trampled by mainstream social networks and indeed society as a whole. Gab recently Tweeted in defence of their platform: “Free speech communities surface uncomfortable truths that everyone is already thinking, but no one says in day to day life out of fear of having their lives destroyed for stating the obvious.”
That has an important strain of truth to it. Many deny that racism is a problem in America, yet when a platform exists in which its users feel no fear of judgement and consequences for what they say, the community apparently turns into a festering bog of hate and racism. That hate and racism may be “stating the obvious” to its users, but the very fact that they feel so passionately in need to unload that sizzling malice demonstrates so very clearly the institutionalised racism present in society that needs addressing and tackling.
I suspect this specific uncomfortable truth is not the one Gab was designed to surface, but it’s the one they have nevertheless. Trump’s embrace of Gab – if it happened – would not be a surprise, but it would embolden a platform beholden to an antagonistic base, and is one to look out for, especially as some sections of the mainstream Republican Party continues to shift right.