CONTENT WARNING: The article below contains examples of hate speech, racism and general shittiness.
We Took a Look at Gab.com so You Don’t Have To!
Have you ever left a comment online and discovered it wasn’t approved? We’ve written recently about this issue, and we talked about the problem of spam, and of moderating a comment queue with a limited corps of volunteers. You should have a look when you’re finished reading this article.
What if we told you there was a hidden comment section on every page of every website on the whole internet? It’s there, hidden from the sight of most visitors, on the very first page of the internet, and on the last breaking news story on Fox.
Here at CyberPunks.com, we love privacy, we love freedom of expression and we love fancy new toys.
At first glance, the Dissenter browser seems to check most of our boxes for cyberpunk credibility: It’s based on the privacy-respecting Brave browser, but with all of the Brave specific features turned off by default. It’s very fast, it’s open source and as a special feature, it enables that hidden comment section. Any page we visit, we can see what other people think about it.
To leave your own comment, you need to join Gab.
Gab.com is The Social Network for Hate Speech
If you visited Gab.com before its facelift on September 7th, 2020, then you’d have been greeted with a login / signup screen. However, the site is little more than a reskinned Mastodon instance and is technically part of the Fediverse. It was a simple matter to dodge around the login by adding “/groups“ or “/explore“ to the base URL.
Following the update, this login screen was dropped. Presumably, this was because its effectiveness as a barrier was similar to that of a lock made of refried beans.
The new front page is open, friendly and allows readers to prowl around the special interest channels, eavesdropping on public conversations between like-minded individuals all without providing a single detail, credential or bogus email address. How very decent of them.
There are Rock n’ Metal channels, channels for veterans or those who are devoted to guns. There are a variety of Christian channels. There’s the QAnon research channel with 8,400 members. And, of course, g/The_Donald.
There’s something here for everyone – even beekeepers.
Let’s take a dive in at random.
The smoked meats group looks like a great place to start. It’s a small group dedicated to a non-offensive topic. Everyone loves smoked meats. They’re delicious, long lasting and every culture has their own version.
Sure enough, the first five or so posts I come across are wholesome as heck. There are discussions on meat consistency, types of wood, there’s a Pepe the frog meme, and then there’s this:
Perhaps a vegetarian group would have less in the way of random and rampant racism, but we were unable to find one. However, there is a user who goes by the name of VegetarianF*ggotForJesus, but he either hasn’t posted since joining in December 2019 or he has his gabs set to private.
How about a good book? Gab has a reading group with 21,700 members offering, “Good reads, Book recommendations, Book reviews, Currently reading.” It’s a lot busier than the smoked meats group, but the submission quality is lower.
The most recent post is an individual wanting people to know that he’s reading The Swiss Family Robinson. It’s a timeless classic about a Swiss family who are shipwrecked in the East Indies. Next up we have a short critique on Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together, summarised as, “It’s a history of the Jews in Russia to include the Soviet Union.” That post is a follow up to the one preceding it:
Even with Innocent Posts, Comments on Gab Will End in Racism
The ‘Learn to Code‘ group is remarkably free of rants and conspiracies. It’s full of genuinely useful advice, helpful people, and code examples. It’s a resource that I would have no problem consulting for help or even lending a hand if a question fell within my area of expertise. One of the more helpful users we spotted in there is called ItsTheJewsStupid. You probably don’t want to look at his other posts.
It’s everywhere and it’s inescapable. The experience of touring Gab.com is akin to having a conversation with someone suffering from Tourette syndrome while tripping on mushrooms. Everything is relatively normal before an explosion of foul language, racial slurs, conspiracy theories, and hate.
Gab and its Dissenter browser weren’t always like this. As recently as a year ago, there were policies governing the types of language which could be used by members. The philosophy seemed to be one of free speech with light touch governance, discouraging the worst excesses of its members.
Here’s an excerpt from the Dissenter FAQ as it was originally published: “The current and any future version will not display posts containing a small and select list of approximately 20 highly offensive racial epithets.” That clause no longer exists, but then, the existence of the very active “N#$%%rs Jews Bad News 2.0” group could have told you that.
A Brief History of Gab.com
Gab was launched in 2016 as a free speech alternative to the major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which the founder, Andrew Torba considered too left leaning and stifling of free speech.
He wasn’t wrong about the free speech. Both networks are notorious for their moderation policy, which at times seems almost entirely arbitrary.
In particular, Facebook’s army of 15,000 moderators makes the “wrong call” on content in more than 10% of cases. That’s according to Mark Zuckerberg – not us. What constitutes ‘acceptable content anyway?. Acceptable to whom?
And then there’s the old argument that “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it”. Mark Twain never said that, but it sounds good. There does need to be a space where people can say what they feel without fear of being immediately slapped with a ban. And so Gab.com was born.
If you’re booted from Facebook or Twitter for exercising your free speech, there’s a home for you at Gab.
It moved onto the Mastodon platform in 2019, and it has attracted high profile far right users from across the globe. It appears to have de-federated from the rest of the Fediverse and stands alone as an isolated instance.
Follow the links I’ve posted. Have a look around, and see which famous names you can spot.
In addition, there are regular adverts from ‘normal’ companies seeking to raise their profile on what they’ve heard is a new and interesting social media platform. Most don’t stick around for long, but they don’t delete their profiles either.
Neither a Safe Space Nor a Secret One
Here’s the thing. Gab.com is supposed to be a haven of free speech. I dig where they’re coming from with that, regardless of how abhorrent I personally find the content. There are no laws against what they’re posting (in the US at least), and they have every right to post it.
I could accept that reasoning if Gab.com didn’t have such a double standard against nudity. It’s against the community standards to “Be obscene, sexually explicit or pornographic,” or to link to any obscene content.
By and large, this seems to be adhered to. In the couple of days I’ve spent exploring Gab, I’ve seen little to no sexual content.
What’s the deal there? To create and disseminate pornography is a first amendment right guaranteed by the constitution. How come Gab, the stalwart defender of everything obscene, has policies against sexual obscenity?
Reddit, which historically has had a varied record on defending people’s right to say whatever they want, is home to an absolutely incredible amount of porn.
Could it be that the folks at Gab are prudes as well as pricks?
The recent existence of a login page also gave users a false sense of security. They felt, with no real reason, that what they were saying was exclusively for the eyes of other Gab members who share their values.
Now the site is essentially open to public scrutiny, there’s a chance that the more overtly hate-filled paranoia will be toned down a little. The change means that anyone can access the site easily and without needing to create an account. Anyone can pore over the memes, run through the posting histories of individual users and check out what’s going on in the minds of paranoid racists in their nearest cities.
There was a feeling of conspiracy and of community. Like minded people getting together in a smorgasbord of smoked meat, literature and hate. Not vegetarianism though.
We’ll be watching with interest to see if their new and refreshing openness comes with a new and refreshing attitude.
No Redemption for Dissenter
I feel I’ve exhausted everything Gab has to offer, but I absolutely love its browser, at least in principle.
I love the idea of a hidden comment section on the internet. It’s naughty and secretive, and I need to use special software to access it. It is, in my opinion, very cyberpunk.
So what’s going on today? What secret hidden messages are being posted on the not-actually-very-secret comment section?
Obviously, coronavirus is on everybody’s mind at the moment. To me, the CDC seems like a fairly credible source. It’s taken a bit of a hit recently, but surely no-one can believe that it is not fundamentally acting in the best interests of the American people.
The US presidential election is coming up in November. Take a look at the comment section for either candidate. Or the Black Lives Matter homepage.
Given the slightest opportunity to demonstrate how very, very racist they are, the Gab / Dissenter community will take it with both hands.
I started this article with an open mind. I didn’t set out to find the worst of humanity, It was just… unavoidable. I had never directly experienced the people of Gab.com and knew nothing about the Dissenter browser beyond it being a really cool idea. I really really wanted to be able to say something positive about either. That’s impossible. There really are no redeeming features.
But that’s not to say there isn’t hope.
Free Speech is For Everyone
Gab.com is a success for the extreme right because the only people who go there share their views. There are no dissenting voices that I could find, and I would imagine that most ‘normies’ who sign up realise their mistake and leave quietly. But Gab, as a platform dedicated to free speech (but not nudity), is open to everyone so long as they obey the rules. There’s nothing in the rules which states members need to be actual Nazis.
There’s nothing to stop people like you from making an account and posting about whatever you want. All are welcome.
I’m ending the article with an inspirational quote from the great Stephen K. Bannon, one of the right’s biggest supporters and former White House Chief Strategist in the current president’s administration.
“Flood the zone with shit.”