Soon after Robert Bowers was accused of walking into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killing 11 people, Gab, the social media platform where he’d railed against immigrants and called Jews “the children of Satan,” took down his account and moved to distance itself from the racist shooter.
Gab has a “zero tolerance policy” for violence and terrorism, founder and CEO Andrew Torba claimed. Bowers, Torba argued, was an aberration on the platform, not reflective of its broader culture.
That is demonstrably false. Since launching Gab in 2016, Torba has openly courted racists. When those racists flocked to Gab and predictably promoted violence on the platform, Torba either ignored the threats or actively encouraged the behavior. Bowers was not an anomaly on Gab — he was emblematic of the hateful ideology that is rampant on the site.
Torba, who likes to portray himself as a free speech warrior under attack by big tech, liberals and the media, describes Gab as a censorship-free version of Twitter. But as Gab’s CEO, he has rooted for prominent racists, vilified minorities, fetishized “trad life” in which women stay at home with the kids, and fantasized about a second American civil war in which the right outguns the left. And despite Torba’s supposed commitment to free speech, Gab often blocks its critics on Twitter and rails against journalists.
White supremacists and members of the alt-right like Gab because Torba speaks their language: People who learn to embrace far-right politics have been “red-pilled,” people who know what’s going on are “based.” Even Gab’s logo is a nod to white supremacists: The green frog is clearly reminiscent of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character that became popular in racist memes.
Torba, who declined to be interviewed, wasn’t always sending those sorts of signals. Four years ago, he was an aspiring entrepreneur who looked up to tech giants like Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. He moved from Pennsylvania to California when his digital advertising startup was picked for an influential Silicon Valley accelerator called Y Combinator in 2014. He was the kind of millennial startup bro who blogged about the importance of turning off your phone and enjoying the moment, yoga, meditation and diet detoxes. He seemed basic but earnest. He wrote about being bullied as an overweight kid and about losing “an older brother figure” to suicide. He shared his poetry about love and travel. He blogged for HuffPost.
But as a conservative and a Christian, Torba didn’t feel like he fit in in the Silicon Valley. In mid-2016, his startup fizzled out, Bloomberg reported last year. Around the same time, Torba “came out” as a Donald Trump supporter on Facebook. He posted a link on to a blog he wrote in support of the then-Republican presidential candidate. Some of the people who were in Y Combinator with him were shocked. “Whoa. You’re voting for Trump?!” commented one woman, who requested not to be named out of fear of being doxxed. “Omgggggg dude wtf.”
He launched Gab in August 2016. The same month, he professed his fandom for Paul Nehlen, a white nationalist who ran and lost against Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in Republican primaries in 2016 and ran again this year. “This dude is so much cooler than sell out shill Paul Ryan,” Torba wrote of Nehlen. “He’s tatted up, rides a motorcycle, and challenged Paul Ryan to an arm-wrestling match because he refuses to debate and is a soft-boy loser. I hope he wins.”
A few months later, Torba was kicked out of Y Combinator for harassing other members and calling them “cucks.” Torba said at the time that he was kicked out of Y Combinator for supporting Trump and not being a billionaire like Peter Thiel.
Throughout 2017, Torba boosted racists and fascists as moral figures of authority. In February, he pointed to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad — who has become an unlikely icon among American white nationalists for slaughtering his own people — as definitive evidence that refugees are terrorists.
As Gab grew, Torba promoted a Canadian supporter of eugenics, a British conspiracy theorist who posts incoherent videos about George Soros and ISIS helping Africans pretending to be refugees get into Europe, and a far-right troll who was eventually banned from Lyft and Uber for complaining about “Islamic immigrant” drivers.
Last December, when Nehlen told a dual Israeli-American citizen who called for gun reform that she should leave the U.S. because she was only loyal to Israel — a common anti-Semitic trope — Torba reposted Nehlen’s tweet on Facebook, and wrote “B A S E D,” a term racists often use to approvingly describe other racists.
By 2018, Torba had moved from reposting white supremacists to sounding his own warnings about threats to the white race. In March he referenced a favorite white nationalist conspiracy theory about a supposed white genocide in South Africa at the hands of the country’s black majority.
That same month, he predicted that his political allies on the right would win the next American civil war because they have more “guns, land, natural resources, and alpha males.”
By mid-2018, some of Gab’s executives seemed to fear their own users. Anti-Semitic Gab users had questioned whether Torba was Jewish and theorized that the site’s url “gab.ai” was related to “gabbai,” the Hebrew word for an assistant in a synagogue. Utsav Sanduja, Gab’s chief operating officer at the time, told the Daily Beast he planned to report Gab posts he viewed as threats to him to law enforcement. He left the company and deleted his Gab account soon after, citing threats against him and his wife, who works at a synagogue.
As Gab attracted more white supremacists, journalists and analysts started opening their own accounts as a way to track the far-right movement and cultivate sources. Michael Edison Hayden, a former Newsweek reporter who covered white nationalism, told HuffPost that being active in Gab helped his reporting — but it also made him a target for neo-Nazis who didn’t like his coverage.
Hayden put up with death threats from Gab users for months. But the threats got worse after a gunman killed five people in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Maryland on June 28. The next day, Hayden appealed directly to Torba to do something about the Gab users threatening violence against him and his family. Cops had installed cameras outside his mom’s house after someone threatened to bomb the place, Hayden wrote to Torba in a direct message. “That is Gab. That is how people will remember Gab imo,” he wrote.
Torba didn’t respond. Instead, Torba posted parts of the private conversation on Gab, Hayden said. Chris Cantwell, the so-called “crying Nazi” who pleaded guilty in July to assault and battery at last year’s white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, responded to Torba’s post with a threat of his own: “By the way, cameras don’t do much to prevent crimes. They just record evidence, and masks are cheap. Perhaps you should stop making dangerous enemies.”
About a week later, a Gab user with an account made to look like Hayden’s posted addresses and phone numbers tied to him, his parents and his sister. “I blame my parents for my faggotry,” the user wrote. “Please contact them and let them know what a piss poor job they did raising a libtarded, tranny loving, nigger licker cuck like me. Also, my sister in LA is giving up free pussy to niggers, kikes, and shitskins as an apology for her white privilege. Use her back gate and please quietly wait your turn in line. Thanks.”
Torba didn’t take down the post until almost a full day later, Hayden said. And the threats didn’t stop. Hayden, who is now an analyst at Storyful covering extremism and disinformation, emailed Gab support three times last month to report a post with a photo of the corpse of Alan Berg, a Jewish talk radio host who in 1984 was murdered in his driveway by members of a neo-Nazi terrorist group called The Order. “This isn’t a game or a talk show for us. This is real life. You can make jokes like a dishonest faggot or you can try to understand. Either way …” Gab user “@LibertarianNationalist” wrote. “The Order did nothing wrong. 1488,” the post continued, a reference to the white supremacist “14 words” and “Heil Hitler.”
Torba, who claims to have zero tolerance for violence, left the post up, Hayden said.
As Gab came under increasing pressure for providing a haven to violent racists, Torba became more open about his own views. In August, he went on an anti-Semitic rant after Microsoft gave him an ultimatum: Remove a pair of posts from neo-Nazi and failed Republican Senate candidate Patrick Little calling for torturing Jews to death and the “complete eradication of all Jews” or lose access to Microsoft’s cloud computing service. Luckily for Torba, Little volunteered to take down his posts to save the site. But Torba’s takeaway from the whole debacle was that Jews hate freedom. He went after Brian Krassenstein, a liberal Twitter star who wrote about Gab’s feud with Microsoft and called for Gab to be shut down.
“Dude named ‘Krassenstein’ doesn’t support free speech. Imagine my shock,” the Gab Twitter account, which appears to be managed by Torba, posted. “Maybe you should move to Israel or something. In America we have this thing called the First Amendment, Gab tweeted at Krassenstein. Gab has since deleted the tweets.
Mixed in with the anti-Semitism and fearmongering about refugees, Torba often posted on social media about his Christian faith. In September, he posted a picture on Facebook in which he appeared to be reenacting a very literal interpretation of a biblical Psalm about fighting evil with a bow and arrow.
Two hours after the crossbow cosplay, Torba argued on Facebook that diversity is incompatible with democracy. He posted a picture that suggested he had actually read and highlighted a book on European nationalism — but it appears that he actually just copy and pasted the image from someone on the internet.
After the shooting on Saturday, Gab Chief Technology Officer Ekrem Büyükkaya stepped down. He blamed attacks from the media for his decision.
Gab went offline Monday after an array of internet service companies abandoned the site. Joyent cut off cloud hosting services, GoDaddy threatened to pull the domain, and Stripe and PayPal said they would stop processing payments — something activists had urged the payment processors to do for months.
Torba has vowed to get his site back online, but he’s also been busy doing damage control. Gab has deleted some of its most damning tweets, and Torba set his Facebook page to private. He spent the weekend frantically explaining why he shouldn’t be blamed for the Pittsburgh massacre, veering between desperation and defiance: Don’t judge all of Gab by one bad apple, we’re cooperating with law enforcement, people still like us, don’t be an authoritarian, we regret nothing, attacking us only makes us stronger, there’s bad guys on Twitter and Facebook too, the Gab account tweeted.
But some of Gab’s top users couldn’t resist reminding the world that they’re just like Bowers. Patrick Little suggested Jews were to blame for the Pittsburgh attack and admitted that he has fantasized about killing Jews. Chris Cantwell suggested the shooting didn’t even happen. Both men were regulars on the platform. And for a monthly fee, Torba let them call themselves members of “Gab Pro.”
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article said Andrew Torba spoke of losing an older brother to suicide. It was someone he described as “an older brother figure.”