Note: this essay deals with a peripheral aspect of the horrible attack on Tree of Life Synagogue this past weekend. It is not about that attack, but about the response by Gab, a social media platform frequently used by the alleged attacker. I urge you to support Tree of Life in any way you can; if you’re unsure how, you can start here.
If you go to Gab’s homepage right now, you won’t find a social media site, but a three hundred word statement by CEO Andrew Torba. It’s a fascinating read. I’d like to delve into it a bit and see what observations I can make.
It starts out in a manner I’d expect of any statement made by a company peripherally involved in recent criminal activity: vaguely saying that they are cooperating with federal law enforcement agencies to provide whatever evidence is needed in the case. Then it almost immediately begins to sound a bit goofy. “We are the most censored, smeared, and no-platformed startup in history, which means we are a threat to the media and to the Silicon Valley Oligarchy.” There’s a lot loaded into that sentence there, so I’d like to break it down.
Immediately there’s some dubious claims being made. The most censored startup in history? Gab has existed for a few years, and it’s been allowed to operate until just the past few days. A bit censored, maybe, depending on their definition of censorship — after all, they clearly aren’t talking about the strictest definition, which would mean government restriction of speech. But the most in history? I’d love to see what methods they used to research this. In history, there have been many violent campaigns to silence various movements and institutions by burning their literature and brutally assassinating their leaders. Do none of them stack up to what has been done to Gab by the liberal media?
Even considering this might be true, the conclusion — “which means we are a threat to… the Silicon Valley Oligarchy,” is another reach. I can concede the existence of an electronic media oligarchy, which is why I believe strongly that net neutrality should be protected. However, I object to concluding that Gab is a threat to that oligarchy only because they are widely maligned. Even if we accept that Gab is being censored by the powerful elite media entities, censorship isn’t always calculated to protect the entity doing the censoring, and it doesn’t always target the largest threats when it does. Sometimes authoritarian enforcement is random, and functions to scare the general public into submission. And sometimes, telling someone to stop what they’re doing is just a response to that person being disruptive and unpleasant to others. “I don’t like what you’re doing” doesn’t always translate directly to “You are a threat to me.”
Further down the page the statement reads, “You have all just made Gab a nationally recognized brand as the home of free speech online.” And I have to wonder, who are you talking to, Mr. Torba? To be clear, this statement is not addressed to any specific person or group, or even a bland address like “Dear Interested Parties”. It opens cold. I have read this over and over and I have no idea who “you” in this sentence is supposed to refer to. The statement is on Gab’s homepage, so literally anyone looking up Gab for any reason is going to find this, and be treated to this… gratitude? It’s hard to characterize it as such, since the tone of the whole piece is dripping with scorn. It goes against an important principle of good business communication: keep in mind who you’re talking to, and tailor your message to them. This is a blanket statement made to everyone who happens to visit Gab’s homepage, and yet the message it conveys seems to be written for a much more narrow audience that is not clearly identified.
Tolba goes on to claim that “80% of normal everyday people agree with Gab and support free expression and liberty.” I’m immediately skeptical of any statistic cited without a source, and there is no source provided for this one. But beyond that, there’s a lot of ambiguity about what this statistic is measuring, exactly. What does it mean to “support free expression and liberty”? Is this, perhaps, referring to a survey in which one of the questions was “Do you support free expression and liberty?”
For that matter, who does Tolba consider “normal everyday people”? It’s not a trivial question, because there are many common definitions of “normal” that exclude a lot of people, including people like me. Some people may see this phrase and assume it means essentially everyone, and thus will take this 80% figure as the vast majority of everyone. Others may look at this and see certain populations — for instance, minority communities — excluded by default, because they are not “normal”. Thus, if it turns out that significantly less than 80% agree with Gab, Gab can turn around and say of its opposition “They don’t count, because they’re not mainstream.” The sentence is effectively impossible to verify or even to interpret as a statistical claim.
“People are waking up, so please keep pointing the finger at a social network instead of pointing the finger at the alleged shooter who holds sole responsibility for his actions.” This is one of the most convoluted and confusing sentences in the whole piece. It seems to be saying several things at once, none of which seem to have much to do with one another. The first clause, about people “waking up,” seems to be a continuation of the previous claims about “80% of normal everyday people”. But then it goes back to making specific assumptions about the reader, by implying that they’re the one “pointing the finger”. It also engages in a kind of sarcastic reverse psychology that I’m seeing more and more of in conservative rhetoric: “Please keep doing the thing I’m criticizing you for doing.” In a formal statement by a company in response to a public relations crisis, sarcasm is rarely appropriate or effective. It’s condescending, it’s contemptuous, and it undermines clarity. The tone of the statement says “We’re being unfairly blamed for this,” but the words Torba has chosen say “Keep up the good work!” It’s hard to tell if he’s relishing the attention or reluctantly responding to an unfounded accusation. Since earlier in the statement he says that Gab has been made a nationally-recognized brand, I’m thinking this might be exactly the situation he’s been hoping for. Since eleven people are dead and he’s responding with sarcasm, that doesn’t exactly say much in his favor.
Torba further challenges Gab’s alleged censors, “You can’t stop an idea.” And I find that interesting coming from an organization vocally committed to protecting freedom of speech. If it is, in fact, impossible to stop an idea, then there would be no reason to oppose censorship. After all, “if the most censored, smeared, and no-platformed startup in history” is still “a nationally recognized brand”, then maybe their particular battle isn’t really worth fighting. Unless, of course, there is some movement they want to promote through their particular acts of speech — a movement with an agenda and goals other than just speaking. But if that’s the case, then it would be wrong to say that their policy is simply to protect freedom of speech. If your main goal is to fight censorship, then why would you celebrate the fact that you have been censored? What are you after, Andrew Tolba? What are you hoping to achieve here, really?
My overall reaction is that Tolba’s statement reads like a paranoid, self-important screed against an indistinct and ill-defined collection of supposed persecutors. Nothing between its first and last sentences says anything verifiable or even particularly meaningful, but it’s nonetheless loaded down with emotional appeals and shoddy logic. Yet, what little I know of Gab’s user base suggests that they would be reading this and shaking their collective fists at the authoritarian, freedom-hating liberal media. After all, when Gab positions itself as the sole defender of freedom, what does that say about literally every other media platform available? Gab is absolutely not a neutral party in the political landscape, but by refusing to claim any political agenda other than protection of free speech, they are presenting a clear political message about all other media entities, regardless of their diversity of missions and philosophies. Their message is “If you’re not with us, you’re against us, and if you’re against us, you’re going to lose.”
So much for freedom.