Free speech is a fraught concept because, legally speaking, it exists to protect the things we least want to hear. But on social media platforms, companies decide what falls within their guidelines, and they don’t need to protect the freedom to inflame.
So alt-right figures can be banned from popular platforms. But banning someone on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter—or suspending them, as happened to conservative actor James Woods—doesn’t mean they have to resort to whispering into the wind. There are platforms happy to accommodate hate and racism. There there is always somewhere to go next, as evidenced by the fact that Carl Benjamin, the prospective UK Independent Party (UKIP) candidate for southwest England in the European parliamentary elections, has migrated to Gab after being ousted from Twitter in 2017.
UKIP is a far-right party, and its leaders are now urging supporters to join them on Gab, which describes itself as “a social network that champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online.” While “all are welcome” on Gab, the platform appeals to the far right especially because there are no limits on hate, misogyny, or racism. Gab was the platform of choice for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Robert Gregory Bowers, who is accused of killing seven people during Shabbat services last October and was briefly down before resuming operations.
Mark Meechan, a UKIP candidate for Scotland in the European elections, is also a Gabber, and recently wrote: “looking forward to the day sites like this finally take over,” according to The Guardian. Meechan once taught a dog to do a Nazi salute at the sound of the phrase “gas the Jews” and uploaded videos of this to YouTube.
Meechan is not alone in his desire to see Gab and platforms like it grow. The former leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, who calls himself a “white rights fighter,” was ousted from Facebook and has taken to Gab and Telegram, “the new platform of the damned,” as Spectator puts it. Suspecting he’ll be ejected from Twitter next, he urged his followers to follow him “and help build the free speech resistance.”
Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart News editor who is vociferous about his distaste for Islam, is also on those platforms. He was kicked off of Instagram and Facebook recently and took to Telegram to drop the n-bomb in his first posting while describing himself as “oppressed.” (He is white.)
The alt-right is taking the position that supporters are victims of political correctness and crusaders for the last remaining vestiges of liberty. Last month, Google and Mozilla, makers of the browsers Chrome and Firefox, respectively, blocked users’ ability to add a Gab browser extension called Dissenter. The extension allows a parallel comment section to any web page on the internet, allowing commenters to avoid oversight by moderators. In response, Gab founder Andrew Torbin issued a statement saying the companies “want to destroy free expression online,” The Daily Beast reported.
The far right have plenty of places to go when they are no longer welcome on mainstream platforms—like Parler, Minds, MeWe, and BitChute, among others. If the most vocally hateful leave Facebook and its ilk it may be more pleasant for others. But it also means the majority of people won’t see how busy extremists are gathering followers on alternative social media, where they don’t have to speak in code or worry about bans at all. This will give the false impression that they’ve been declawed when they clearly have not been, and it gives rise to concerns that some may be contemplating actions more dangerous than inflammatory speech, safe in the shadows of the alternative internet.