From Silicon Valley elite to social media hate: The radicalization that led to Gab
Like many young entrepreneurs drawn to California's technological gold rush, Andrew Torba brought a familiar mix of smarts, ambition and big ideas when he arrived nearly four years ago.
What few saw was that Torba -- an advocate of traditional, Christian values amid secular Silicon Valley -- was frustrated and increasingly alienated. Those emotions, he would later say, helped inspire his creation of Gab.ai, the freewheeling social-media platform that has become an online hub for racists, anti-Semites and white nationalists.
Among them would be a troubled, middle-aged trucker, Robert Bowers, whose hateful rants against Jews appeared on the site in the months before he allegedly killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue Oct. 27. Messages on a Gab account bearing Bowers' name and image have turned a harsh spotlight on the site, which went offline Sunday as some long-standing partner companies such as GoDaddy and PayPal backed away from Torba's creation.
Torba said he and his site are blameless for the alleged actions of Bowers. Torba said the shooting is a "horrific tragedy" and that he's working with law enforcement to "see to it that justice is served."
He also has grown increasingly testy with journalists exploring extremism on Gab, writing in an email to The Washington Post on Monday, "To attempt and place blame on me or Gab is absurd and you know it."
Gab has become the most visible of a collection of services catering to people whom mainstream companies such as Twitter and Facebook have rejected as too hateful, extreme or threatening in their posts as part of a crackdown on extremism. The Pittsburgh tragedy has made Torba a key voice in growing debates over free expression and hate speech -- and whether technology companies are making the right decisions over whose voices get heard and whose get muted.
Gab's Twitter feed -- which Torba has acknowledged often writing himself -- Tuesday morning linked to an anonymously written blog post calling mainstream journalists "the Satanic mafia." Torba is chief executive of Gab, which has only a handful of employees, and controls 90 percent of its shares, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings.
His dark turn is now an indelible part of the history of online radicalism in the U.S. In a series of emails with The Washington Post on Monday, Torba described his disenchantment with Silicon Valley.
It was a place he moved to in 2015 to develop an advertising technology startup he had co-founded in his native Pennsylvania. But just a year later, Torba came to believe the tech mecca was hostile to him and his political ideas amid the tumultuous rise of his preferred candidate for president, Donald Trump, whose combative rhetorical style Torba sometimes echoed.
"I became incredibly disillusioned after only one year living and working with some of the 'top names' and companies," said Torba, 27. (He has since moved back to Pennsylvania.)
"These are not good people," he added. "Many of them hate America and freedom. They are authoritarian cultural marxists. Some, many of whom I am still friends with, are great people who I love, but the overwhelming majority are egomaniacs lusting for power and wealth."
Gab said in financial filings this spring that its target market was the more than 50 million "conservative, libertarian, nationalists and populist internet users around the world," and that its competitors included far-right sites such as Breitbart and Infowars.
"As mainstream social networks continue to crack down on 'objectionable content' and censor conservative views," the company said in an SEC filing, "we believe the need for alternative platforms will only continue to rise."
In little more than two years, Torba and his site have won acclaim among conservative circles, clashed with tech industry insiders and ridden a wave of growth by cultivating customers that others have shunned. They've also been kicked out of Google's app store and parted ways with Microsoft, its data hosting service, after the tech giant in August lashed out at anti-Semitic comments from Gab users.
Like much of its user content, Gab's own messages sometimes raise questions about whether they cross the line into impropriety. A post from Gab's Twitter account in June replied to a tweet suggesting that there should be no national borders by writing, "Let a bunch of Somalians migrate to your neighborhood and see if you change your mind," according to an archived version of the tweet.
Another post, from September, showed the images of two men, one with the traditional sidelocks worn by many observant Jews. "These two guys show up at your front door. Who do you let in and who do you call the cops on?" tweeted the Gab account. It soon after replied in a second tweet, "I mean I'm calling the cops on both and getting my shotgun ready, just saying."
When asked about these postings, Torba initially questioned their authenticity and suggested they might be doctored images. Later, he said they were "clearly satire/comedy ... to get people discussing the importance of free expression for satire, comedy, political discourse, and legitimate criticism." Later, Gab's Twitter account described them as "a few edgy tweets posted by interns."
-- -- --
Gab's most infamous user now is Bowers. He wrote on his Gab site that Jews "are the children of Satan." His last post before the shooting Saturday said, "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
Torba has said he's working with law enforcement on the case and has staunchly defended Gab against growing criticism that it aids and abets radicalization. "Gab did nothing wrong and has nothing to apologize for," Torba said. "We proactively and immediately worked with both the FBI and DOJ. I am on three hours sleep because my number one priority, even ahead of getting Gab back online, is helping law enforcement see to it that justice is served for this horrific tragedy."
The site prohibits content that is illegal, such as child pornography, or features specific threats of violence, but does not prohibit bullying and hate speech, as most mainstream platforms do. One post showed an infant wearing a Jewish yarmulke with a knife poised over its head. The caption read, "7 places you can stab a Jew baby without killing it."
Torba needed "to essentially build a movement" to attract users and media attention, said Joan Donovan, a researcher for the think tank Data & Society, who has studied Gab. "He was always building a platform for people who feared they could not say what they wanted to say on Facebook or Twitter."
It's a puzzling turn of events for those who remember Torba from his pre-Gab days.
"I don't know what in God's name happened to the young man. I really do not know what happened to him," said Richard Yarmey, who taught Torba in an entrepreneurship class at the University of Scranton in 2011. "Based upon things he's quoted as saying ... I just scratch my head and say what happened to this bright young man that I used to think highly of?"
-- -- --
Torba grew up in the faded coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania, where his father worked as a FedEx courier, according to his LinkedIn page, and said he dreamed of being an entrepreneur since eighth grade. (FedEx declined to comment, and Torba's father, reached via Twitter, said, "Your vision should be laser focused on the madman shooter, not my son.")
As a philosophy student at the University of Scranton, he wrote for the college paper, criticized then-President Barack Obama and, according to one former professor, showed a strong affinity for Ralph Waldo Emerson's ideas of self-reliance and independence -- becoming particularly taken with a quote of Emerson's about the importance of speaking frankly, ideals that course through tech culture.
He yearned for a more traditional life, said Utsav Sanduja, an executive at Gab until earlier this year, who described Torba as a Bible-quoting Christian who is "very deeply spiritual."
But Silicon Valley called to Torba. With a friend, he started a technology company called Kuhcoon that helped customers run ad campaigns on Facebook. And when the founders won a competition to join the prestigious Y Combinator boot camp for startups, Torba was ecstatic at the prospect of gaining access to more than $100,000 in capital and an elite network of entrepreneurs and investors.
"Scranton will always be our home," Torba wrote on Medium on New Year's Eve 2014, announcing his move to Northern California for the three-month program, "but Silicon Valley has always been our destiny."
Things didn't go as Torba had imagined.
Colleagues from that period at Y Combinator remember Torba and his co-founder, a friend from eighth grade, as mild-mannered and largely unremarkable. The ad-tech company they founded wasn't in the top of that year's batch of startups, but they won respect for their hard work, said two people who worked with him at the time, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
But impressions changed rapidly when, as Trump was emerging as the leading Republican presidential contender in the spring of 2016, Torba started publicly supporting him and making comments that other Y Combinator members say they found offensive. Torba also took his frustrations to Twitter, calling out Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, who was no longer very involved with the organization, and its liberal president Sam Altman.
On a "shoestring budget," Torba and a very small team launched Gab that August, said Sanduja, Gab's chief operating officer from October 2016 to June 2018. Gab arrived amid a wave of social-media bans for prominent white nationalist and far-right users such as Milo Yiannopoulos, who was booted from Twitter after encouraging a series of racist verbal abuse and became one of Gab's first big names.
Gab built its audience by marketing itself as a "censorship-free" refuge for users who believed they had been victimized by what it called the "cancer" of political correctness. The app's logo was a frog that resembled the far-right meme Pepe, and the app made a croak sound every time a user received a new notification.
"Our mission was very noble from the very beginning: We genuinely believe in free speech. It's not our fault that ... neo-Nazis joined our site," Sanduja said. "Gab happened to have these people, they happened to congregate, happened to engage in tomfoolery and the rest is history," he said.
But in the emotionally raw days after Trump's election in November, Torba clashed with fellow Y Combinator entrepreneurs in the organization's close-knit alumni network. Torba posted a screenshot on Twitter of comments made by a Latino Y Combinator member on Facebook, expressing fear for the safety of women and minorities, and added, "Build the Wall."
The post sparked a heated discussion within the Y Combinator community on Facebook. Torba jumped in and reiterated his call to "Build the wall" before calling fellow members of the Y Combinator community "cucks" -- a pejorative description common in far-right circles.
"Take your morally superior, elitist, virtue-signalling ... and shove it," Torba wrote in a profanity-laced post on Facebook. "I call it like I see it, and I helped meme a President into office, cucks."
Shortly after, Torba received a call from Y Combinator's general counsel notifying him of the decision to kick him out of the alumni network for harassing other members.
Torba said he was kicked out because of his support of Trump and his tweet to build the wall and said his comments were not threatening. "Y Combinator supports the feelings of their international, non-US founders (which they have a vested equity interest in) over the national security of the United States of America. That's very telling," Torba emailed to the Post.
Y Combinator declined to comment.
-- -- --
Gab's clashes with Silicon Valley did not hurt his business. Rather Torba positioned the platform as an alternative for those feeling oppressed by what he called "Big Tech."
When Google fired conservative engineer James Damore in August 2017 for making degrading comments about women, Gab called for a "Free Speech Tech Alliance," a movement among engineers to build an alternative online infrastructure free of the liberal values of Silicon Valley.
In the days following the "Unite the Right" rally Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, as technology companies cracked down on white supremacist accounts, Gab reiterated its call to create a parallel Internet for people who have been banned from other services.
Andrew Anglin, creator of the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer, began posting frequently on Gab, according to reports at the time. The site exploded with new, pseudonymous users posting viral misinformation, hate speech and memes that echoed white-supremacist or anti-Semitic tropes -- what Donovan called "an echo chamber of the most disgusting content offered online."
Google then banned the service from its app store, saying that "social networking apps need to demonstrate a sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and advocates hate against groups of people." In response, Gab sued the search giant.
But the bans and crackdowns haven't curbed Gab's growth. There are now about 800,000 users, said Sanduja, compared with 10,000 two years ago. The company's few employees are all under 30 and number less than half a dozen, including Torba and his wife, Sanduja said.
But there are signs that the company's fractious public image has taken a toll on its leadership. Ekrem Buyukkaya, a Turkey-based developer who co-founded Gab with Torba, said on Sunday he would step down as the company's chief technology officer because of "attacks from the American press." The company had previously said in an SEC filing that Büyükkaya's work was crucial to its "future success." Büyükkaya did not respond to requests for comment.
The growth of Gab's fan base, however, has helped fund an aggressive expansion designed to bring new users into the fold. In a SEC filing in March, Gab said it had more than $600,000 in cash, up from $16,000 in 2016, and had made $100,000 in revenue, primarily from subscriptions.
One week before the shooting in Pittsburgh, the company said it had raised more than $1 million from users over the previous month.
On Tuesday, the University of Scranton appeared to distance itself from its graduate. "As a Catholic and Jesuit university, we condemn hate and violence," President Scott R. Pilarz wrote.
University of Scranton theology professor Maria Johnson recalled Torba as bright, enthusiastic and kind. He contacted her when she had cancer several years ago, and she attended his wedding earlier this year.
"My impression I guess is that his dedication to free speech has led him to hang with some really bad company," Johnson said. "But I find it hard to imagine that Andrew was malicious in any way."
-- -- --
The Washington Post's Andrew Ba Tran contributed to this report.