The picture of the noose surrounded by swastikas was the last straw. “It’s coming for you, are you excited?” a user on Gab wrote to Utsav Sanduja. Sanduja said he was calling the cops.
But Sanduja’s promise to alert law enforcement only made his opponents angrier.
Sanduja is the chief operating officer of Gab, a social media site beloved by the alt-right, including a vocal contingent of Nazis. The company bills itself as a “free speech” alternative to Twitter and Facebook. But the site’s anything-goes ethos seems to have chafed against its leadership; in recent weeks, members of Gab’s executive team have publicly railed against the site’s users, accusing some of sabotage and “PSYOPS,” with Gab execs threatening to call law enforcement on those users—a cardinal sin among some of the site’s “free speech” die-hards.
“What am I supposed to do? Not protect myself?” Sanduja told The Daily Beast.
From its August 2016 launch, Gab was open to the fringes. The social media company says it markets to everyone, not just the alt-right. But its logo, a cartoon frog, draws unavoidable comparisons to Pepe, the cartoon frog that has become the alt-right’s most recognizable meme. Its user base, which includes plenty of innocuous accounts, also includes virulently racist members whose posts have resulted in bans from other social networks. And Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba said he launched the company in response to perceived liberal bias on other social media sites.
“What makes the entirely left-leaning Big Social monopoly qualified to tell us what is ‘news’ and what is ‘trending’ and to define what ‘harassment’ means?” Torba told BuzzFeed shortly after the launch. “It didn’t feel right to me, and I wanted to change it, and give people something that would be fair and just.”
But the fringes who flocked to Gab became some of its earliest critics, with some questioning Torba’s motives in founding the site. Members of the Gab’s large anti-semitic wing noted that its url (Gab.ai) loosely translates to a Hebrew word meaning an assistant in a synagogue, and speculated that the site was actually a ruse by shadowy Jewish forces who would one day crush Gab’s user base in some unspecified fashion.
“We're probably just being corralled,” one user wrote, accusing Torba of being Jewish. Torba (not Jewish) clarified that “Gab” is not Hebrew, and that even if he were Jewish, his tolerance for anti-semitism on the site would prove his “commitment to free speech.”
The conspiracy theorists are still on the site. If Gab is a honeypot, as they claim, they don’t mind taking the bait.
But the ambient antagonism between Gab’s execs and some of its users has exploded recently, with Torba and Sanduja alleging a conspiracy against the site, and threatening to call law enforcement on users.
Last week, Sanduja set off a firestorm on the site, after he perceived Jared Wyand (an alt-righter who was kicked off Twitter, ostensibly for claiming that Star Wars promotes “white genocide”) to to be threatening him.
“You have a false sense of security that leads to a leaky mouth in a room full of highly capable men who have their backs to the walls,” Wyand wrote Sanduja on Gab. “That’s a very large mistake but don’t let it stop you. 😉”
Sanduja replied that he was reporting the message to law enforcement.
“Obviously I saw that as a threat because it was clearly coded and was clearly designed to intimidate and suppress my right to speech,” he told The Daily Beast. “I have to look out for my own personal safety because to be frank with you, my job is very dangerous. The things I do are very dangerous. The reality that is I am trying to liberate people around the world from tyranny, essentially, speech censorship, and our team faces a lot death threats.”
Over the past week on Gab, Sanduja has shared a number of anti-Islamic posts, including one describing a rise in European babies named Muhammed as a “Jihad of the womb.”
Sanduja declined to describe how many reports Gab has made to law enforcement (he previously stated that he was reporting the person who sent him a drawing of a noose), but said that Gab had complied with law enforcement investigations in the past.
A strain of hard-right Gab users have bashed management for the reports to police, as well as Sanduja for announcing that he had blocked more than 5,000 Gab users. (To do so is anti-free speech, to hear this crowd tell it.) But Torba claims some of the police reports are false flags.
In a post last week, Torba alleged a “24/7” campaign of anti-Gab attacks including “malicious actors breaking guidelines on purpose and reporting to LEO [law enforcement officers],” and “massive PSYOPS on our company/us personally.”
(Torba doesn’t talk to the media anymore, Sanduja told The Daily Beast in a Wednesday email, 20 minutes prior to which, Torba was reposting a Gab user’s screenshot of a tweet by conservative blogger Matt Drudge berating the pharmaceutical company Sanofi for its comments on actress Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets.)
Sanduja said he and Torba think some of Gab’s Nazis are actually fake Nazis, who are just trying to make Gab look bad.
“We have seen instances where there are people who claim to be Nazis, but are in fact on the payroll of various SJW [social justice warrior] groups,” and trying to damage Gab’s reputation, he said. “We know that for a fact because we have a lot of you could say hacktivists or engineers or political activists that are actively on the darkweb and report to us on activities going on against our community and our site.”
He declined to offer the proof because “until we are fully confident with that, it would be irresponsible and premature for us to go ahead and do that.”
Unfortunately, Torba appeared to have jumped gun the previous evening, sharing a post that accused the liberal media site Shareblue of supporting fake Gab accounts.
“Shareblue has invested a lot of money into this subversion operation and I cannot for the life of me understand their end game,” the post read.
“We’ve never heard of Gab, and so I don’t have anything to add here,” Shareblue Chief Operations Officer Will Lippincott told The Daily Beast.
Well, okay, the infiltration campaign isn’t a fact-fact, Sanduja clarified.
“I’m not going to say to you that I have proof, I’m not going to say to you that this is a factual statement point-blank,” he said, “but this is really rooted in speculation, circumstantial evidence, hearsay based on a lot of reports we get from our community.”
It’s not clear, either, why Gab’s opponents need fake Nazis to fell the site, when the real thing already lives there. Members of the murderous neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen are openly on the site, as are Hitler-worshippers, genocide hype men, and architects of the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A month before allegedly spraying bear mace at people attending a seminar on anti-violent protest, a neo-Nazi shared a Gab post advocating spraying bear mace at anti-fascists. There’s no point quantifying users’ calls to violence, because they’re omnipresent on the site, and frankly boring to catalogue.
“The thing people need to take into consideration is that this company is helmed by less than one-dozen employees,” Sanduja said of the lack of action on threats made at people who aren’t Gab employees. (To his credit, Twitter has also been accused of playing favorites with its ban button, The Daily Beast previously reported.) “We have a user base of 472,000 users, so it’s actually very, very difficult to manage that kind of scale.”
So Gab has Nazis, and sometimes the errant call for genocide slips through the cracks. But Gab’s execs are convinced there’s a simultaneous conspiracy of fake Nazis, a conclusion they drew from Gab’s falling status with some far-right superstars.
“Richard Spencer used to be a prolific user of our site. He left Gab in December 2016,” Sanduja said. (Spencer was last active five months ago.) He added that Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer had become less active, that Gab had banned far-right congressional candidate Paul Nehlen for exposing another alt-righter’s personal information, and when each microcelebrity left the site, many of their fans followed.
A wave of new Nazis took their place, but Sandua doesn’t recognize them.
“We see this significant drop-off in the number of users and chatter, and then all of a sudden we start to see these strange anon accounts created a month ago pretending to be Nazis and talking about killing Jews and all this crap,” he said, calling the alleged phenomenon an interesting coincidence with Gab’s attempt to get investment approvals from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
As for Sanduja and the two users whom he says threatened him, none have quit the site, despite the real Nazis, the specter of fake Nazis, and the allegations of conspiracy—both by and against Gab.
They’re all still online, freely bickering with each other until someone calls the police.