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Parallel Ports. Sociotechnical Change from the Alt-Right to Alt-Tech: Online Actions and Offline Consequences in Europe and the US

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Abstract

How have digital tools and networks transformed the far right's strategies and transnational prospects? This volume presents a unique critical survey of the online and offline tactics, symbols and platforms that are strategically remixed by contemporary far-right groups in Europe and the US. It features thirteen accessible essays by an international range of expert scholars, policy advisors and activists who offer informed answers to a number of urgent practical and theoretical questions: How and why has the internet emboldened extreme nationalisms? What counter-cultural approaches should civil societies develop in response?
Parallel Ports
Sociotechnical Change from the Alt-Right to Alt-Tech
Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
Before the insurgence of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ into contemporary politi-
cal discussion, white supremacists have long used the internet as a means
to organize and share information. Early adopters of email and bulletin
board technology – organizations such as the Aryan Nation and the Ku
Klux Klan – saw great possibilities for using networked communication
technology to circumvent social, physical and legal restrictions on the ex-
pression of racism and antisemitism. Sites like Aryan Liberty Net (1984)
and Stormfront (1995) provided early platforms for the sharing of racist
propaganda, novel means of organization and recruitment, and new tools
to harass and intimidate vulnerable populations (Berlet 2008). The in-
creasing ubiquity of online communication has allowed white suprema-
cist groups to grow and transform, preserving the movement’s knowledge
and tactics for decades.
More than a tool for communication, social media platforms are in-
creasingly condemned for supporting the organization of a broad base of
white supremacists. One key event, The Unite the Right Rally, held on
August 2017 in Charlottesville, North Carolina, was organized by a broad
coalition of white supremacists, many of whom were highly active online.
This violent gathering led to the death of Heather Heyer and the injury of
dozens of others. Much of the subsequent criticism lodged against social
1 | According to the Associated Press Style Guide, references to the “Alt-Right
should always be in quotes. For more information, see: https://blog.ap.org/be
hind-the-news/writing-about-the-Alt-Right
2 | Southern Poverty Law Center (2015): “Stormfront: A History”, 25 March 2015
(https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2015/03/25/stormfront-history).
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50 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
media companies concerned the failure to enforce their own ‘Terms of
Service’ contracts in the lead up to the rally. Corporations such as Goo-
gle (including Youtube), Twitter, Facebook, Cloudflare, GoDaddy, AirBnB,
Uber, Paypal, Discord, Patreon, and others reacted by ‘no platforming’ (i.e.
refusing services) known white supremacists account holders.
The event revealed a fissure across platform companies’ terms of ser-
vice and their willingness to enforce them. Platform companies showed a
commitment to ethical use by banning far-right and extremist accounts,
which was debated in the media as a form of censorship. In this case, the
actions by internet companies prompted a significant change in far-right
organizing: the Alt-Right suddenly needed the support infrastructure of
an ‘Alt-Tech’ movement. One of the organizers of the Charlottesville rally,
Tim Gionet (aka Baked Alaska on social media) told the LA Times: “We’re
getting banned from using payment-processing services, so we have no
other choice. If that’s the gamble they want to take, I guess they can, and
we’ll make our own infrastructure” (Pearce 2017). This question of infra-
structure emerges for social movements in the face of particular obstacles,
and Donovan (2018) argues that this infrastructural turn happens when a
movement’s very survival is threatened.
Therefore, while no-platforming eorts have raised public awareness
of online hate speech and racist organizing, they have also necessitated the
development of alternative platforms to prolong the life of the movement.
We argue that these so-called ‘Alt-Tech’ platforms also serve as recruit-
ment and organizing sites for the far right, allowing for direct communi-
cation and continued engagement. All of which begs the question: what
shifts in the sociotechnical organization of networked communication
have enabled extremist communities to flourish? We take up this question
by exploring how alternative sociotechnical systems have developed after
the violence in Charlottesville.
In computer science, parallel ports were an early hardware solution
for connecting peripherals, allowing for multiple streams of data to flow
simultaneously. The concept of parallel ports as a type of forking (i.e.
changes in the organizational flow of information to allow for process-
ing dierent streams of data) is embedded within the design of tech-
nical systems and the open source movement (Kelty 2008). It is also
an important frame for understanding the maturation of networked
social movements as they are both structured by and structuring their
own technological infrastructure (Donovan 2018). By porting the social
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Parallel Ports 51
movement community from one platform to another, movement leaders
are making decisions about what technological features are necessary to
sustain the movement.
We use the figure of parallel ports here to analyze the development of
alternative platforms. We ask: is the ‘forking’ of the Alt-Right’s techno-
logical development driven by a need for stabilization? Or, is it the case
that the alternative technology developed in the wake of Charlottesville
is something fundamentally dierent? In this article, we describe the de-
velopment of a social media platform called Gab to show how technology
was used by the Alt-Right to align with other online movements. While
there are points of anity where these movements have overlapped, we
describe how the design and widespread adoption of Gab, a small online
social media platform, rose in prominence after the riot in Charlottes-
ville. Gab sought to bridge these movements not only to expand its user
base but also because technology is a movement unto itself. Technological
change is often intertwined with social movements learning to use the
technology and innovating at the margins of utility (Mattoni 2013; Don-
ovan 2016). As such, mapping technological change and the adoption of
new technologies by social movements is a critical site for understanding
sociotechnical systems designs and their challenges.
TAC T iCAl innoVATion ACRoss The AlT-RighT
And AlT-TeCh
Doug McAdam (1983) explains the process of social movements’ deve-
lopment and decline through a theory of tactical innovation. In order to
develop and to reach their goals, social movements must understand the
broader political context in which they are positioned and devise tactics
accordingly. Violent and disruptive tactics have a higher success rate than
more institutionalized routes (Piven/Cloward 1991), but to achieve success
these disruptive tactics must change often (McAdam 1983; Piven/Cloward
1991). The transformation of tactics either leads to legitimate power or the
insurgents must develop new forms of disruptive protest (McAdam 1983).
In order to study social movements in this way, McAdam develops
three concepts that emphasize the relationship between movements and
counter-movements: tactical innovation, tactical adaptation, and tactical
interaction. Tactical innovation refers to “the creativity of insurgents in
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52 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
devising new tactical forms,” i.e. an initial action. Tactical adaptation is
“the ability of opponents to neutralize these moves through eective tacti-
cal counter,” i.e. the responding action. Tactical interaction is the process
through which these actions are understood and oset, much like a chess
match (McAdam 1983: 736).
But, how does a social movement choose its tactics and decide on a
course of action? The political opportunity structure is key to understan-
ding how a movement’s chosen tactics are limited to the legitimate and
illegitimate means available to meet a desired goal. Holly J. McCammon
(2003) illustrates how political defeats, factionalism, and the limitation of
particular resources led in some cases to tactical stasis and in other cases
provided an impetus for tactical innovation. As well, a movement’s orga-
nizational readiness, its ability to mobilize resources and communicate
tactics, often shapes what tactics they have in their repertoire.
Kim Voss and Rachel Sherman (2000), Melissa J. Wilde (2004), and
Marshall Ganz (2000) have called attention to tactical innovation as it re-
lates to the biography of a movement’s leaders. While some measure of
charisma must always be present for leadership to be eective, successful
leaders often have aliations with other movements, coupled with strong
alliances both inside and outside the movement, and the ability to inno-
vate to reach their desired outcomes.
In the case of the Unite the Right rally, we see the field of political op-
portunities opened wide for white supremacists in the lead up to and fol-
lowing Trump’s 2016 election. Not only was the national media receptive
to their messaging and dedicated a large amount of resources to covering
their movement, but Je Sessions became the Attorney General, whose
agenda was highly focused on other racialized issues, such as tracking
the gang MS-13 across borders and labelling Black Lives Matter as ‘Black
Identity Extremists.’ Within Charlottesville itself, the political gains of the
Black Lives Matter movement included renaming Lee Park as Justice Park
and removing the large statue of Robert E. Lee.
The Alt-Right, led by Richard Spencer and other charismatic figures
popular on social media, chose Lee Park to stage the Unite the Right rally
to protest the removal of the statue. This would also draw in counter-pro-
testers who wanted to protect their earlier wins. Here, Spencer’s choice
to rally in Charlottesville was a tactical innovation that sought to produce
a confrontation with local activists in order to gain media attention. In
May 2017, prior to the Unite the Right rally in August, Spencer and others
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Parallel Ports 53
held a torch-lit protest in the same park. This protest got significant media
coverage, despite the event itself being rather low-energy with only a few
dozen people in attendance. By organizing events Spencer brought in new
recruits and created alliances with new groups, mainly militias, who want-
ed to share the media attention.
Online recruitment for the Unite the Right rally depended largely on
sharing digital fliers and memes. Spencer enrolled speakers from several
other white supremacist organizations who raised funds so their mem-
bers could attend. The mass rally was the most significant call to action
across the US white supremacist movement in years. The organization of
the event relied heavily on the belief that for the movement to grow and
continue to influence politics, members had to show up in person. While
communication about the event online occurred on every prominent so-
cial media platform, certain sites were key conduits of information, such
as 8chan, discord chats, altright.com, and the Daily Stormer (a white na-
tionalist message board) along with podcasts such as the Daily Shoah,
Alt-Right Radio, and Youtube channels by Baked Alaska and others. The
event itself was organized to bolster the leadership of several charismatic
figures. The goal was to rebrand the image of the white nationalist move-
ment as one with a youthful and rebellious vision. If they were too timid
to face potential violence or could not aord to travel, others were asked to
participate online.
The simultaneous use of multiple platform companies’ products
coupled with lesser known communication tools as their movement’s in-
frastructure ensured that if one line of communication were shut down
the event could still carry on. Online video streams from far-right public
protests are often closely followed in discussion threads as they happen,
so it was not surprising that when a major act of violence occurred in
Charlottesville, online participants jumped at the opportunity to impact
the course of events by manipulating media narratives in an attempt to get
journalists to blame their political opponents.
For movements with their roots on the internet, it is imperative that
tactical innovation occurs in real time, where oine events feed into on-
line dialogues that shape a movement’s followers’ ability to communicate
with one another. That is to say, infrastructure is integral to the socio-tech-
nical design of a movement like the Alt-Right. While charismatic leaders
are instrumental in providing ideological frames and being spokespeo-
ple to the media, day-to-day participation in networked social movements
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54 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
is largely monotonous. With few possibilities to meet in public without
opposition, the Alt-Right has relied on creating an abundance of online
media, forums, and opportunities for engagement that require internet
infrastructure for the survival of their movement. As platforms began to
remove far-right accounts and content, the Alt-Right adopted a developer’s
mindset and fashioned solutions out of existing code and resources. In
the next section, we describe these steps taken by the Alt-Right to align
with an Alt-Tech community in the wake of no platforming after Charlot-
tesville.
TAC T iCAl innoVATion As A Re sPonse
To no Pl ATF oRming
The Unite the Right rally was a horrifically violent event. In the lead up
to it, much of the online discussion revolved around open-carry permits,
where some posted pictures of themselves posing with homemade weap-
ons, handguns, and rifles. In some online forums and chat services, the
coming event was described as a ‘civil war’ and ‘battle with Antifa’. For
those counter-organizing in Charlottesville, residents repeatedly attended
City Council meetings asking for the permit to be revoked because there
was going to be violence.
Emboldened by previous symbolic victories of harassment campaigns
such as Gamergate (Losh 2017) and far-right intervention in the 2016 pres-
idential election (Daniels 2018), leaders of the Alt-Right and other white
nationalist groups openly promoted Unite the Right on public forums,
anonymous imageboards, social media and Youtube. Gamergate was a
large-scale online coalition of anonymous trolls, right wing pundits and
social reactionaries who united to attack prominent women in the video
game industry in 2014. For the Alt-Right, coordinated amplification of the
call for many far-right factions to coalesce under a single banner would
not have been possible without strategic use of public-facing media and
simultaneous backchannel coordination and communication. The tactics
for coordination owe much to Gamergate, relying on similar social and
technical networks for organization and amplification (Losh 2017; Mas-
sanari 2015).
After the violence of Charlottesville, many platforms that took lighter
approaches to content moderation were forced to confront the growing
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Parallel Ports 55
threat of large-scale white supremacist organizing on their platforms.
Symbolic targets, such as removing blue check marks on Twitter and the
removal of Facebook pages, were chosen to give the impression that plat-
forms were both willing and able to respond to this threat. Some, like
Spencer, called for platforms to be regulated like other public utilities
in the USA, where net neutrality applies to speeds aorded by internet
service providers but not the content itself. In the USA, platforms are
allowed to choke/censor/moderate content in the interest of the online
community, which is key to market retention. In other countries, such as
Germany, racist content is restricted by tighter government regulations,
placing legal burden of removal on social media platforms and hosting
sites. There are, however, easy technological circumvention techniques
that allow for access, such as the use of the TOR browser or VPNs that
mask location.
Others, in response, called for alternative platforms to arise and fill the
communication and amplification void left by large-scale banning, or for
right-wing operatives to double-down on pre-existing platforms with lax
approaches to censorship or mission statements aligned with free-speech
absolutism. This was a critical shift in the far-right’s ability to stay or-
ganized as platform companies reacted to their violence. By shifting the
focus from Alt-Right to Alt-Tech, a new wave of organizing continued
online while oine events faltered or were completely overwhelmed by
counter-protesters (Neuman 2017). One such influential platform, Gab,
found its niche in the fall of 2017. While there were many other platforms
competing for attention and users at this time – Voat, Bitchute, and Minds
– Gab stood out as one that adopted a public stance on the issues of free
speech, technological design, and white nationalism. We focused our
study on the public communications of Gab founder, Andrew Torba, and
analyzed the design of Gab to illustrate how the platform capitalized on
this crisis within the far-right movement to simultaneously populate their
platform and provide infrastructure to the floundering social movement.
During an interview with far-right media personality Alex Jones, An-
drew Torba, founder of Gab.ai, encouraged the claim that, “This is a war
we need to fight on Facebook, Google, Twitter everywhere – we gotta drive
people to Gab.ai, to Infowars.com to Drudge Report.” Gab is a small so-
cial media platform that combines elements of Twitter, Reddit and Face-
3 | Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmiXxPNy6N0, 5:15.
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56 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
book (Sovryn 2017). Launched in 2016, Gab saw a rise in users in late
2017, after a summer of far-right public actions across the US. Designed
to supplement or replace the regular social media habits of its users, Gab’s
designers consolidated the features of larger platform services for a user
base vocally dissatisfied with other social media services.
In the summer and fall of 2017, Gab positioned itself to take on users
abandoning Twitter as a fork in three overlapping movements: the free
speech movement, the open technology movement, and the Alt-Right. In
the US, freedom of speech as a public value is commonly invoked as a
defense of vile and vicious speech. This is how liberal and progressive
groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, got caught up defen-
ding the rights of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville (Goldstein 2017). Instead of
exclusively pushing far-right propaganda, Gab saw itself as a defender of
vile speech and movement infrastructure; both a place for organizing and
technological development. By asking not only for users to join, but also
technologists, free speech fundamentalists, and far right provocateurs,
Torba’s Gab was bringing together dierent factions of online movements
across parallel ports.
The Poli TiCAl ideology dRiVing AlT-TeCh
Two days before the Unite the Right rally, Gab announced the ‘Alt-Tech
Alliance.’ They wrote:
“The Free Speech Tech Alliance is a passionate group of brave engineers, product
managers, investors and others who are tired of the status quo in the technology
industry. We are the defenders of free speech, individual liberty, and truth.”4
However, on August 17, 2017 after the fallout from Charlottesville, Gab
was removed from the Apple play store because, as Apple told Ars Technica:
“In order to be on the Play Store, social networking apps need to demonstrate a
sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and
4 | Gab (2017): “Announcing the Free Speech Tech Alliance”, 10 August 2017
(https://medium.com/@getongab/announcing-the-alt-tech-alliance-18bebe8
9c60a).
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Parallel Ports 57
advocates hate against groups of people. This is a long-standing rule and clearly
stated in our developer policies. Developers always have the opportunity to ap-
peal a suspension and may have their apps reinstated if they‘ve addressed the
policy violations and are compliant with our Developer Program Policies” (quoted
in Lee 2017).
Torba used this decision as an opportunity to raise capital using a crowd
campaign and redoubled his eorts at recruitment (Kircher 2017).
In press and marketing campaigns for his platform, Torba pushes the
bounds of platform accountability by calling out other social media plat-
forms for censorship. Taking a stance of American-centric free speech
absolutism, Torba and sta refuse to monitor or moderate hateful content,
despite Gab’s community guidelines strongly advising international users
to adhere to their particular nation’s speech laws. These policies create a
haven for users banned from Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook. A lifelong
conservative dissatisfied with his previous experiences in Silicon Valley
startups, Torba has publicly embraced the controversy and began circu-
lating white nationalist talking points in an attempt to draw in new users
(Brustein 2017; Hess 2016). On Gab, Twitter, Youtube and Medium, Tor-
ba frequently aligns himself with conservative and far-right causes. Im-
mediately following Charlottesville, Gab became an important hub for the
far right, where they coordinated trolling brigades to attack journalists
and others on Twitter. In a Medium post entitled We Are At War For A
Free And Open Internet, Torba walked back his claims about his platform’s
positions on free speech and hate speech while publicly defending his de-
cision to remove a notorious neo-nazi hacker, Weev, for violation of their
domain registrar’s terms of service. Asia Registry, the domain registry for
Gab, threatened to take the site oine if they did not remove antisemitic
5 | For more information on Gab’s Community Guidelines, see https://gab.ai/
about/guidelines.
6 | Gab (2018): “EXPOSED: Anti-White ‘Hate Speech’ on Twitter By CNN, Buzz-
feed, NY T, and LA Times Reporters”, Medium (blog), 4 August 2018 ( h t t ps : //
medium.com/@getongab/exposed-anti-white-hate-speech-on-twitter-by-cnn-
buzzfeed-nyt-and-la-times-reporters-fa72327e5010).
7 | Gab (2017): “We Are At War For A Free And Open Internet”, 4 September 2017
(https://medium.com/@getongab/we-are-at-war-for-a-free-and-open-internet-
426629fba4bf).
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58 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
posts by Weev (Hayden 2017). In an eort to reclaim their reputation, a
new ‘censor-proof social media protocol’ IPO was launched to expand in-
vestment opportunities in the Gab ‘family’ of projects, and to keep Gab in
the tech press.
Gab’s marketing, as a centralized platform for the far right, relies on
the fear of social isolation coupled with a willingness to involve the plat-
form’s services in political debate. In 2017, emboldened by large-scale ral-
lies in California, Tennessee, and Virginia, far-right groups escalated their
ongoing attacks against both the mainstream media and racialized groups
using targeted harassment on platforms. Known white supremacists op-
erated openly on Twitter, with only the most violent content subject to
removal. In response to public pressure and critical reporting on the con-
tinual harassment and spreading of extremist propaganda, Twitter issued
an updated Hateful Content policy on December 18, 2017. Aimed at curb-
ing hate speech and harassment, the policy would more aggressively ban
users for violent and egregious behavior observed both on and o the plat-
form. Twitter’s announcement regarding tighter control of hate speech on
their platform was preemptively decried as a form of ‘censorship’ amongst
far-right communities. For several weeks leading up to Twitter’s Terms of
Service update, conservative and far-right networks employed the hashtag
#Twit te rPurge.
Gab has experienced diculties raising funds as they are both unwill-
ing and incapable of supporting or acquiring advertisers. Alt-Tech plat-
forms, like Gab, are limited in their ability to interact with financial and
advertising systems available to larger established platforms, like Twitter.
On other platforms, advertisers threaten and withdraw support when it is
discovered their marketing materials are paired with content promoting
hate (Solon 2017). The influence of advertisers on a platform’s standards
for monetization and hosting limits bad actors who seek a means of am-
plifying their messages. Alongside the inability to secure advertising re-
venue, Gab’s mobile app has been continually rejected from the Apple and
Google mobile stores, limiting their audience. There are no third party
applications that can work with Gab’s architecture, which is limited by a
8 | For more information on fundraising see: https://www.startengine.com/
gab-select.
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Parallel Ports 59
private and reportedly fragile API. We now turn to discussing the techno-
logical features of Gab to illustrate how the ability to consolidate so many
of the features popular on other platforms, like Twitter, Youtube, Face-
book, and Reddit, shows the promise of such tactical innovation to provide
a all-in-one social media experience, but ultimately that the public uptake
of a technology depends largely on the charisma of leadership and the
values of its community of users.
The TeChnologiCAl inFR As TRUCTURe
sUPPoRTing AlT-TeCh
Gab became a central hub for the Alt-Right movement following the Unite
the Right rally as Torba positioned his technology as the only unmo-
derated space online. Since then, Gab has continued to develop social
movement community, integrating new features as Twitter, Facebook,
and Youtube’s Terms of Service pose problems for infrastructural stabili-
ty. Keeping with their goal of being a one-stop community platform, Gab
oers users an experience designed to recreate Twitter, Facebook, and
Reddit in a ‘censorship-free’ environment – it mimics many functions of
its main rival Twitter, the social connectivity of Facebook, and the news
aggregation and voting system of Reddit. These are not merely inferences;
Gab’s creators and community posit the platform as a viable alternative
for users unsatisfied (or permanently banned) from these major social
media sites. Gab is therefore a prime example of how the greater Alt-
Tech space integrates and modifies the pre-existing models of interaction
their user base has come to expect from their social media experiences
elsewhere. Here, Gab is not one platform among many, but is a hub that
brings together many nodes – including white supremacist, misogynist,
and ‘free speech’ communities – under the banner of Alt-Tech.
While largely replicating and consolidating features found elsewhere,
Gab has a few unique tools or early innovations. Gab includes the ability to
9 | For more information on Gab’s API: https://dev.to/welcome/the-day-i-broke-
gabai
10 | Gab (2017): “Announcing the Free Speech Tech Alliance”, 10 August 2017
(https://medium.com/@getongab/announcing-the-alt-tech-alliance-18beb
e89c60a).
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60 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
filter keywords and followers, predating Twitter’s ability to remove certain
terms entirely from a feed, as well as muting individual users who may
be engaged in harassment. However, Gab does not feature a block system
on ideological grounds. The introduction of ‘Pro memberships’ expands
dedicated users’ power to control their experience, as well as introducing
features to incentivize creators to use Gab as their primary broadcast plat-
form.
Moreover, international news of white nationalists being banned from
hosting services or detained while travelling has bolstered use of Gab in
countries outside the US. As a result, Gab provides a place for discussion
and coordination of translocal ideologies called ‘networked nationalisms’,
“a belief that national borders are strengthened by the international coop-
eration of far-right politicians and ‘Identitarian’ movements to preserve
the white race and culture” (Donovan et al. 2018). While ‘strong borders’
are often invoked by white nationalists in order to establish ties between
Europe and the USA, the use of online platforms has digitized this rhe-
toric in the form of popular memes. These memes, such as the ‘no more
brother wars’ series, propagate on Gab and help other users to identify
with each other as a form of solidarity.
Alt-Tech Alliance. By DeviantArt user SwyTheQ.
11 | Source: https://www.deviantart.com/swytheq/art/8-14-2017-The-Alt-Tech-
Alliance-is-Coming-698733718.
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While being begrudgingly accepted by right-wing pundits, journal-
ists, and content creators, Gab has yet to find its ‘cool’ among younger
users. Gab’s logo itself is a transparent appropriation of Pepe, a cartoon
frog meme associated with the culture of the image board 4chan, the Alt-
Right and the online campaign for Donald Trump. Breitbart and Infowars
writers have amplified hostile attitudes to major tech firms in their re-
porting, helping to bolster Gab’s reputation. Resultingly, Gab has become
an echo chamber for the most disgusting content oered online, where
antisemitism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ, and racist epithets circulate expo-
nentially. While technologically Gab can be glitchy and unstable, it has
integrated some of the most popular features oered by other social media
platforms. However, few journalists comment on the innovative incorpo-
ration of technological features because Torba’s public expressions of his
political ideology overshadows every discussion of its design.
ConClUsion
Our analysis shows that technology is not politically neutral. Instead, the
leadership of the platform company, alongside the profile of the user base
and the content they circulate have a significant impact on how platforms
are perceived by the public. Gab provides a limit-case for analyzing how
the Alt-Tech movement continues to be wedded to the values espoused by
the developers. Instead of assessing the technology on the qualities of its
design, its designers’ politics are built in and can alienate potential new
users. By cloning features common to larger platforms and consolidat-
ing them into a single user experience, Gab’s platform is both political
and infrastructural. In The Politics of Platforms, Tarleton Gillespie writes
that platforms, “like the television networks and trade publishers before
them, [...] are increasingly facing questions about their responsibilities:
to their users, to key constituencies who depend on the public discourse
they host, and to broader notions of the public interest” (Gillespie 2010:
348). He goes on: “Unlike Hollywood and the television networks, who
could be painted as the big bad industries, online content seems an open
world, where anyone can post, anything can be said” (ibid.: 353). The day
has come where Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and Google have now
become media giants, like Hollywood. As such, the social reckoning for
platform corporations requires attention to key communities, audiences,
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62 Joan Donovan, Becca Lewis and Brian Friedberg
and public interests. Alt-Tech platforms, like Gab, now serve as a warning
that without moderation policies, users will share noxious content, which
becomes a liability for indexing quality and for promoting the platform’s
features. Moreover, all communities have rules, both online and o. Re-
sponsibility lies not only in the design, but in the enforcement of a plat-
form’s Terms of Service, much like a code of conduct.
And so, we return to our main question: is technological development
within the Alt-Right driven by a need for stabilization? The answer here
is: sometimes. While movement leaders, like Richard Spencer and Tim
Gionet (Baked Alaska), understand why Gab is important for organizing a
social movement community online, they also recognize the need for stay-
ing on more established platforms, like Youtube and Twitter. Both called
for new regulation to make net neutrality a feature of platforms that allow
for unmoderated sharing of user generated content. Critically, while Gab
would stabilize the internal life of the movement, it would not be ideal for
reaching out to new audiences, recruiting new members, and capturing
media attention; all of which are central for prolonging the life of move-
ments (Donovan 2018). For networked social movements, having a pres-
ence on all available platforms ensures stability when counter-movements
tactically adapt and create obstacles, like in the event of ‘no platforming.’
Is it the case that the alternative technology developed in the wake
of the violence in Charlottesville is something fundamentally innovative?
While we identified that Gab both clones and consolidates features from
other platforms, it does not significantly change how online movements
connect, collaborate, or organize. In fact, the engagement on this small
platform has become so vitriolic that it may do more to destroy the allianc-
es across these movements than to build them. While Torba’s public proc-
lamations heralded the platform as the only place online where speech
goes unmoderated, he had to remove some racist posts because online
infrastructure does not stand outside of the information ecosystem. Pres-
sure to change one’s platform can come from the public, journalists, or
from other infrastructure companies. No single user or platform can act
in isolation given the architecture of the internet. That is to say, while
platforms may be organized as parallel ports, which can function inde-
pendently of one another, they must be plugged into other internet ser-
vices such as service providers, domain registrars, and cloud services. As
a result, the terms of service for companies that are deep in the stack may
become the ultimate arbiters of what content gets to stay online.
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Parallel Ports 63
In conclusion, because hundreds of movements coexist online and
use internet infrastructure to recruit and get organized, the charisma of
movement leaders and the political values of the movement will deter-
mine how their social movement community tactically innovates both
online and oine. The violence in Charlottesville both gained the Alt-
Right widespread media attention, but also propelled online companies to
‘no platform’ white nationalists. The use of violence by social movements
often has similar eects, whereby movements that resort to violence of-
ten become heavily surveilled by formal authorities, such as the police.
However, in this case, sanctions came from platform companies who were
implicated in the communication and coordination of the Alt-Right, which
suggests that technology makers are a movement unto themselves. As
such, the burgeoning Alt-Tech movement as well as the online free speech
movement will have to choose their political alliances more carefully if
they are to succeed in recruiting and retaining members that do not also
support far right perspectives. Platforms, as sociotechnical infrastructure,
will adapt to new forms and norms of conduct, but the values that support
design must also support a diversity of tactics and users.
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... Notes 1. As a label for describing a number of loosely affiliated far-right social movement actors, Alt-Right is best understood as a "vessel of white nationalist entryism" (Hawley 2018) and an informal alliance of political allies who since 2015 have been operating effectively online to rebrand fascism by projecting a view of their activities "no longer as radical evil, but as daring, transgressive, comic, ironic and futuristic" (Gilroy 2019, 3). 2. For a discussion of the so-called "Alt-Tech platforms"-a term used to describe the wide range of blogs, forums, podcasts, image boards, chatrooms, and social media platforms that attract exponents of digital hate culture with lax community policies and strong advocacy of free speech see, for example, Donovan et al. (2018) and Ebner (2019). 3. When I use "humor," "satire" "jokes" or "humoros" I consider these descriptive and analytic rather than normative labels. ...
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