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When YouTube banned the channels of Infowars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Monday, Mike Adams was ready and waiting.
Adams is the founder of Real.Video, a platform he launched in March after he, too, was kicked off YouTube for what it called violations of community guidelines. His website markets itself as the “solution to YouTube censorship and anti-liberty authoritarianism.”
His is one of a small group of tech startups that have emerged catering to users increasingly deemed too extreme or controversial for Facebook, Google and Apple, all of which removed Jones’ content from its platforms this week.
And with Jones looking for new platforms, these small operations are beginning to see an uptick in users. By Tuesday, Jones announced that he would be posting 1,000 of his most-viewed anti-government and conspiracy videos to Adams’ site. According to Adams’ latest video, Jones’ move to the Real.Video platform has caused a surge in new users and the creation of over 350 new channels on the site in the last day, an uptick from the “dozens” that he noted in a video three weeks ago.
The need for these kinds of platforms is a recent development. Just a few years ago, most major tech companies balked at calls to limit trolling, hate speech and even harassment, with many citing free speech principles and the challenges of moderating millions of users.
Growing criticism over the role these companies have played in spreading inflammatory content — magnified by Russia’s use of tech platforms to spread misinformation, particularly in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — has slowly pushed tech giants to take a more hands-on role in policing their networks.
The widespread removal of Jones was the biggest single crackdown by platforms on a bad actor, but it was also just the latest in a long series of bans that have pushed extremists into lesser-traveled corners of the internet.
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For years, often with scant evidence, users on the right have complained that tech companies punish and silence the expression of conservative thought. Now, the deplatforming of Jones is offering companies that cater to those self-described victims of Silicon Valley their first real, if far-fetched, hope of a rules-free experience.
Andrew Torba, who appeared on Infowars on Tuesday along with Adams to talk with Jones about “the globalist tech gatekeepers,” founded Gab.ai shortly after Twitter banned Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative provocateur. While the social network promotes a hard-line view in support of free speech, critics often refer to it as “Twitter for racists.” Researchers who have studied Gab found that it acts as a meeting place and an echo chamber for white, male extremists, and the company’s app has already been banned from the Apple and Google app stores.
“You are just the start,” Torba told Jones on his program. “They tried to malign us and call us a Nazi social network.”
Gab is not the first company to try to find success as a right-wing niche. Codias launched as an alternative for conservatives fed up with Facebook. Conservapedia offers a right-leaning version of Wikipedia. Hatreon provides a crowdfunding service to replace Patreon. And there’s even TrumpSingles for those who lean too far right for Tinder. None have managed to approach their rivals’ popularity, though victimhood has proven a powerful fundraising tool.
Torba did not reply to a request for comment, but in May, Gab’s then-chief operating officer Utsav Sanduja told NBC News the platform had 466,000 users, with 1,000 concurrent users on the platform at any given time. As for funding, Gab crowdsourced $1.1 million in 2017 and Sanduja claimed in May that the platform was bringing in more than $20,000 a month in both memberships and donations from users.
While it’s still dwarfed by Twitter’s 335 million active users, Gab claims it has been growing, and Jones’ backing can only help.
Notably, Twitter was one of the few platforms that declined to remove Jones. Its CEO Jack Dorsey explained in a series of tweets that Jones — currently being sued by several families of the victims of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting for spreading a conspiracy theory that the shooting had been staged — had not violated Twitter’s rules.
Ezra Levant, founder of the far-right Canadian media outlet Rebel Media, found similar success in raising money for a YouTube alternative.
In August 2017, YouTube announced it would be placing tighter controls on content — removing videos containing “hate speech and violent extremism,” while preventing ads from appearing alongside “controversial religious or supremacist content.”
In response to the tougher standard, which he called a threat to the Rebel channel, Levant launched a crowdfunded effort to build “a conservative alternative” to YouTube. Originally planned as an “in-house system” for conservative video content, Levant was able to raise almost $200,000, about two-thirds of its goal, according to the still-live crowdfunding site. The app has been live for months now, Levant said.
Levant told NBC News that the new Jones ban has caused him to again question whether he will be able to continue to operate on YouTube.
“At the Rebel, we are one standard deviation closer to the center than Infowars,” Levant said. “Being conservative in Canada is pretty much being in the center in the U.S. But we do not have the First Amendment here, so we are at the mercy of political inquisitions.”
While these platforms may hope to create free-speech utopias, they can run into similar problems as other platforms. Sanduja quietly moved on from Gab in July, amid reports of infighting between alt-right users who sent Sanduja death threats and Gab management, who later alleged that the increase in Nazi activity was a result of a campaign by social justice warriors to infiltrate their service and cause discord. Sanduja told NBC News he left Gab “to move onto better things,” and had “reached all my goals.”
Gab is still operating, of course, and hoping to succeed where past efforts have not. For years, as tech companies have grappled with whether and how to curtail extremism and disinformation on their platforms, voices on the right have criticized their efforts as censorship, and vowed to create platforms where they can operate without worrying about getting banned.
While unlikely to put Twitter or YouTube out of business, sites like Gab and Real.Video seem poised to fulfill that promise and profit from that sentiment — helped by the purge of Jones.
“Gab, I’m new to this platform because of the Alex Jones banning,” read one of dozens of messages from new users this week. “I’m a huge trump supporter and love my country, the USA.”