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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

For those tired of online censors, an (alt-right) alternative

Posts that could get you kicked off Twitter or Facebook for bullying or harassment are welcome on Gab.
Posts that could get you kicked off Twitter or Facebook for bullying or harassment are welcome on Gab.Shutterstock

Like his political hero Donald Trump, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Torba doesn’t like being told to shut up — especially not by Internet censors. So he’s launched a new social network for people who feel the same way.

It’s called Gab. It’s a lot like Twitter, but with a big difference: On Gab, anything goes. Well, almost anything. No death threats allowed, no incitements to terrorism, no kiddie porn or publishing anybody’s personal information. But apart from that, Gab users are free to say whatever they want. Stuff that could get you kicked off Twitter or Facebook for bullying or harassment is welcome here.

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“We’re going to continue to welcome any user that feels they can’t speak freely online,” Torba, 25, told me by phone from San Mateo, Calif.

Chances are that Gab will end up on the shelf alongside social networks you never heard of, like Ello and Peach, as well as that famous flop, Google Plus. Yes, since Gab was launched last month, it has attracted decent numbers — 15,000 users, with another 51,000 waiting to get in as the company ramps up its server capacity and works out bugs. And it’s admitting as many as 2,000 new users per week. But at that rate, Gab will catch up to Twitter in about, um, 3,000 years.

Of course, that’s silly math. Gab will grow far faster if it catches on. And it might, if it wins over online rabble-rousers alienated by Twitter’s recent crackdown on “hate speech.”

Gab’s initial growth spurt is coming from online conservatives who feel that their viewpoints will never get a fair shake on Twitter (310 million users) or Facebook (1.7 billion).

“The progressive globalist elitist left controls all of social media,” Torba said. He cites Twitter’s recent ouster of right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos for his relentless attacks on “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones. Twitter said that Yiannopoulos’ tweets constituted intolerable harassment. But conservatives claim that Twitter lets equally spiteful comments by leftist users go unchallenged.

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Torba says Facebook is no better. Earlier this week, his Facebook account was temporarily frozen when he posted a Yiannopoulos video. Facebook never even told Torba what he’d done wrong.

I’m not convinced that censorship at Twitter and Facebook is driven by ideology. But it surely lacks transparency and consistency. By contrast, Gab avoids bias by having hardly any rules at all.

The site’s only speech limits are those imposed by other users. Subscribers can block anyone’s messages, or just those that contain certain words, phrases or hashtags. Sick of F-bombs? On Gab, you need never see the word again.

For now, Gab is a boisterous playground for the “alt-right” — the sometimes racist, always hyper-aggressive bad boys of American conservatism.

If it stays that way, it’s doomed, and Torba knows it. So he’s eager to recruit from the disgruntled left, especially supporters of failed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He also hopes to land a few big-name lefties, like MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “If we get one of those people — one — all of a sudden we have 100,000 people on the left,” he said. Torba figures liberal tree-huggers will love a site where they can mercilessly troll conservative cave-dwellers, without fear of censorship.

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But Torba’s strategy goes further. Gab isn’t just modeled after Twitter; he also plans to imitate Twitch, where 100 million people per month go to watch other people play videogames. The best players on Twitch sell subscriptions to their fans, who pay a few bucks a month to tune in. Torba plans to offer a similar option. Visitors could make donations to their favorite “gabbers,” or even subscribe to their comment streams, with Gab getting a cut of the cash.

Who would pay to read someone’s tweets? It sounds unlikely. But Torba thinks the alternative — a reliance on advertising revenue — is a dead end. He estimates that about 25 percent of Internet users have ad-blocking software, and that number is soaring. “The business models of all these legacy companies is going to become totally destroyed,” said Torba.

Remember that Twitter loses vast amounts of money — half a billion last year alone. And its user base has hardly budged in the past year, even as Facebook’s continues to grow. Rumors abound that Twitter might be bought by a larger company — Microsoft or Apple, perhaps. In any case, it’ll need a lot more users to survive as an independent entity. But what if those new users opt for Twitter’s freewheeling new rival?

“I am dreaming big,” he said. “The goal is to get billions of users around the world.”

Not likely. But even a few tens of millions would make Gab a viable new online forum. Bad news for Twitter, perhaps. But good news for people who hate being told to shut up.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.