Far-right social network Gab has ties to Philly's startup scene. Here's what we know about its time here - Technical.ly Philly

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Jan. 12, 2021 3:46 pm

Far-right social network Gab has ties to Philly’s startup scene. Here’s what we know about its time here

Founder Andrew Torba's first startup, Kuhcoon, was founded in Philly, and Gab once listed a Center City WeWork as its headquarters.
Andrew Torba in the video “A Message From Gab’s CEO” on Jan. 8, 2021.

Andrew Torba in the video "A Message From Gab’s CEO" on Jan. 8, 2021.

(Screenshot via news.gab.com)

Parler, the social media platform many conservatives used to communicate about the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, was booted from the Apple and Google stores and deplatformed by Amazon Web Services this past weekend. So its users went searching for an alternative.

It’s why social platform Gab reportedly picked up hundreds of thousands of users in the past few days, as its founder, Andrew Torba, touted its disconnect from Big Tech. The platform — which features discussions on the likes of QAnon and Brexit — is hosted on in-house servers after being banned from multiple cloud hosting providers over the years, Torba wrote on the site in September.

Torba has several connections to Philly, first in the form of a former social media marketing startup called Kuhcoon, which he built with cofounder and Drexel University grad Charles Szymanski. Kuhcoon was linked to now-closed Center City coworking space Seed Philly back in 2013, but a former employee told Technical.ly on Tuesday that the pair never showed up after signing a lease, or worked out of the space.

Gab launched in 2016, though it’s not clear exactly where its founder was based at the time. In March 2018, the company listed its address as 1900 Market St., SEC filings show, although 2019 filings show the company located in Lackawanna County, near Torba’s alma mater, the University of Scranton. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2018 that Torba had been a member of the WeWork at the Market Street address in March and April of that year.

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“Gab isn’t just building an alternative social network,” Torba wrote in a blog post in September. “We’re building an alternative internet. From hosting infrastructure to web browsing and more: Gab is the market leader when it comes to defending free speech against Silicon Valley tyranny online.”

The Inquirer reported Monday that the site had picked up hundreds of thousands of new users a day and had reached “39 million visits this week,” Torba told a reporter in an email. He declined an interview, however.

Gab’s groups landing page. (Screenshot)

If the company’s name — or Torba himself — is ringing a bell, it might be because the site was linked to the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of the Life synagogue in 2018. The gunman was a frequent visitor of the site, and allegedly posted “I’m going in” before committing the shooting.

“When I think about Gab being an extremist platform, I think about that in its essence, and part of the reason for its founding,” Keegan Hankes, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center‘s intelligence project, told the Inquirer after the shooting. “Gab rose up out of a lot of the major social media companies taking a firmer stance on [hateful speech]. Gab allowed people to hold on to notoriety. That’s why it was important.”

Childhood best friends Torba and Szymanski founded Kuhcoon in 2011, and in 2013, at age 22, lived in University City, Technical.ly reported then. Torba had recently graduated from the University of Scranton and Szymanski was attending Drexel. The founders considered themselves members of the local tech community, and Torba even touted Philly’s tech scene in an August 2013 Philly Startup Leaders newsletter, saying:

“We want to be a part of the tech revolution happening right here in Philadelphia and seek to provide value to the community in whatever way we can. We also love the bright university community of energetic engineers with the entrepreneurial spirit,” he wrote. “The vast amount of resources, people, and opportunities that we have in this city is beyond anything I could have imagined. As of this writing I’ve been here for roughly three weeks and I can already say that I feel welcomed with open arms by the Philly tech community.”

A handful of PSL leaders and members who were active at the time of the post have not yet responded to requests for comment from Technical.ly about Torba’s time here. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

Gab appears to be aware that far-right extremists are using the platform. In December, Torba posted a note about an account that featured the personal addresses and photos of election and government officials, and also threatening violence against them. He wrote that the account’s content went against the site’s terms of service, and had been terminated. The team also backed up the information for law enforcement, Torba wrote.

On its values page, Gab says its main priority is freedom of speech. It also states that it’s not the site’s job to “fact check” political opinions, news, history or anything else, unlike recent moves by Twitter and Facebook to begin removing or labeling misinformation.

“Regardless of whether Gab’s administrators, outside activist pressure groups, ‘cancel culture’ Internet mobs, the mainstream media, foreign governments, or any other persons agree with any Gabber’s viewpoints: political speech that is protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution will be allowed on the platform,” the site reads. “Illegal activity, threats of violence, doxxing, pornography, child exploitation, and spam are not allowed on Gab.”

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