Can a Social Media Platform Create a Parallel Nation?

Gab founder Andrew Torba says yes--and his vision of an imagined community based on libertarian populism has a long history among dispossessed white Americans

If you want more updates and reflections on the aftermath of the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, make sure you don’t forget the bullet points at the end of this post. Now that the shock, confusion, and hot takes are over, the end of this war, as Amanda Demmer noted last week, will linger, as will the challenging work of getting Afghan allies to safety. I’ll be sticking with this story—and you, whether you remain a free subscriber or convert to paid, will have help remaining informed.

Today, I return to the political media beat. If you know a friend who would be interested in this post, please:

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Last week, Andrew Torba, the founder and CEO of the right-wing social media site Gab, announced that he was launching a “No Vax Mandate Job Board.”

This internet tool is exactly what it sounds like: a place where job seekers philosophically opposed to taking the Covid-19 vaccine can be matched with companies philosophically opposed to imposing it. Torba took action, as he says, “In light of the Biden Administration encouraging employers to mandate vaccines in order to retain employment while ironically not requiring vaccination mandates for their own staff.”

Torba was threading the truthiness needle: perhaps this won’t surprise you since his social media site is an alt-right alternative to Twitter and a haven for conspiracy theorists. According to the fact-checking site Snopes.com, Biden issued an order on July 29 requiring all federal employees, including White House staff, to disclose their vaccination status. Anyone who could not attest to being fully vaccinated can now only work under a strict (and cumbersome) set of health protocols that included masking, “physically distance from all other employees and visitors, comply[ing] with a weekly or twice-weekly screening testing requirement, and be[ing] subject to restrictions on official travel.”

Which is as close to a mandate as you can get without firing people for not taking the vaccine.

Torba also links to a page of templates for requesting vaccine exemptions; most cite religious grounds in his post announcing the job board. Most are written for military and federal employees. Unfortunately, faith is becoming a stand-in for believing in conspiracies or quack science because the Constitution and Christianity are increasingly conflated on the right. Torba’s manifesto is an example of this. “Many people are being forced to choose between feeding their families and getting injected with a potentially deadly experimental substance,” he writes (bold type is in the original.)This is a fundamental violation of not only human rights, but the religious rights that we are guaranteed in the United States of America.”

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, only a “very small” number of people have died due to blood clots related to the Astra Zeneca vaccine. And there is no evidence that any Covid-19 vaccine is inherently “deadly.” But there is plenty of evidence that the virus kills and that a choice not to be vaccinated is a risky one. People infected by Covid-19 have a high risk of dying, or becoming permanently disabled, from a blood clot—and this is only one syndrome that is killing people.

Just ask any unvaccinated person on a ventilator in Florida.

But simply resisting the mask and vaccine mandates is not Torba’s endgame. Instead, the Covid-19 controversy invented on the right supports a far grander project: creating a nation within a nation, much as antebellum southerners imagined that they too lived in a separate country, with a separate economic system based on individualism and a reading of the Constitution that supported that. “This job board aligns with Gab’s vision of building infrastructure for a parallel economy,” Torba explains, “and we hope to expand further on this job board initiative in the coming months.”

Clicking through to Torba’s vision statement is clarifies what the larger plan is. You will see that his imagined economy is one in which right-wing Christians withdraw from mainstream life without political secession. Instead, they would run an individualistic society and economy using Gab as their infrastructure, collectively refusing governmental authority.

This new and “parallel” world also elevates Gab’s principles of absolute free speech as the structure for knowledge production: their moderation rules prohibit threats of violence—but they also prohibit fact-checking for the truth. In addition, that world would support individuals delinking from “the oligarchy,” doing business only with companies that oppose all forms of government intervention and run by “Christian values.” Eventually, participants in the Gab network would be free from any need to be in dialogue or cooperate with mainstream America.

Torba imagines this nation within a nation as an online, self-sustaining, intentional community that could coexist with the political and economic system that it detests, allowing individuals to free themselves from the form of capitalism that oppresses them and choose libertarian populism.

It would be an economic and social revolution without a political revolution. “It feels like there is no escape,” from the world of Big Tech and Big Government, Torba writes. But

the reality is that we do have options and don’t need to give our money, time, or attention to these people. There are plenty of businesses who share our Christian values, we just need a way to discover them, transact with them, and communicate with them. 

Many of us want off of this ride and the only way to do that is by building our own economy. An economy that welcomes all people to buy, sell, and trade with one another instead of woke Fortune 500 companies who hate them.

One attempted social revolution this recalls is the Free Silver movement. This was a mostly rural populism that accurately understood the intermingling of political and economic interests that had driven western expansion after the Civil War at the expense of the poor. Free Silverites saw the federal Treasury Department, banks, and gold, not their own ill-considered participation in western settlement and the genocide of indigenous Americans, as the source of their ills. They imagined that citizens could create money by coining silver, which was more plentiful than gold. Under such expansionist monetary policies, these populists imagined, farmers (whose livelihood depended on assuming debt that often could not be repaid, either because of a bad harvest or plummeting commodity prices) would be able to satisfy loans with inflated dollars. This would, in turn, force lenders to share the burden of loss in a poor growing season instead of seizing their land, homes, and belongings to satisfy the debt.

What many of these Midwestern, southern, and High Plains farmers were grappling with, as many of their descendants are today, was an explanation for why their hard work and aspirations were sinking them deeper into poverty. While urban Americans often turned to Progressivism and socialism, which argued that a more powerful government was the answer to economic inequality, those who chose to homestead—not unlike the Gab community—believed that they could thrive only if they were the sole arbiters of their own lives and lived by their own principles. To them, debt was not a debt at all if forces beyond their control had made it unpayable.

Of course, the populist critique was not entirely wrong. Homesteading was cynically oversold by banks, railroads, and the federal government, all of which profited from throwing aspirational working-class Easterners into the project of developing western lands. Moreover, poor growing seasons were regular events in these regions after Americans, many of whom had little experience in farming and ranching, began to flood across the Mississippi river after 1865.

As Caroline Fraser explains in Prarie Fires (2018) her compelling, prize-winning biography of children’s novelist Laura Ingalls Wilder, the vast majority of homesteaders who pushed indigenous people off their lands after 1865 failed, miserably and repeatedly. Worse, their diligent attempts to succeed—cutting down acres of forest, eliminating native species, and plowing up the rich grasslands that held the topsoil in place—led to repeated and collective agricultural collapses that reveal the beginnings of man-made climate change. Cycles of drought, insects, and overproduction that eventually produced the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s were all caused by farming, turning what we now call “Red-state America” into a vast, virtual factory of bankruptcies and foreclosures that funneled money East.

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Needless to say, the idea that white families could work hard, sacrifice, become ill, suffer, and starve—and still fail—was a bitter pill to swallow. But federal policies and banks’ eagerness to lend were only part of the problem. The other side of the coin was the fierce need for independence that caused Americans tied to wage labor to embrace an economic mirage: the self-sustaining family farm.

Disinformation pushed these people West, and disinformation, in the form of stubborn adherence to individualism as Americanism, was how many of these disappointed migrants and their descendants reconciled the disaster that befell them. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Fraser argues, played a crucial role in resolving and concealing these misbegotten personal decisions by rewriting the story of the Plains migration to center one family’s determination to overcome a deck stacked against them with love, courage, and good cheer.

In Wilder’s books (the only work anyone in the Ingalls family did that ever produced a profit), Fraser notes that

we can see how economic depression and environmental disaster propelled settlers farther out on the Plains than they ever should have gone, how fear of [Indian] massacre drove the squatters’ rationale, how debt and drought kept farmers locked in recurrent waves of boom and bust.

Wilder’s parents did in poverty. Yet, in her books, Wilder portrayed the family’s journey as a success and the ultimate expression of the American dream.

In fact, the Plains migration was a paradox that might be instructive to a Gab community that aspires to complete independence from government. White people moved to the so-called “Indian Country” to become independent of the wage system, only to be put at the mercy of full-blown unregulated modern capitalism: railroads and banks that set shipping and interest rates at will. At the same time, territorial and state governments committed to free-market principles refused to help during bust cycles, even when farmers and their families were literally starving.

The Free Silver movement, a move to ever more aggressive independence that might displace the capitalist system as it existed, was one populist response to this paradox. It was a vision that imagined the most important economic power—when and how to coin money—shifting from government to the individual. Those individuals left exposed by government policies could then fight for themselves.

Free Silver and other strands of conservative populism were ultimately absorbed into modern libertarianism, elevating individual will and condemning centralized economic and political power. A philosophy articulated most prominently by Ayn Rand and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter, the highly dishonest journalist Rose Wilder Lane, libertarianism imagined individualism and capitalism as no longer at odds but coequal philosophies that ruled society through free-market principles. A society based on these principles would, these and other thinkers imagined, cut out the oligarchs—banks, governments, monopolies—that withheld the rewards of capitalism from talented, hard-working, ordinary people.

In other words, libertarian populists imagined a parallel world, one that resembled the market-based industrial society that the nineteenth-century industrial revolution had produced, but one in which people with talent and drive were not subject to forces beyond their control.

This explains a great deal about why the Gab community, and other right-wing conservative networks, are so passionately attached to the anti-vaccine movement. It’s the new Free Silver: that everyone can come up with their own cure for a deadly disease makes no sense unless your point is that it’s the decision—where it is made, who makes it—that matters, not a scientific fact, or even the specifics of a vaccine.

Andrew Torba dreams that an ideologically divided country could, in fact, result in two literally different nations that, for all practical purposes, cease to function as one. His vision is that Gab could will that parallel world into being and sustain it, this time with a social media platform, and it has a history. What’s new are the tools; the dream that a subgroup of Americans could cling to capitalism and simultaneously disidentify with capitalists and a capitalist state is an old one.

We will soon learn more about Torba’s ideas about who belongs in his imagined community and whether it enforces its moderation policies against violence and violent speech. We will also learn whether it is any more possible to sustain a social media community of libertarians than it was to sustain a society of 19th-century family farms. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol has ordered Gab to produce a laundry list of documents by September 9, 2021: Torba has reached out to his community to collect the funds for what is usually an expensive and cumbersome proposition.

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Short takes:

  • What were the consequences of moving the anti-war movement online? At his Substack, The Connector, Micah Sifry returns us to the critical role of MoveOn.org in moving all politics online, which moved activism away from the local and towards big national campaigns powered by consultants. When MoveOn “buried” its opposition to the war in Afghanistan, it buried the war itself. And yet, Sifry doesn’t think that counterfactuals—using the internet to enable local organizing (which MoveOn considered and then dropped) or maintaining its opposition to the war, would have changed things. “The harder truth, which the past two weeks have shown us,” Sifry writes, “is that when it comes to war, we live in a monarchy, not a democracy.” (August 31, 2021)

  • Ross Douthat’s cynicism is mine. The war in Afghanistan was a failure from the get-go, as was Obama’s surge. The strategic plan was to find ways to conceal this from the American public so that the government could postpone defeat indefinitely. Joe Biden finally said no, and should be commended for that. Yes, the withdrawal was a mess. “At the same time,” Douthat writes, “the circumstances under which the Biden withdrawal had to happen doubled as a devastating indictment of the policies pursued by his three predecessors, which together cost roughly $2,000,000,000,000 (it’s worth writing out all those zeros) and managed to build nothing in the political or military spheres that could survive for even a season without further American cash and military supervision. (New York Times, August 31, 2021)

  • The moral calculus in fighting wars is not just about the possibility of United States casualties. A key fact to remember is that even when U.S. troops are not in combat, innocent people will be killed as long as the United States is militarily engaged. That drone strike to “avenge” the bombing at Kabul airport that killed 180 people, including 13 Marines? It may have killed an ISIS-K operative or two, but it probably killed several civilians, including at least one child. And this is a routine outcome of drone warfare. (Jason Burke, The Guardian, August 29, 2021)

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