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How anti-vaccine activists and the far right are trying to build a parallel economy

  • By Lisa Hagen/NPR

Entrepreneurs and influencers from across a spectrum of conspiracist and religious communities gathered in Las Vegas in March to discuss building an “uncancellable” future together.

But the conference almost didn’t happen. A few weeks before the RePlatform conference was scheduled to begin, the event organizers lost access to their money from ticket sales. Their payment processor, Stripe, had frozen their account.

“Stripe just said, well, we’re going to hold 70%. And what they do is they say, we’ll give it back to you after the show,” speaker Dan Eddy told the audience from the Vegas stage.

Conveniently for everyone involved, Eddy is the chief operating officer of an alternative payment processor, GabPay. It’s a third-party company that works with the social media platform Gab.

“We’ll process for you. No problems, no questions asked. We’ll do it,” Eddy described telling the event organizers.

For people in the business of opposing vaccination or unwelcome election results, mistrust of big financial institutions and tech companies is common. Increasingly, they can find alternatives being built by a community with a head start in developing the tools of the so-called freedom economy: the far right.

“Leave all these woke corporations behind”

At RePlatform in Las Vegas, GabPay got to be the hero. But it’s also possible that the company was part of why Stripe froze the conference’s money in the first place. A few weeks earlier, a news story by Mother Jones about the event highlighted a promotional appearance that GabPay’s executives had made on far-right conspiracy theorist Stew Peters’ streaming show.

GabPay founder Lonnie Passoff’s interview with Peters included an exchange where the two sarcastically dismissed the idea that antisemitic conspiracy theories are hate speech.

The company also recently began processing payments for the prominent white nationalist website VDARE. But the audience at the RePlatform event in Vegas didn’t hear any of this from the GabPay speakers. The crowd was a hybrid of anti-vaccine activists, supporters of former President Donald Trump and Christian conservatives. Most were entrepreneurs in these movements, looking for ways to build what they call the “freedom economy.”

“We are here together because we are people who have either been canceled or we really understand what is going on in America today as it relates to cancelization,” conference emcee Chris Widener told the crowd.

While many of the event’s panels delivered familiar complaints about “woke” culture and media, speakers from businesses sponsoring the event leaned into pitches aimed at drawing the audience away from the conveniences offered by large banks, financial institutions and tech providers.

“Leave Amazon, leave GoDaddy, leave all these woke corporations behind and start spending money with organizations that have your best interests in mind,” said Megan Greene of Patmos, a web-hosting company named after the Greek island that the Christian apostle John is said to have been exiled to.

It’s hard to say just how large the market of conservative-focused businesses is. One recent report from a conservative shopping app estimated that there are at least 80,000 American small businesses in what it calls the “freedom economy,” from coffee sellers and razor companies to dating apps and plumbers. Some of these businesses aren’t small: At one point, pillow salesman turned pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell’s MyPillow company had almost $300 million in revenue.

A matter of survival

In some religious communities, building a parallel society is an old idea, according to Amarnath Amarasingam, a professor of religion at Queen’s University in Ontario. One example is fundamentalist Christians after the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925.

“They got destroyed in kind of the media sphere. They were depicted as this kind of backwater, Bible-thumping dummies,” he said. “They retreated from the public, and they created a kind of network, a kind of parallel society, their own publishing houses, their own media, their own magazines, newsletters and so on.”

But the entrepreneurs gathered in Vegas represent a broader fusion of communities reacting to years of COVID-19, stolen election narratives and transgender visibility, he said. A shared, embattled subculture.

“They feel like they’re on the outs,” said Amarasingam. “They believe that the governments are against them, intellectuals are against them, that science is moving in the opposite direction, that science education is moving in the opposite direction. So they just see a lot of trends that they feel are against traditional Christian values, family values.”

And adding in a spoonful of current-day conspiracism helps to frame the building of a separate, untainted economy as a matter of survival.

“Tragedy in the real world”

The situation that the conference itself faced with Stripe was a fitting, if muddy, illustration of a concern often referred to as “debanking.” The power that financial organizations have to freeze or shut down accounts is real. And while figures on the right have often framed debanking as political persecution, it’s nearly impossible to know how often it happens. That’s because banks and payment processors rarely spell out their reasons, according to Jessica Davis, who runs Insight Threat Intelligence.

Stripe, for instance, did not comment on what happened with the conference, citing customer privacy.

In many cases, Davis said, people are cut off over mundane, technical violations, such as someone using their account the wrong way.

“But there is social capital to be gained by a lot of these people who are claiming that they have their accounts closed,” she added.

On the other hand, there is another category of very high-profile examples, in which extremists have lost access to payment services or social media accounts after violent events.

“The bulk of it happens as a response to some tragedy in the real world,” said Megan Squire, a computer and data scientist tracking extremism with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

She said waves of debanking and deplatforming have followed violent episodes like the deadly Unite the Right white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 and a number of mass shootings explicitly motivated by hate. Another big wave came after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. Squire said that for years, she has watched some far-right extremists experiment with building infrastructure to get around these bans.

“They’ll talk about how we need this payment [platform]. … We need to make our own web-hosting companies. We need to make our own social media. We need to make our own domain registrars. We need to make our own computers,” she said.

Building those tools is a huge challenge, requiring planning, technical skill, money and, crucially, finding a sustainable customer base. Squire says GabPay is one of many such experiments, born out of necessity. It’s part of a dream that the founder of Gab has been promoting for years.

“The broadest audience possible”

Gab is a glitch-prone alternative to X, formerly Twitter, that launched in 2016 in response to perceived anti-conservative censorship at major social media companies. It bans pornography but otherwise brands itself as a free-speech absolutist space by explicitly allowing hate speech that other mainstream platforms prohibit.

One of Gab’s most notable active users was the man who shot and killed 11 people and wounded six at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. The platform’s founder, Andrew Torba, has said he doesn’t hate Jews but has also said they have no place in what he calls his conservative Christian movement.

“And it’s really thanks to the folks on Gab that I became aware of these issues: issues like [the] Jewish Question, issues like Zionist power and Zionist Occupied Government,” Torba said on an episode of his podcast in November 2023.

“‘The Jewish Question’ is literally a Nazi term,” said religion professor Amarasingam, “about what to do with the Jewish population in areas controlled by the Third Reich.”

Asked for comment, Torba responded, “Christ is King” to NPR in a post on X. The phrase is a common, uncontroversial expression of faith for many Christians, but in recent years it has also become popular among the far right and conspiracists. Torba says he uses it as a regular signoff on his emails after learning that his doing so offended Jonathan Greenblatt at the Anti-Defamation League.

Onstage at the RePlatform event in Las Vegas, GabPay’s Eddy described Gab and Torba as “all about being First Amendment. And, yes, they have a Christian slant because the guy that built it is a Christian. So he goes out and says, ‘I’m a Christian. I think you should have Christian values.’” He added, “Whether you agree with that or not is inconsequential to the fact that he can say it and so can you.”

NPR spoke with several banks and other organizations at the conference about Gab and GabPay’s background. But as brands there to promote free speech absolutism, none wanted to be seen as unwilling to engage or do business with them.

Eric Ohlhausen, with the conservative Old Glory Bank, said his company will do business with anyone operating legally.

“Our whole premise is one to not censor, and there might be organizations who promote policies that maybe, personally, I don’t adhere to, but we really welcome all as customers,” said Ohlhausen.

Ashton Cohen of the conservative media nonprofit PragerU told NPR that charges of antisemitism on the right are overblown.

“My mother was pushed out of her country because she was Jewish, because she was persecuted for being a Jew in Iran. And the very people who support that regime today and that mindset today are on the left,” said Cohen.

Wealthy anti-vaccine activist Steve Kirsch, who helped organize the RePlatform conference, said in a written statement: “I don’t support racism and never have. People are dying, and lives are on the line. We want to reach the broadest audience possible.”

Within each of these movements, the benefits of supporting each other appear to outweigh any reputational risks. There was a clear message at RePlatform: So long as you’re not breaking laws, let’s do business.

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