Gab, the floundering social media network that serves as an organizing hub for white supremacists, is inflating its number of users in federal securities filings relied on by investors and regulators, a software engineer for Gab’s web hosting company Sibyl System Ltd. tells Hatewatch.
In a series of interviews, emails and text messages, Lilac Kapul said Gab’s claims in U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings on Dec. 19 and Jan. 28 of more than 835,000 users greatly exceeds the internet infrastructure capacity that London-based Sibyl is providing to Gab. Kapul, a resident of Brisbane, Australia, also said Gab’s user data indicates that most of the active users on the site signed up soon after it was launched in August 2016, raising questions about Gab’s claims of rapid growth.
“Based on what they are getting through us services-wise there is no way they have 800,000 users, or it would be very odd if they did,” Kapul told Hatewatch. “I would say they probably have a few thousand or a few tens of thousands. That sounds a lot more believable.”
Hatewatch detailed Gab’s crowdfunding approach to raising money in a story published Jan. 24. The social media company is using provisions in the 2012 JOBS Act that allow startup companies to sell speculative securities to private investors through crowdfunding and stock offerings. In order to do this, Gab is required to submit documentation to the SEC for review. Providing false statements to the SEC can lead to enforcement actions including federal civil law suits and administration actions resulting in cease-and-desist orders.
“I’ve been following their SEC filings, especially when we first took them on as a client … and definitely some things struck me as odd when reading them,” Kapul said.
Kapul, an 18-year-old University of Queensland (Australia) computer science student, is one of at least three very young information technology experts who operate Sibyl’s web hosting service, including one who is a minor living in the U.S., Kapul said.
Sibyl is a shadowy operation with little transparency on its website, a murky history of ownership and no fixed base of operations. Its handful of employees work remotely scattered around the world. Repeated attempts to interview Marcelo Goncalves, the 19- or 20-year-old Portuguese owner of all of Sibyl’s privately held stock, were limited to an exchange of cursory emails. But Kapul provided extensive details of Gab’s operations during interviews over a week.
Sibyl reached a web hosting agreement with Gab last November. The deal happened just days after Gab was dropped by its previous web host, following reports that the suspect in last October’s Pittsburgh synagogue shootings had made threatening statements on Gab prior to the massacre. Gab was offline for a week after Joyent dropped the website.
Kapul said her “rough” estimate of the number of Gab’s users is based on the number and size of computer servers used by Gab and the amount of traffic the site gets. She said Gab is using three servers that handle the website and two servers that act as an entry point to the site. Sibyl has servers located in Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Japan, according to its website.
“The level/extent of infrastructure Gab is purchasing from us [is] much smaller than would be expected for a platform like theirs with over 800,000 users,” Kapul stated in a Feb. 3 email to Hatewatch. “It’s not impossible for them to have an active user count in the hundreds of thousands, however, given the modest number of servers, the nature of their site and the technology they are using, it’s unlikely.”
Kapul said that one would expect a website with 800,000 active users to have tens of thousands of active users per day and about 20,000 to 30,000 active users in a given hour. “That’s probably at least five to 10 times what I expect [the Gab] site could handle,” she said.
Based on Kapul’s estimates, if Gab’s active user base approaches anything near the claims made in the SEC filings, it wouldn’t have enough servers to support the traffic, and the site would crash. Gab appears to have a significant amount of cash available to purchase additional servers, which constitute a relatively low expense. Gab states in the SEC filings it is paying Sibyl $1,175 a month.
Gab reported in its SEC filings that it had $507,000 in cash as of June 30, 2018. It is unknown how much of that cash remains eight months later. The company raised another $1 million through crowdfunding in November 2018, according to a report on StartEngine.com. Gab had transferred $420,000 of the $1 million raised in November into the company as of Dec. 1, according to SEC filings.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba, 27, is the company’s only director and officer and has sole control over Gab’s finances, SEC filings show. Based on the company’s financial reports included in the SEC filings, it appears Torba could have a half million dollars in reserves.
Kapul said Gab told Sibyl in late December it intended to purchase additional servers and hire the company for consulting. After being repeatedly dropped by previous web hosts that objected to the racist and hate-drenched language on the site, Gab has few options to turn to if Sibyl decides to no longer provide web hosting services.
Kapul also questioned Gab’s claims in SEC filings of steady increases in users from about 1,000 in August 2016 to 835,000 by mid-December.
“The vast majority of users who show up in the most popular pages, signed up at about the same time” soon after the website was launched, she said.
Kapul’s assertion that Gab is overstating its users comes less than three weeks after Hatewatch reported that Storyful, a social media intelligence company owned by News Corp that analyzes data from fringe platforms, found only 19,526 unique usernames had posted content on Gab during a seven-day time period between Jan. 9 and Jan. 16.
Gab did not respond to interview requests for this story. Gab’s attorney, Jeffrey S. Marks of Newport Coast, California, stated in a Feb. 2 email, “To the best of our knowledge, all of our regulatory disclosures are true and correct.”
Gab’s official Twitter account @GetonGab on Jan. 31 responded to Hatewatch’s earlier story, saying, “Our regulatory disclosures speak for themselves.”
Torba, however, continues to boast about Gab’s rapid growth. Torba claimed in a Feb. 7 op-ed published in the online magazine Quilette that Gab was “closing in fast on one million” users, repeating a familiar pattern of suggesting the website is growing in popularity – without offering evidence.
Sibyl reached out to Gab after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting
Gab reached an agreement with Sibyl to provide webhosting services after the Oct. 27 Tree of Life terror attack in Pittsburgh. Robert Bowers, a 46-year-old man who posted antisemitic propaganda on Gab under the handle @OneDingo, has been charged with murdering 11 people in a Jewish synagogue. Federal prosecutors also charged Bowers with hate crimes in late January. The indictment cited three posts Bowers made on Gab.
Kapul said Sibyl was aware that Gab had been dropped by previous web hosting companies. She said while she did not know about Gab’s reputation as a haven for hate speech nor its connection to the Tree of Life synagogue murders, others in the company were aware and reached out to Gab the day after the shooting via Twitter offering to provide web hosting services.
Kapul said Sibyl plans to approach Gab to “see if they would be willing to implement moderation policies” concerning hate speech. At the same time, Kapul said Sibyl is concerned about losing Gab because the company, if its business plan is successful, could generate substantial revenue for Sibyl in the future.
“But we definitely don’t want to support any of things that Gab seems to be supporting,” she said. “We are looking at how we can respond to that.”
Sibyl hasn’t always taken a such a principled stand toward Gab. Kapul’s comments mark a sharp reversal of the company’s previous public statements about the site. On Dec. 17, Sibyl tweeted:
The Free Speech Web will protect you, you can be sure @EpikDotCom will provide you with the perfect secure domain, @getongab will allow you to speak freely and we @sibyl_ltd will protect your privacy and free speech no matter what the media throws at you.
On Feb. 4, Sibyl’s Twitter account posted another message expressing support for Gab. In a reply to a tweet posted by @NYCAntifa, an account that publishes content on behalf of New York City-area antifascists, Sibyl stated, “We are very proud of keeping Gab alive and protecting free speech.”
When asked about Sibyl’s tweet supporting Gab, Kapul stated in a series of text messages on Feb. 5 that “those comments do not reflect the views of Sibyl” and that the person who posted the Twitter message “is no longer managing any of our social media.”
Sibyl’s “views” include strong support for “free speech” websites that often serve as a cover for hate groups. Sibyl has provided web hosting services for the misogynist website Incels.is, which is the largest forum for men who claim that they are “involuntarily celibate.” The forum is notable for vile content denigrating women urging violent retribution against them. Forum users praise mass murderers who target women as “saints.”
Sibyl’s official Twitter handle follows only 18 accounts, including @Alucard0143, an obscure Twitter user who claims on their website that he or she helps people store pedophilic Japanese cartoons, or “loli.” In April of 2018,@Alucard0143 used Twitter to advocate for a man who was arrested on child porn charges.
Goncalves, Sibyl’s owner, described @Alucard0143 as a “friend of the company” in a Feb. 6 email to Hatewatch. @Alucard0143, who spoke to Hatewatch over Twitter’s direct message feature, said that he or she did “consulting” for Sibyl. In response to a question about appearing to support the propagation of pedophilic content online, the user told Hatewatch their actions were “legal in the country [it] was hosted in.”
Sibyl also is notable for its opaque corporate history. The company was first incorporated in the Seychelles in 2017, Kapul said. The Seychelles are well known as a money laundering center and a location to hide corporate ownership. In late October 2018, Sibyl incorporated in England under the management of Cristina Silva and Marcelo Goncalves, both described as Portuguese, according to British business records.
Four days after Hatewatch published its Jan. 24 story that disclosed Sibyl had quietly become Gab’s web host, Silva resigned as a director and corporate secretary and ceased to be Sibyl’s sole shareholder. On the same day, Silva transferred all 1,000 shares of Sibyl’s stock to Goncalves, who then became Sibyl’s director and corporate secretary. The records state Goncalves was born in 1999.
Kapul said Silva’s resignation was unrelated to Sibyl’s business with Gab. Silva, who reportedly was born in 1970 according to the business records, could not be reached for comment. Silva’s Scotland address provided in Sibyl’s British regulatory filings does not show up in Google Earth or Google Maps.
Sibyl announced on Jan. 29 that it had moved its virtual office to a London address operated by Garden Studios, which provides shared work space and virtual offices. Kapul said Sibyl does not have an employee working at the London office and uses the location as a virtual office.
In a response to a Hatewatch email seeking comment from Goncalves, someone using the name Miao Nyaa responded through a Sibyl email account stating that he is the owner and founder of Sibyl LTD. In a subsequent email, Nyaa stated he was Goncalves. He declined to provide additional information about himself or agree to an interview. He did, however, echo Kapul’s expressed opposition to hate speech.
“Sibyl does not support hate speech, and we do not seek to promote or enable it,” Nyaa stated in the email. “We will not comment further on the circumstances surrounding our client.”
Blaming ‘the enemy’
While Sibyl has been undergoing corporate restructuring, Gab’s operations were enmeshed in turmoil that began soon after Hatewatch published its story on Jan. 24.
The company switched its verified Twitter account @GetonGab to private on Jan. 27, making it so that people who were not already following the account couldn’t read what it was publishing.
“This feed is now private which is why you can’t [retweet posts]. Scarcity creates value and drives up demand,” @GetonGab announced to its followers in a post that has since been deleted.
Gab.com repeatedly crashed over the next several days, and users of the site were greeted with waves of 404 error messages, glitches and new accounts advertising pornographic material.
Gab attempted to blame the end of the partial government shutdown to the problems on its website. “Friday: Government shutdown ends. Monday: Gab hit with 50K spam bots attacking the site. Weird!” the @GetonGab Twitter account wrote on Jan. 29 from under its locked Twitter feed.
Minutes later, the company then fired off a thread of four tweets in all caps:
ILLEGAL BOT ACCOUNTS WILL BE DEPORTED. BUILD THE FIREWALL. WE NEED EXTREME VETTING. MAKE GAB GREAT AGAIN!
The next day, Jan. 30, Gab locked down its entire website.
Gab first announced that it would stop new signups, making it possible to join Gab only through an invite code. The codes can only be issued by a subscription-paying “Gab Pro” member. Gab stated it had 5,000 Gab Pro members in its last two SEC filings. Gab then announced on Feb. 5 that any user of the site, not only Gab Pro members, could invite others to join.
Kapul said websites that don’t have sufficient server capacity to handle traffic frequently turn to invitation codes to limit users.
Gab also eliminated its “live topics” feature, which enabled users to discuss particular subjects under a unified theme. There were several live topics created under which users were criticizing Torba, Gab’s CEO, and his business practices at the time the feature was removed.
Gab users complained about changes to the site both on the website and on Twitter.
“I had to delete my old Gab because my followers got flooded with bots and porn posters, more than I could block,” a Twitter user going by the handle @annie7589 complained to Gab on Feb. 2. “I wish I could create a new account, but I don’t have an access code.”
Torba posted a comment about the changes from his verified Gab account on Feb. 2, blaming the rash of problems with his site on “the enemy.”
“The enemy’s goal is to drive you all off of Gab. To make Gab unusable and flooded with bots, spam, and technical problems,” Torba wrote to his followers. “We aren’t going to let it happen.”
Photo illustration by SPLC