Rolling Stone: Adam Rawnsley

When far-right Republican Joe Kent announced he was running for Congress in February of 2021, he also signed up for Gab — a social media platform that even fellow Republicans have called a “cesspool of bigotry and anti-semitism.” But for almost a year after Kent’s announcement, his Gab his account didn’t exactly take off, languishing at a couple thousand followers well into the summer.

Then something funny happened. In December, months after he’d announced his candidacy, Kent’s Gab account saw a sudden spike of over 7,000 new followers, according to analysis for Rolling Stone by Alethea Group, a tech firm that analyzes disinformation, and the Stanford Internet Observatory. Perhaps more surprisingly, 20 percent of all new Gab accounts created during that period followed Kent’s campaign.

The sudden spike of new users to Gab immediately following Kent’s campaign account suggests the Gab platform was intentionally forcing new users to follow the account and drive up its readership — a potential sign that a notoriously antisemitic social media company could’ve been rooting for Kent’s candidacy.

“Kent appears to have gotten well over half of his followers very suddenly in December of 2021,” David Thiel, big data architect and chief technology officer of the Stanford Internet Observatory who reviewed Gab data for Rolling Stone. “Of those, many only follow Kent, Andrew Torba [Gab’s founder and CEO], and Gab itself — the latter two being accounts that are automatically followed on signup. While not conclusive, it is highly likely these accounts followed him automatically,” Thiel told Rolling Stone.

Kent — who’s endorsed by Donald Trump and has echoed the former president’s election denials — is running for the U.S. House in a Washington state district formerly occupied by Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. He defeated her in an August primary, and now faces Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez in November’s general election. Rolling Stone asked both the Kent campaign and Gab’s CEO whether Kent had ever paid the social media company to promote him. Neither answered the question.

If that pattern — new Gab accounts seemingly following a Republican candidate for office automatically — sounds familiar, it’s because reporters found a similar dynamic at play with Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s far-right Republican governor hopeful. In July, Media Matters found that Mastriano had paid the social media company’s CEO $5,000 for “consulting” on his 2022 senate campaign. Followup reporting by The Huffington Post showed that new accounts created on Gab in July automatically followed Mastriano’s account, Torba’s account, and “a handful of far-right media outlets.”

Whatever the source, the apparent effort by someone to bolster Kent’s Gab following highlights the warm embrace that a vanguard of Trump-endorsed politicians have given to far-right figures and groups popular on Gab. Kent, a former Special Forces soldier with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has hired a Proud Boy on his campaign, offered far-right Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson a speaking slot at a fundraiser, and talked campaign strategy with white nationalist activist Nick Fuentes.

Gab has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with candidates like Kent who can push out messages deemed too extreme by mainstream social media outlets (Kent has run afoul of both YouTube and Twitter’s content policies). And candidates like Kent also lend an air of legitimacy to a platform whose founder, Andrew Torba, uses it to “promote antisemitism, right-wing extremist ideologies and conspiracy theories,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

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