Reddit alternative Voat shut down on Christmas Day, citing a lack of operational funding, and casting doubt on the abilities of other similar almost-anything-goes, “free speech” platforms to stay online in the long run.
“I just can’t keep it up,” Voat cofounder Justin Chastain said in the shutdown announcement. Investment dried up in March 2020, he explained. “I personally decided to keep Voat up until after the U.S. election of 2020. I’ve been paying the costs out of pocket but now I’m out of money.”
Voat first launched in 2014 as a smaller Reddit alternative dedicated to “free speech,” including explicit hate speech, extreme right-wing content, racism, and other content limited or prohibited on other sites. It gained traction in 2015, when Reddit finally banned several explicitly racist subreddits from its platform in a bid to limit harassment, and some discontented Reddit users decided to migrate over.
In the middle of 2015, Voat’s web host, Host Europe, suspended service to the platform, saying, “we will not tolerate any form of illegal right-wing extremist content and we explicitly distance ourselves from this.” (Host Europe is based in Germany, which has stronger hate speech laws than the US.)
PayPal also suspended Voat’s account in 2015, amid allegations the platform was hosting sexually explicit images of minors. Voat removed several forums in the wake of the suspension, including the ones dedicated to “jailbait,” and switched to accepting donations in digital currencies such as bitcoin.
By 2020, another wave of users booted off other platforms had migrated to Voat: QAnon adherents. The QAnon conspiracy is linked to several incidents of real-world violence. Reddit banned several Q-linked communities in 2018, and Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube followed suit in 2020.
Several other so-called “free speech” platforms have also launched in the past few years, as mainstream social media companies try to keep the worst of the hate speech and violent threats they can catch off their own sites. These efforts, so far, have been mixed. Gab, for example, launched in 2016 only to become an immediate haven for neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, including the shooter who committed mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018. Apple and Google both kicked Gab out of their respective mobile app stores; Gab now uses Mastodon as a platform, allowing it to have a mobile presence.
More recently, Parler has entered the fray. Where Voat and Gab were perhaps designed to be less partisan but more extremist, Parler is not necessarily extremist but skews heavily partisan, drawing mostly conservative and right-wing users based on false claims that other social media sites “censor” conservative views for political reasons. The site soared in popularity over the summer and into the fall but engagement largely dropped off in the wake of the November election.