On Gab, an Extremist-Friendly Site, Pittsburgh Shooting Suspect Aired His Hatred in Full

Kevin Roose, New York Times, October 28, 2018

Early Saturday, moments before the police say he barged into a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire, Robert Bowers’s anti-Semitic rage finally boiled over as he posted one last message online.

But he did not turn to Facebook or Twitter. Instead, the man accused of killing 11 people went to Gab, a two-year-old social network that bills itself as a “free speech” alternative to those platforms, and that has become a haven for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists. There, he posted a signoff to his followers:

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There have long been hateful enclaves online, and chat rooms and message boards where white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists have congregated. But the popularity of mainstream mega-platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube has created environments in which misinformation and hate can multiply, and where extremists can attempt to convert — or “red pill,” in the parlance of right-wing internet activists — a new generation to their cause.

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, once guided by the principle of free speech, have come to realize that an anything-goes approach is ripe for exploitation, and ultimately bad for business.

“The challenge faced by any platform that allows everything permitted under U.S. law is that if left unabated, the most objectionable content will inevitably take over,” said Micah Schaffer, a former policy leader at YouTube and Snap who is now a technology policy consultant. {snip}

Facebook and Twitter’s attempts to crack down on hateful and violent speech have been inconsistent, and many objectionable posts still slip through the cracks. {snip}

But the companies have made earnest efforts to clean up their platforms — and in the process, they have pushed some extremists to alternative venues like Gab.

Mr. Bowers’s affiliation with Gab has already cost the company dearly. On Saturday, the company’s web hosting provider, Joyent, said it would stop hosting the site, according to an email posted by Gab on Twitter. Gab’s website went offline Sunday night and was replaced with a statement saying that its service would be temporarily inaccessible while it switched to a new hosting provider.

“We have been systematically no-platformed by App Stores, multiple hosting providers and several payment processors,” the statement read.

In addition, GoDaddy, the domain name provider, told Gab it had 24 hours to move its domain name to another service, after finding content on the site that promoted violence.

The payment processing platform Stripe, which Gab has used to receive fees for its paid Gab Pro membership level, and which froze Gab’s account this month for violating its terms of service, said it was suspending transfers to the company’s bank account pending an investigation, according to another email posted to Twitter by Gab. PayPal, another payment processor, canceled Gab’s account, saying it had been closely monitoring the site even before Saturday’s massacre.

“When a site is allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action,” a PayPal spokesman said. {snip}

Gab, which was started in 2016 by a conservative programmer, Andrew Torba, who was fed up with what he saw as Silicon Valley’s left-wing censorship, was a controversial project from the start. The announcement of its introduction doubled as a broadside against political correctness, which the company said had “become a cancer on discourse and culture.” Gab, its creator said, would be a social network where all speech would be welcome, no matter how noxious or offensive.

In an email interview on Saturday, Mr. Torba, Gab’s chief executive, said that he had not reviewed all of Mr. Bowers’s posts, but that the company had turned over information about his account to law enforcement agencies and was cooperating with the investigation.

“Because he was on Gab, law enforcement now have definitive evidence for a motive,” Mr. Torba wrote. “They would not have had this evidence without Gab. We are proud to work with and support law enforcement in order to bring justice to this alleged terrorist.”

Technically, there was nothing special about Gab at the start — its interface was buggy and unattractive, and it lacked the features of more established social networks. But the platform’s intentionally slim rule book attracted a crowd of extremists, including white nationalists and neo-Nazis, who had been banned from other social platforms. {snip}

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his is not Gab’s first run-in with controversy. Last year, Google banned the company’s app for failing to moderate hateful content. (The app was rejected by Apple.) In August, Microsoft threatened to cut off Gab’s access to its Azure cloud service after posts surfaced on the site advocating genocidal violence against Jews. The posts were ultimately taken down.

Mr. Torba insisted in his email that the shooting had not changed his mind about Gab’s core mission of promoting free speech.

“Twitter and other platforms police ‘hate speech’ as long as it isn’t against President Trump, white people, Christians, or minorities who have walked away from the Democratic Party,” he wrote. “This double standard does not exist on Gab.”

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The site, which functions like a combination of Twitter and Reddit and claims to have more than 700,000 members, is not exclusively for bigots. It has areas for various interest groups, including cryptocurrency traders, doomsday preppers and fans of Japanese-style animated pornography. But Gab’s most popular posts espouse far-right ideology.

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In the past several years, as Twitter and Facebook have stepped up their enforcement of policies to prevent hate speech and abuse, some white nationalists and neo-Nazis have been forced to find other ways to communicate.

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Asked if Gab would be changing any of its policies in response to the mass shooting, Mr. Torba gave an unequivocal answer.

“Absolutely not.”

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