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

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

Posted Updated

Kevin Roose
, New York Times

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

But he didn’t turn to Facebook or Twitter. Instead, the man accused of killing at least 11 people went to Gab, a 2-year-old social network that bills itself as a “free speech” alternative to those platforms and has become a haven for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists. There, he posted a signoff to his followers.

“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” Bowers wrote. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Gab’s affiliation with Bowers has already cost the company dearly. On Saturday, the company’s web hosting provider, Joyent, moved to shut down the site, according to an email posted by Gab on Twitter. 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 on Twitter by Gab. PayPal, another payment processor, canceled Gab’s account, saying that it had been closely monitoring the site since 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. Representatives for Joyent and Stripe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gab’s website was still online as of late Sunday morning.

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. Its launch announcement 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 Saturday, Torba, Gab’s chief executive, said that he had not reviewed all of Bowers’ 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,” 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. Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart writer whose harassment campaigns got him kicked off Twitter, signed up for an account. So did Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi publication Daily Stormer, and Richard Spencer, the well-known white nationalist.

Within months, Gab had become a last refuge for internet scoundrels — a place where those with views considered too toxic for the mainstream could congregate and converse freely. The site’s guidelines prohibit threats of violence, but not hateful speech.

Gab’s reputation for accommodating extremism may have been what drew Bowers to the site. In January, he signed up for an account, and began sharing anti-Jewish images, conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world, and criticism of President Donald Trump — whom, he implied, was too accommodating of Jewish influence. He appeared to have other social media accounts, but Gab was where he aired his hatred in full. His biography on the site read, “Jews are the children of Satan,” and a photo on his profile included the number 1488, a winking reference that is popular among white supremacists.

After Bowers was named as a suspect in the mass shooting, Gab released a statement saying that it “unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence.” The company spent much of Saturday replying to its critics on Twitter, and deflecting blame by pointing out that Bowers also had accounts on other social networks. The company boasted that its website was getting 1 million views per hour in the aftermath of the Pittsburgh shootings.

This 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.

Torba insisted 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.”

What did exist on Gab was a flurry of posts made by people who appeared to share Bowers’ hatred for Jews.

The site, which functions like a combination of Twitter and Reddit, is not exclusively for bigots. It has areas for various interest groups, including cryptocurrency traders, doomsday preppers and fans of Japanese-style animated pornography. In recent days, it has attracted a crowd of Brazilians who are fans of the far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro, after Facebook and Twitter took down a number of accounts that were pushing misinformation and hate speech in the country. Gab recently boasted of having 700,000 members, although it is not clear how many of those people actively use the site.

Despite its claims of pan-partisan appeal, Gab’s most popular posts espouse far-right ideology. A video about Nazi Germany appeared on the site’s “trending” section Saturday, along with videos posted by Infowars, the conspiracy-riddled news site started by Alex Jones. Posts by the site’s members in recent days include a torrent of anti-Semitic cartoons, conspiracy theories and denunciations of liberal censorship.

“Gab became their safe haven because it was actively recruiting the worst of the worst,” said Joan Donovan, a media manipulation researcher with the nonprofit organization Data and Society. “Gab’s users have complained of a global Jewish conspiracy to control the internet, where Gab is the only place online where they can network with one another.” In the last several years, as Twitter and Facebook have stepped up their enforcement of policies to prevent hate speech and abuse, an “alt-tech” movement has tried to replace popular internet services with more lenient ones of its own design. None of these efforts has succeeded, and hardened white nationalists and neo-Nazis have been forced into an increasingly precarious corner of the internet, hopping between mainstream platforms as they are discovered and banned.

Discord, a chat app built for video gamers, became a haven of white nationalists last year, who used the service to plan and execute the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The company subsequently shut down several large far-right groups, but many have since reappeared.

On Saturday, a Discord channel populated by neo-Nazis filled with chatter and gossip about Bowers’ possible involvement in a mass shooting of Jews. Several members praised Bowers, while others criticized him for jeopardizing the neo-Nazi movement’s long-term prospects by resorting to violence.

“This guy just blew out the kneecaps of the movement in order to kill some no name Jews,” one member wrote.

Representatives from Discord did not respond to a request for comment.

On Gab, however, the talk was less about Bowers and the anti-Jewish movement, and more about what was happening to the platform itself. On Saturday, as Gab’s service providers began to cut ties, one of the most popular posts on the site speculated that the company was being unfairly targeted because “Gab is the free speech platform Jews want to destroy.”

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

“Absolutely not.”

Copyright 2023 New York Times News Service. All rights reserved.