Soon after Robert Bowers was named as a suspect in Saturday’s deadly mass killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, his profile and recent posts on the controversial social media platform Gab.com made clear that anti-Semitism was his motive.
“Jews are the children of satan,” Bowers wrote on his profile page, while his most recent post, or “gab,” blamed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which provides services to refugee populations, for enabling “invaders” to “kill our people,” a sentiment that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as a “deeper conspiratorial worldview that cast Jews as the most urgent threat to the white race.” Shortly before Bowers burst through the synagogue doors and opened fire while shouting “all Jews must die,” he posted on Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
As news of Bowers’ Gab.com account spread, the two-year-old platform’s business relationships quickly began to crumble. Not long after the massacre, Gab posted a statement on its Medium page saying it “unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence.” Soon after, their Medium account was suspended. On Saturday afternoon, PayPal banned Gab from its payment platform for “explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance,” according to The Verge.
On Saturday night, the cloud-hosting company Joylent announced that it would be suspending the platform as of Monday for violating their Terms of Service. Shortly thereafter, the payment processing site Stripe suspended the platform while it conducts an investigation, writing in an email notification that the platform had “not provided us sufficient evidence that Gab actually prevents violations of our policies.” By Sunday morning, GoDaddy had determined that Gab.com was in violation of their terms of service, and gave them 24 hours to find a new provider. For now, the platform is offline.
According to Gab CEO Andrew Torba, the site actually helped with the case, because after Bowers was named as the Pittsburgh shooting suspect, the platform took down his Gab.com profile and immediately began cooperating with the authorities.
“Because he was on Gab, law enforcement now have definitive evidence for a motive,” Torba wrote in an email to the New York Times. “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.”
Gab.com launched in August 2016 as a “censorship-free” alternative to Twitter and Facebook, after the social media sites increased efforts to crack down on harassment and hate speech, including banning a number of white supremacist and far-right accounts. Gab.com looks and operates like a mashup between Twitter and Reddit — users blast out messages called “gabs,” which others can respond to, share, and vote up or down.
“We promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online,” Torba told Wired in September 2016, a month after the platform launched. “We want everyone to feel safe on Gab, but we’re not going to police what is hate speech and what isn’t.”
While “everyone” may be welcome, Gab.com quickly became a safe space for those with extremist views on race, gender, sexual identity and immigration, including former Breitbart writer Milo Yiannopoulos, #Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and “crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell. Though Gab.com has rules against posting child pornography, doxing and making violent or terrorist threats — they advise users to “try to be nice and kind to one another” — it has become an echo chamber for racist, antisemitic, homophobic, transphobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Gab.com has directly benefited from Twitter and Facebook’s attempts to crack down on abusive behavior and “fake news” — when Twitter permanently suspended a number of far-right accounts after the 2016 election, Torba bragged that Gab.com gained 60,000 new members in just over a week.
Now, ironically enough, Gab is using Twitter and Facebook to keep its users updated on the takedown — though Torba has said he expects they’ll soon be banned on those platforms as well. Their website has also gone dark, save for a defiant message on its website about being “under attack” and “systematically no-platformed,” vowing to work “around the clock to get Gab.com back online.”
“We have been smeared by the mainstream media for defending free expression and individual liberty for all people and for working with law enforcement to ensure that justice is served for the horrible atrocity committed in Pittsburgh,” the message reads. “Gab will continue to fight for the fundamental human right to speak freely.”