Controversial Gab platform faces crackdown after Pittsburgh shooting

Gab, a social media haven for far right groups, is facing a crackdown after the alleged shooter who killed eleven people in a Pittsburgh synagogue used the platform to share his views.

Robert Bowers, 46, had posted hateful messages, including that “jews are the children of satan.” In his final post before the shooting, Bowers wrote “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Bowers was charged Monday with 29 felony counts, including 11 counts for using a firearm to commit murder.

{mosads}Gab has defended itself as “the home of free speech online,” and says it bears no responsibility for the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday.

The company did not delete any of Bowers’s previous racist or violent posts per its free speech policy, which does not moderate most content. That stance has led to neo-Nazis and white supremacists flocking to the site after being barred from other social media platforms and earned Gab criticism from anti-hate groups.

The shooting in Pittsburgh is bringing new scrutiny on the platform and has already led a number of tech service providers to finally cut ties with Gab.

GoDaddy, which hosted its domain, and PayPal, both ended service to the social media company on Monday.

The company is looking for an alternative hosting platform to get back online but is currently down.

The crackdown on Gab parallels the social media fallout after the Unite the Right rally, which brought white nationalists to Charlottesville, Va. in 2017.

After the violence there, which included the killing of Heather Heyer, a young counter-protester, internet giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google rushed to kick white nationalists off their platforms.

Those moves earned praise. Civil rights groups, though, say racist groups just moved to Gab, and question why companies that provide tech services did not act sooner.

They want companies across the board to be more proactive especially against content that advocates violence.

Concerns about the role of social media have been heightened by another high profile case. Cesar Soyac, Jr. was arrested and charged last week in connection with sending bombs to CNN, prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump. He regularly posted conspiracy theories and threats on social media, yet his accounts were active until his arrest Friday.

“What we’d like to see is more proactive action on extremist content and materials that can be found on social media sites,” said Steven Cohen, communications director at the Counter Extremism Project, a non-profit calling for tougher enforcement of hateful content on the internet. “It shouldn’t be something that happens after the fact.”

For its part, Gab insists that it “disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence.”

The company took down Bowers’s account after he was identified as the suspected shooter and saved all the data from the account.

“We then contacted the FBI and made them aware of this account and the user data in our possession. We are ready and willing to work with law enforcement to see to it that justice is served,” Gab said in a statement on Saturday.

The company also took a shot at its social media rivals.

“Question: where is the statement from Facebook and others where he had an account? Gab acted swiftly and immediately,” it said in a post.

In a statement issued Monday after PayPal and GoDaddy cut ties with Gab, the company’s CEO Andrew Torba took a defiant stand and said they were working to get back online.
“No platform us all you want. Ban us all you want. Smear us all you want. You can’t stop an idea,” he wrote.

GoDaddy is giving the site 24 hours, until late Monday, to move to another host, while PayPal said that it would immediately prevent payments to the site. Gab also claimed that it has been removed from mobile app stores.

The company has said that it has 800,000 users, a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of active users boasted by major social media networks. But critics say Gab plays an outsized role in emboldening extremists.

Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that problems magnify when hate groups are left unchecked such as on Gab.

“Violence doesn’t start randomly,” Segal said. “Any platform that enables or allows for an echo chamber of extremism to not only exist, but to spread, … makes those who engage … in the promotion of hatred feel that they have a community of like-minded sympathizers.”

On platforms such as Gab, he worried, extremists find “people who appreciate them for their hate.”

Theresa Payton, former White House CIO under President George W. Bush and currently CEO of cybersecurity firm Fortalice Solutions, also dismissed Gab’s arguments against any censorship.

“This type of activity was never intended to be protected under free speech,” Payton told The Hill. “We have been very clear that the First Amendment has protected free speech, but we draw the line when the speech incites violence and harm.”

Since Charlottesville, tech companies have taken action to remove hateful or violent speech from their platforms. But critics say they still move slowly unless high-profile incidents such as the Pittsburgh shooting or the Florida bomber spur action.

Major tech companies only banned Infowars host Alex Jones for speech violating their terms of service after a pressure campaign. Spotify and Apple were the first to boot him from their platforms for violent speech. After that, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter quickly announced that Jones was no longer welcome on their platforms either.

Even when tech companies take action, though, critics note that many troublesome content avoids notice. Google Plus, for example, became a home for clusters of pro-ISIS and neo-Nazi groups who went undetected at first.

Tech watchers expressed frustration after the Pittsburgh shooting.

“This is something I would have thought we would have learned our lesson with from Charlottesville and to see us repeating this pattern is disconcerting,” said Payton.

While the focus is now on Gab and its policies, extremist content can spread.

Groups that made a home on Gab are already debating whether to move to platforms such as WrongThink and Minds, which have similar policies to Gab. Others are pushing to double down in closed-off communities like Discord, where they already have a strong presence.

“Now that Gab is down, we’re seeing the extremists talking about where they’re migrating to next,” Segal warned.

He added that newer platforms will have to wrestle with the same questions as Gab and others.

“It’s in their hands,” he said.

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