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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Gab explained: social networking service used by Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers

The site was founded by entrepreneur Andrew Torba in 2016 and has around 800,000 subscribers

This image shows a Department of Motor Vehicles ID picture of Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect. AFP
This image shows a Department of Motor Vehicles ID picture of Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect. AFP

On Saturday morning in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill armed with an assault rifle and multiple handguns and opened fire indiscriminately on the congregation of a baby-naming ceremony, killing at least 11, and injuring a further six.

Before he entered the synagogue, Bowers logged into his Gab account and wrote: “I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in." This followed a string of regular posts over many months telling immigrants and Jews to “get out” of the United States, as well as posts introducing readers to his “family” of guns.

This image shows a portion of an archived webpage from the social media website Gab, with a Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 posting by Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers. HIAS, mentioned in the posting, is a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. (AP Photo)
Bowers' note from October 27, 2018, which was posted on Gab. AP

What is Gab?

The site introduces itself as a social network that "champions free speech, individual liberty and the free flow of information online. All are welcome." It was founded by entrepreneur Andrew Torba in 2016 and has around 800,000 subscribers.

The US current affairs website Salon described Gab as “Twitter for racists”. The Guardian calls it as a "hate-filled echo chamber of racism and conspiracy theories". A report given to the 3rd CyberSafety Workshop in February found that 5.4 per cent of posts on Gab include hate words.

Even as the world reacted in dismay over the Pittsburgh shooting, extreme right wing users on this platform showed no sign of letting up.

A cursory glance at posts on the site’s “politics” page at the time of writing reveal a user referring to the synagogue shootings as a sign of “a good new world?! Yes”.

Who are its users?

The site’s user list reads like a Who’s Who? of alt-right demagoguery and Twitter bans. Infowarss Alex Jones and Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos both became regular Gabbers after their Twitter accounts were closed down. Other regular users include Clinton-hater Ann Coulter, Islamophobic British fringe group Britain First, and the Vietnamese-American white nationalist Tila Tequila.

Although founder Torba has insisted the site is not implicitly right wing, there is a distinct lack of any left-leaning commentators offering alternative narratives.

Noble intentions?

Perhaps Torba’s intentions were noble when he founded the site. Groups at both ends of the political spectrum have expressed concern about their views being censored on mainstream social media sites. Torba was a registered Democrat until 2016, although he voted for Donald Trump in the last presidential election. He was also kicked out of the tech start-up accelerator Y Combi after he posted a Facebook picture of a Latino chief executive, along with the caption: “Build the wall”.

Torba seems to have a slight blind spot about where free speech ends and mayhem begins: "We want everyone to feel safe on Gab, but we're not going to police what is hate speech and what isn't," he told Wired.

End of the line?

The site had already been refused or removed from the Apple and Google app stores prior to the latest event. Google stated that the app did not "demonstrate a sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and advocates hate against groups of people". Then, in August, Microsoft threatened to suspend the site unless it removed two anti-Semitic posts from Andrew Anglin, founder of the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, which it did.

On Sunday, in the wake of the shootings, PayPal banned Gab, based on its review of accounts that may engage in the "perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance." Later the same day, Gab announced on Twitter that Joyent, its hosting provider, would terminate their service on Monday.

Is the time up for Gab? Time will tell.

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Read more:

US Muslims start fundraisers to help Pittsburgh synagogue victims

Pittsburgh synagogue gunman said he wanted all Jews to die

Eleven dead in Pittsburgh synagogue attack

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