The suspect in the deadly shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue was reported to be a user of Gab, a small social networking site that prides itself on providing a platform for free speech — but has become a gathering point for far-right users.
An account linked to Robert Bowers, the 46-year-old Pittsburgh resident, wrote on Gab Saturday morning: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish nonprofit group that has the goal of helping refugees.
Bowers said he had a “desire to kill Jewish people,” U.S. attorney Scott Brady told reporters Sunday morning.
Bowers used anti-Semitic slurs on Gab and called Jews an “infestation” and a “problem,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Bowers also used the common white supremacist slogan “1488” in his profile, the group says, combining the classic white supremacist “14 words” with 88, which is code for “Heil Hitler.”
Gab posted a message on Medium after Saturday’s shooting, saying, “Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence. This has always been our policy. We are saddened and disgusted by the news of violence in Pittsburgh and are keeping the families and friends of all victims in our thoughts and prayers.”
The site said it took down the account linked to Robert Bowers and has been in contact with law enforcement and is ready “to see to it that justice is served.
Andrew Torba, who co-founded Gab and is its CEO, has said the network was made to “step up and defend free speech, defend individual liberty, defend the free flow of information that I saw under attack.”
Torba is a Trump supporter who was reportedly “once kicked out of the prestigious Silicon Valley tech accelerator Y Combinator’s alumni network for calling his colleagues ‘cucks,’ ” The Daily Beast reported.
A casual scroll through Gab’s message boards finds plenty of anti-Semitism, racism, Nazism and sexism running through its messages, along with conspiracy theories. The website boasts plenty of standard social media fare as well, including messages about music, art and sports.
As NPR’s Alina Selyukh reported last year, “many members of the far right and others who feel their views are stifled by mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook” have gravitated toward Gab, with its promise of few restrictions on speech.
The site often responds to critics by pointing blame to Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites for the speech that can be found on those platforms:
Paypal cut the website off from its payment system on Saturday, according to Gab’s Twitter feed. Paypal cited Gab’s allowing “the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance” as the reason, The Verge reports.
Gab said later on Saturday that its hosting provider Joyent pulled its service for the site effective Monday, meaning “Gab will likely be down for weeks because of this.”
The site’s community standards have loose restrictions without an explicit ban on hate speech. They do, however, ban users from “calling for the acts of violence against others,” and “threatening language or behaviour that clearly, directly and incontrovertibly infringes on the safety of another user or individual(s).”
Gab is headquartered in Philadelphia as of March and also lists an address in Clarks Summit, Penn., in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in September. It says it has two employees.
Gab launched in private beta in August 2016 before opening to the public in May 2017, according to a fundraising page for the site. Since then its user base has grown from 300,000 users in November of last year to about 800,000 today, the company says.
In a filing with the SEC in March, the site’s operators say they expect to appeal to “over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist, and populist internet users” who use sites like Breitbart, DrudgeReport.com and InfoWars.com as people leave social networks that “censor conservative views.”