A social media service believed to be used by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect to post hateful rants advertises itself as a haven for free speech.
No, not Twitter. The site is Gab, which has become a breeding ground for white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists as more mainstream sites cracked down on hate speech and threats of violence.
By Monday, Gab was effectively — if momentarily — left internet-homeless. It was long ago cut off from smartphone app stores, but it’s now banned by payment processors such as PayPal and internet infrastructure providers. Its founder, Andrew Torba, says the site is being censored and smeared.
Police have identified the shooting suspect as Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh. A man with the same name posted virulently anti-Semitic posts on the morning of Saturday’s shooting. Gab says it suspended the account and contacted law enforcement immediately. In a note posted on Gab.com, Torba said the service has been working with authorities to “bring justice to an alleged terrorist.”
Still, Gab is getting the blame. A slew of tech companies, including domain-name provider GoDaddy and payment companies PayPal and Stripe, dropped Gab. Torba decried that it was “no-platformed” — or kicked off, essentially — by internet infrastructure providers “at every level.”
GoDaddy said Monday that it has given Gab 24 hours to move its domain name to another company for violating its terms of service against promoting violence. GoDaddy said it didn’t act earlier because it had not received “any viable complaints” until this weekend.
PayPal said it had been “closely monitoring” Gab before the shooting and was in the process of canceling the account before Saturday’s events. Stripe declined comment.
Gab now has just a simple home page with Torba’s message. In it, Torba vowed that “Gab isn’t going anywhere.” He said the service is moving to a new hosting provider and “working around the clock” to resume its forums. He didn’t say which company was willing to provide the services.
NOTORIETY IN JUST TWO YEARS
Torba created Gab in August 2016 to counter what he saw as a left-wing censorship of other social networks. While he has insisted that Gab welcomes “everyone,” he told Fox News in 2016 that the site is “getting a lot of people on the right” because they are being censored.
It gained popularity during the U.S. presidential campaigns as Twitter and Facebook were cracking down on false news and banning members of the so-called “alt-right” movement associated with racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
Based on his interviews at the time, Torba was especially incensed by a report in 2016 that Facebook editors were biased against conservative sites when picking the since-shuttered “trending” topics on the social networking giant.
HOW IT WORKS
Gab’s logo, a green frog, has been compared to “Pepe the Frog,” a cartoon frog used as a meme by the alt-right. Instead of tweets, Gab users post “gabs,” which can be up to 300 characters (slightly longer than Twitter) and up- or down-voted by other members (similar to Reddit).
Though it bills itself as a free-speech bastion, Gab still has rules. An archived snapshot from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine shows that Gab bans “illegal pornography” while permitting “legal pornography” as long as it’s clearly marked as #NSFW (not safe for work). Sending spam, selling illegal drugs, impersonating others and violating copyrights are also prohibited, along with sharing people’s private information such as addresses and phone numbers.
The latest bans may have been the most extreme, but it’s not Gab’s first. Google banned Gab from its Android app store in August 2017 as tech companies cracked down on sites popular with white nationalists following a deadly clash at a white-nationalist rally in Virginia. At the time, Gab’s app was already unavailable on Apple’s app store. Until now, Gab remained accessible on the web.
Two months ago, Microsoft threatened to kick Gab off its Azure hosting platform if it didn’t remove violent anti-Semitic content from its service. According to reports and tweets at the time, the Gab user who sent the posts complied and Gab remained on Azure a bit longer (but isn’t any more). Microsoft said it felt uncomfortable with Gab’s ability to adhere to Microsoft’s service terms and terminated its Azure agreement with Gab in September.