The murder of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday has brought new attention to Gab, the social media service that bills itself as pro-free speech and serves as a gathering place for white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other extremist figures online, and counted among its users suspected gunman Robert Bowers.
Shortly before Bowers attacked the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pa., he posted to Gab. “Screw your optics, I’m going in,” he wrote to an audience that included white nationalists, some of whom had been kicked off mainstream sites like Twitter and Facebook and joined Gab, which was founded in August 2016.
According to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, approximately 635,000 people were registered on Gab as of Sept. 10, 2018. By comparison, Twitter boasted an average of 326 million monthly active users during approximately the same time period.
Bowers’s Gab profile was quickly suspended after the site’s administrators were alerted to a verified account linked to the suspected gunman. But the backlash cost the site its cloud host, Joyent, and domain provider, GoDaddy, and as of Monday afternoon, it was offline. PayPal banned Gab a few hours after the shooting, stating that they were in “process of canceling the site’s account before today’s tragic events occurred.” (Stripe, another payment processing company, also dropped the platform.) Gab posted its initial response to the shooting on Medium, but the publishing site has also now suspended the company’s account.
“Gab isn’t going anywhere,” the company’s founder and CEO Andrew Torba declared in a statement posted to the site’s now deactivated homepage. “We will exercise every possible avenue to keep Gab online and defend free speech and individual liberty for all people.”
Torba, who was just 25 when he launched Gab, is the former CEO of an advertising technology company called Kuhcoon (later renamed Automate Ads), which he created from his home in Scranton, Pa., in 2011. Torba moved to California in late 2014, when his startup was picked for the Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley incubator. Friends told Bloomberg News that, as a political conservative, he felt out of place in Silicon Valley. In various interviews, Torba has explained that he was motivated to create Gab during the 2016 presidential election after reading reports that major social media companies like Facebook may unfairly promote posts and topics discussed by liberal users over conservative ones.
“I didn’t set out to build a ‘conservative social network’ by any means, but I felt that it was time for a conservative leader to step up and to provide a forum where anybody can come and speak freely without fear of censorship,” Torba told the Washington Post in November 2016.
“Every major communication outlet, every major social network, is run, owned, controlled and operated by progressive leaders, progressive workers in Silicon Valley,” he said.
Shortly after the election, Torba further alienated himself from many of his peers, getting kicked out of a Y Combinator online alumni group for directing profane, anti-immigrant language at other members.
Torba, a Trump supporter and self-described “conservative Republican Christian,” has maintained that Gab’s mission is to facilitate free speech online and that supporters of all ideologies are welcome. Nonetheless, Gab immediately attracted users from the far right, including a number of well-known alt-right, extremist, and fringe figures, such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos and Alex Jones, who were losing their mainstream social media platforms around the time Torba launched Gab.
“It’s hard for me to dissociate Gab from the reason it was founded, which was quote-unquote left wing censorship,” said Keegan Hankes, an expert on online extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Hankes says Torba established Gab to give a platform to “the most extreme hate groups, leaders and extremists being purged from major social media platforms for blatantly inappropriate and harmful behavior.”
“He looked at that and created a home for those people to come live in, and he knew it,” said Hankes. “The type of behavior [Y Combinator] threw him off for is kind of the type of behavior that is definitely a core part of Gab.”
“The biggest thing about it is there are basically no rules. You can go on there and say anything you want virtually, no matter how disgusting or vitriolic or ultimately dangerous,” Hankes said, adding that the swift suspension of Bowers’s account on Saturday was “the first time I’ve seen them do it willingly, in a proactive way.”
Hankes noted that Torba — who appears to make all the decisions about moderating content on Gab — has only been moved to remove particularly offensive or threatening posts from the site on a couple of occasions, and only in response to threats from online hosting providers.
“That, I think, illustrates how far he’s willing to take this kind of free speech absolutism, and of course that’s why you have every major hate group leader on there, using it,” said Hankes.
Saturday was “the first time that I think there’s been a very, very clear connection between someone’s activity on Gab and some sort of real-world tragedy,” Hankes said, but added that the site is still young. “It didn’t take Gab very long to find itself a bona fide murderer, allegedly, on its platform.”
Most of the organizers and leading figures in last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, including those who’ve been arrested in connection to violence at that event, had accounts on Gab before it was taken offline.
Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that while he doesn’t believe Torba himself is a white supremacist or an extremist, the free-speech narrative he’s adopted in defense of his platform is similar to the one that has been embraced by far-right groups.
“I think what he has done is not only provide a platform, but has ignored calls for corporate and social responsibility,” Segal told Yahoo News.
Wired editor Nicholas Thompson questioned whether the moral case for shutting down Gab, and other sites like it, should override the free speech argument for keeping it around — and whether the tech companies who have the power to make such decisions are using it wisely.
“Should Gab have been knocked away? If your first principle is free speech, of course not,” Thompson wrote Monday. “Anti-Semitism is not illegal, and providing a platform where anti-Semites post is not illegal either. Threats of violence are illegal, but Gab says that it does its best to remove them.”
Thompson also raised a practical question about the fallout from dismantling Gab. “Pushing the alt-right off Twitter drove them to Gab,” he pointed out. “Will shutting down Gab just push people to Voat [a Reddit-like forum that boasts a “no censorship” policy], or whatever comes next?”
Segal noted that he and his colleagues at the ADL have recently observed conversations among the extremists they observe online regarding next steps in light of Gab’s current removal from the internet, and whether that Gab will find a new home or be forced to take their content to another platform that shares a belief in uncensored speech.
“This is the beginning of this discussion,” he said, referring to the issue of hate speech online. “Gab being taken down is not the end.”