On Saturday, a firearm-wielding man massacred at least 11 people attending Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighbourhood and injured a number of others. The Anti-Defamation League described it as likely the deadliest single attack on the Jewish community in US history.
Authorities identified the suspect, who was captured after a gun battle with responding police, as 46-year-old Robert Bowers — a vitriolic anti-Semite who allegedly announced the attack on the social network Gab.
While Gab and its founder Andrew Torba prefer to pitch the site as a free-speech hub for everyone, in reality Gab is mostly well known as a haven for neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other extremists who have used it as a far-right echo chamber (in many cases after being removed from mainstream platforms).
And now one of its primary fundraising methods has been cut off: On Saturday, PayPal confirmed in an email to Gizmodo that it had terminated Gab’s account in the wake of the attack:
PayPal has cancelled the Gab.Ai account. The company is diligent in performing reviews and taking account actions. When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action.
(Gab’s account on Stripe, another payment processing company, was frozen earlier this month.)
Bowers allegedly posted a screed against the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society [HIAS] on Gab before he went into the synagogue, writing, “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.”
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the same Gab account under his name had previously threatened HIAS, posting a comment reading, “You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
Other obviously hateful prior comments on the account included references to immigrants being “invaders,” calling another user a “deceptive little oven dodger,” and suggesting that a “kike infestation” controlled the highest levels of the US federal government (including the US president), the Post-Gazette wrote. None of these posts are out of the ordinary for Gab, which continues to host users like white supremacist Chris Cantwell and Charlottesville rally organiser Jason Kessler.
In a statement to media outlets, Gab said that its mission was “to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people,” that violence and threats of it were commonplace on other networks like Facebook and Twitter, and that it complies with the law and is working with authorities to ensure they had access to all data from Bowers’ alleged account. However, it also hinted that if unspecified individuals were denied “free speech,” the result would be more violence.
“We have nothing but love for all people and freedom,” Gab wrote. “We have consistently disavowed all violence. Free speech is crucial for the prevention of violence. If people can not express themselves through words, they will do so through violence. No one wants that. No one.”
Reached by email, Torba told Gizmodo he had “No further comment.” However, Gab’s Twitter account has spent much of the day attacking critics, calling the New York Times’ Mike Isaac a “smug inner city elitist,” accusing BuzzFeed of being racist against white people, and calling Twitter “one giant cesspool of Jew-hating lunatics.”
It also took the time to mention the amount of attention Bowers’ attack brought to the site, writing, “We have been getting 1 million hits an hour all day.”
“Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, will get angry when people for call his site a white nationalist website or an alt-right website but anyone who spends time on it knows that it’s a haven for extremists,” Michael Edison Hayden, an open source intelligence analyst at Storyful who specialises in extremism and disinformation, told Gizmodo.
“Violent white supremacist groups like Patriot Front and Atomwaffen Division organise out in the open on Gab. Users frequently call for the murder of women, Jews and other minorities on Gab, and are rewarded with likes and reposts. Dylann Roof is treated as a hero by many Gab users.”
“Robert Bowers, who was one of their own, will receive the same treatment,” Hayden added. “The hashtag #HeroRobertBowers picked up close to 20 posts within only a few hours of the story breaking on Gab and continues to grow.”
Bryan Menegus contributed additional reporting to this story.