Robert Bowers killed 11 people in a synagogue Saturday because they were Jewish. According to his social media activity, he had been harboring his hatred for Jewish people for months, and just hours before Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire, he announced on the anything-goes social media site Gab that he can no longer “sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.” That post followed dozens of other anti-Semitic missives from Bowers, who had apparently found in Gab a safe place to express and nurture his hatred for Jewish people.
It makes sense that Bowers would feel safe to be as hateful as he wants on Gab. That’s the whole point of the social network. It’s supposed to be a place where users won’t get booted off for hate speech, built in response to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which have become more active in ousting hate from their sites in recent years. When Bowers’ Gab profile and final declaration were unearthed, the company swiftly archived and deleted his account, issuing a statement that they have a clear “zero tolerance” policy against violence and are cooperating with law enforcement.
Nevertheless, fingers are being pointed at Gab, and the future of the website is in peril. On Saturday, PayPal banned Gab from using its payment processing. Hours later, Stripe followed suit, as did Joyent, the company that provided cloud-hosting services for Gab, after which Gab wrote on Twitter that it has “until 9am on Monday to find a solution. Gab will likely be down for weeks because of this. Working on solutions. We will never give up on defending free speech for all people.” This isn’t the first time Gab has struggled to interoperate with web service providers. Apple and Google both have refused to host Gab on their app stores, and still, without a smartphone app, the site has been able to gain followers and raise money, albeit likely much more slowly than it would if the social media service were easier to access on a smartphone.
Gab may well be able to survive this spate of deplatforming. The site’s creator, Andrew Torba, may be able to find a hosting provider in another country that doesn’t care about hate speech, and he may find another way to accept payment from users who want to invest to keep the site afloat. But if Gab continues to allow hate speech only until it ends in violence, chances are slim at best that the company will be able to ever stop chasing its tail. A dynamic social media platform that hosts shareable videos and photos requires a hefty infrastructure and costs more to build and run than a simple message board, like Stormfront, the oldest and biggest white-supremacist and neo-Nazi message board on the internet. Unless Gab is able to build its own payment systems and find an alt-right–friendly cloud provider that doesn’t mind being implicated in hosting hate speech that leads to violence, the site may never be on sure footing.
Having a policy against violence on your social media platform doesn’t mean much if it isn’t accompanied by a policy against hate speech. If the premise of Gab is radical free speech, there’s little stopping violent hate groups from gathering there to organize, socialize, and indoctrinate new followers. The violent neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, whose members have been tied to multiple murders, keeps an active page on Gab. Local divisions of the violent far-right group Proud Boys, members of which were arrested in New York earlier this month for ganging up on and beating a small group of protestors, have profiles on Gab too.
And some of Gab’s highest-profile users are ardent anti-Semites, like Christopher Cantwell, an infamous white nationalist who engaged in violence in 2017’s Unite the Right rally , and who wrote on Gab on Saturday, “The good thing about this kike shooting is that I know I’m not missing anything by turning off Fox News. This is all they’ll be talking about from now until election day.” Patrick Little, another fringe-right white supremacist YouTuber, wrote to his 124,000 followers on Gab Saturday, “Goodnight goyim, don’t let the jew bugs bite!” Creating a safe place for hate speech gives shelter and validation to the ideas that percolate into the real world in deadly ways.
The bankruptcy of Gab’s premise, valuing freedom of speech over community safety, becomes all too clear once violence erupts. Would the shooter have felt as confident in his decision to murder Jewish worshippers on Saturday morning if he didn’t have a community online where he could socialize with others who shared his hate? On Gab, Bowers enjoyed sharing anti-Semitic memes and posts from other users fixated on hatred and violence toward Jewish people. It’s hard to draw clear lines between what happens online and what happens offline. But politics are inherently social. The more that people socialize with hate and relish in conversation about the need to eradicate others, the more likely it becomes that those conversations turn into real-world political violence. Dylann Roof and Anders Breivik were both active users of Stormfront, where they found encouragement for their ideas. Roof learned how to hate online, and then he took that hate offline and into the world. “We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet,” wrote Roof in the racist manifesto he posted online. “Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
On Sunday, Gab’s chief technology officer, Ekrem Büyükkaya, announced he’s quitting. Currently, the site is barely working, and searches continue to turn up 404 pages, hinting at the site’s imminent closure. This isn’t necessarily the end of Gab. Hundreds of thousands of people use the platform, many of whom donate money to keep it going. But any web-services company that decides to give Gab a leg up next will have to sit with the fact that Gab’s dedication to free speech over all else means helping to provide a shelter for real-world hate. And as we’ve seen this week, hate is deadly.