A Look At Gab, The Small ‘Free Speech’ Social Network Platform Used By Alleged Synagogue Shooter Robert Bowers

A mourner places flowers in remembrance.
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Gab is a social network platform whose user base totals less then half of one percent of Facebook’s total users, but it has suddenly found itself thrust into national news this week. And while there is a train of thought that says there’s no such thing as bad publicity, this story may be an exception to that concept.

Alleged Pittsburgh synagogue gunman Robert Bowers was a frequent user of Gab. There, antisemitic language that would have been policed by other social media platforms such as Facebook was permitted. A central element of Gab’s cornerstone principles as a platform is a lack of interference in the freedom of speech expressed by its users.

Launched in private beta in August 2016 and then publicly in May 2017, NPR reports that Gab’s user count has grown from 300,000 to 800,000. In a March 2018 annual report filed with the SEC, Gab described their target audience as the “over 50 million conservative, libertarian, nationalist, and populist internet users” who are “actively seeking alternative media platforms like Breitbart.com, DrudgeReport.com, Infowars.com, and others” in an effort to get away from other social platforms that “continue to crack down on ‘objectionable content’ and censor conservative views.” Their headquarters are located in Philadelphia, and they have two employees.

Antisemitic, racist, and sexist content is easily found on Gab — as are threads about conspiracy theories and Nazism, as well as more mainstream topics like music and art. Community standards on hate speech are lax, but they do expressly forbid language “calling for acts of violence against others” and “threatening language or behavior that clearly, directly and incontrovertibly infringes on the safety of another user or individual(s).” Gab posted a statement on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to Medium on Saturday.

“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 statement went on to point out that both Facebook and Twitter have histories of content posted by people who went on to commit crimes, some even committing them on live video. They indicated that they had taken swift action when Bowen’s account was identified on Gab, and that they have been working with law enforcement ever since. The social networking company then addressed charges of enabling those individuals who have an intent to do harm to others.

“The answer to ‘bad speech’ is more speech. Censorship and pushing people into the shadows will never be the answer. Words do not kill people. Guns do not kill people. Social media platforms do not kill people. People kill people. There is one person responsible for the horrific events that occurred today and that is allegedly Mr. Bowers. Because he was on Gab, law enforcement now have definitive evidence for a motive. They would not have had this evidence without Gab. We are proud to work with and support law enforcement in order to bring justice to this alleged terrorist.”

Paypal removed Gab from its payment service on Saturday, and the site’s hosting provider Joyent ended its relationship with Gab the same day. As a result of Joyent’s move, Gab expects their site to be down “for weeks.”