Alt-Right Social Media Site Linked To Suspected Synagogue Shooter Shut Down

The difference between 'free speech' and 'hate speech' has sparked a firestorm in the US.

Gab, a social media site favoured by the alt-right and politically incorrect, has been all but shut down over its links to the man allegedly behind the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, which left 11 worshipers dead.

Never heard of it? You're not alone.

The site, launched widely in 2017, was created as an alternative to Twitter. It started after numerous controversies around free speech and censorship on mainstream social media sites, especially grievances from conservative supporters of Donald Trump, who claimed they were being suspended or removed from other sites.

(AP Photo/Jenny Kane)

Gab soon became a home to conservative posters, with content often veering into the politically incorrect and sometimes into racism, misogyny and downright hate speech. Many conservative voices who had been removed from, or had become disillusioned with, Twitter or Facebook soon flocked to Gab -- including Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Infowars' Alex Jones, the Daily Stormer's Andrew Anglin.

Gab did not have as stringent controls on reporting, blocking or deleting offensive content as other sites like Facebook or Twitter, making it attractive to those who may want to share more inflammatory content.

British alt-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Critics claimed Gab had fostered an environment where hate speech could thrive, while the site's founders and users said it was simply a forum for free speech.

However, compared to giants like Facebook or Twitter, Gab is small -- with fewer than one million users.

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"From Day One our mission has been very simple -- it's been to defend free expression and individual liberty online, for all people," CEO Andrew Torba said in a recent NPR interview.

Gab has been a controversial platform since its inception, but it was this week where the site came to wider media prominence after it was revealed that Robert Gregory Bowers -- the man arrested over the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue -- had allegedly made anti-Semitic posts on his Gab profile in the weeks leading up to the attack.

This undated Pennsylvania Department of Transportation photo shows Robert Bowers, the suspect in the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Pennsylvania Department of Transportation via AP)

"Jews are the children of Satan" was the phrase written on a Gab profile attributed to Bowers, under the username @onedingo.

Gab is currently not online -- more on that in a minute -- so his profile is inaccessible, but other media outlets have reported that the profile attributed to Bowers had posted photos of guns in recent times.

Posts on that profile had also criticised the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish refugee agency.

A portion of an archived webpage from the social media website Gab, with a Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 posting by Pittsburgh synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers. (AP Photo)

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people," read a post on the page that was published shortly before the synagogue shooting.

"I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in"

In the wake of the shooting, many of Gab's online service providers cut ties with the social media site.

Its payment provider, PayPal, refused to work with them; then web hosting company GoDaddy did the same. Since then, Shopify and Medium have blacklisted Gab, with the site's blog on Medium now inaccessible.

A courtroom sketch of Robert Gregory Bowers, who was wounded in a gun battle with police as he appeared in a wheelchair at federal court on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, in Pittsburgh (Dave Klug via AP)

GoDaddy told CNet it has severed ties with Gab after complaints "of content on the site that both promotes and encourages violence against people". PayPal told CNet:

"When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action"

Gab was forced into damage control.

"Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence," the site said in an email to users.

"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."

(Getty Images)

The email also sought to shift blame off Gab, saying other social media sites had been linked to violence, including live-streamed crimes and hateful tweets. In recent days, Twitter has been criticised for failing to take action after tweets from alleged pipe bomber Cesar Sayoc were not removed from the platform.

Gab said it was alerted to the posts allegedly connected to Bowers soon after the attack, whereupon it suspended his account and notified police.

"Social media often brings out the best and the worst of humanity," Gab said.

"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."

Torba claimed he has received death threats in recent days.

Gab.com is still currently live, but the only content available is a short note from CEO Torba, mostly complaining of being shut down by service providers, and criticising the media's reporting about the site.

"Gab has spent the past 48 hours proudly working with the DOJ and FBI to bring justice to an alleged terrorist. Because of the data we provided, they now have plenty of evidence for their case," he claimed.

"In the midst of this Gab has been no-platformed by essential internet infrastructure providers at every level."

We are the most censored, smeared, and no-platformed startup in history, which means we are a threat to the media and to the Silicon Valley Oligarchy."

"It doesn’t matter what you write. It doesn’t matter what the sophist talking heads say on TV. It doesn’t matter what verified nobodies say on Twitter. We have plenty of options, resources, and support. We will exercise every possible avenue to keep Gab online and defend free speech and individual liberty for all people."

Torba said his team was "working around the clock" to get the site back online, but did not give a timeline on when the site may be available again.

"No-platform us all you want. Ban us all you want. Smear us all you want. You can’t stop an idea."