Don’t expect Gab to be gone for long.
The social media site, a cesspool of racist and anti-Semitic content, was cut off by PayPal, hosting provider Joyent and payment processor Stripe over the weekend amid reports that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter cultivated his hatred on Gab.
But like the hydra of Greek mythology, lopping off the monster’s head will only cause another to grow in its place. Experts on far-right extremism tell TPM that Gab will just switch over to a new provider, or that its users will migrant to a different platform to share their views.
“There will always be a platform for hateful individuals to ensconce themselves in,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, told TPM.
Levin pointed out that as white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other extremists get booted from YouTube and Twitter, they moved over to Gab, the Telegram messaging app, and Vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.
“So here’s the conundrum: As we segregate these hate-mongers off of mainstream sites, they still get to migrate to bigoted echo chambers that populate the darkest parts of the internet,” Levin said.
Accused Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers’ now-defunct account contained messages lamenting “white dispossession” and his support for “mass executing” so-called “Marxist degenerates” who do not share his extreme right-wing views.
Gab CEO Andrew Torba has been defiant in the days since the shooting, claiming that his site is “under attack.” In a Monday statement, Torba said Gab “isn’t going anywhere” and would be temporarily inaccessible as they work to transition to a new hosting provider.
“No-platform us all you want,” Torba wrote. “Ban us all you want. Smear us all you want. You can’t stop an idea.”
The idea, as Torba describes it, is a content-neutral platform built around free expression. After every incident, Torba points to the site’s “zero tolerance” policy on terrorism and violence and reiterates that Gab exists only to “defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.”
For his part, Torba is a Trump supporter who has appeared on Infowars, palled around with Milo Yiannopolous and was banned from Silicon Valley tech accelerator Y Combinator’s alumni network for harassing his “cuck” colleagues.
The site has weathered previous suspensions and pushback from service providers. Gab’s former registrar, Instra, cut ties last September after Andrew Aurenheimer, an anti-Semitic hacker who goes by the name “Weev” suggested that the only way to teach “people in power” a “lesson” would be a repeat of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
In August, California neo-Nazi Patrick Little agreed to take down posts calling for the “ritual death by torture” and “complete eradication” of Jews after Microsoft threatened to drop the site from its cloud hosting service, Azure.
As Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project points out, Gab’s commitment to “free speech absolutism” means, in practice, that hateful, extreme—even terroristic—content flourishes on the platform.
“The biggest difference between Gab and more mainstream social media sites is that content is not moderated,” Hankes said.
Attomwaffen, a neo-Nazi terrorist organization linked to the suspects in five murders, has tried to recruit members on the platform. Posts urging the murder of journalists are left up on the site, and the anti-immigrant hatred and Holocaust denialism pushed by Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooter, is widespread.
Bowers was particularly fixated on the notion that an international Jewish conspiracy is responsible for immigration to the United States. He repeatedly linked to one video called “The Mass Migration Agenda,” a 12-minute anti-Semitic propaganda clip about “white dispossession.”
Other posts reflected his descent into white supremacist extremism.
One meme that Bowers retweeted stated that “the Libertarian-to-Far-Right pipeline is a real thing.”
The image shows one person labeled “me one year ago” saying “I believe that everyone has the right to live how they want and do what makes them happy without government interference. Oh, and taxation is theft haha.”
A second figure, labeled “me today,” says: “We need to overthrow the government, implement a clerical fascist regime, and begin mass executing these Marxist degenerates if we want any chance of a functioning society in the future.”
Bowers used Gab to inch closer towards detailed planning of his attack on the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue, which left 11 people dead.
The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was a constant focus of his posts. In a post on Gab 17 days before the attack, he linked to a list of “national refugee shabbat” locations on the group’s website.
“Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?” Bowers wrote. “We appreciate the list of friends you have provided.”
Just moments before the shooting, Bowers posted this on his page: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”
Gab’s Torba has insisted that Bowers “holds sole responsibility for his actions,” noting that mail bomb suspect Cesar Sayoc, Jr. routinely threatened people on Twitter.
Pete Simi, an expert on extremist groups at Chapman University, told TPM that Gab’s distancing itself from Bowers is similar to the public disavowals that far right groups often offer after acts of violence.
“This has been happening for a long time on the far-right in terms of their involvement in terrorism,” Simi said. “It’s typical of the disavowal strategy you see with this type of violence when it happens.”
Cutting off access to funds is likely a more effective way to reduce these groups’ power than limiting their access to web hosting platforms, experts say.
Since the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia there have been successful efforts to do both. The mass excommunication of extremist voices from mainstream platforms means that everyday users don’t have to see or be targeted by the same degree of hate speech.
But Gab’s popularity skyrocketed after Charlottesville, with many of the de-platformed individuals moving over there. The fringier chatrooms and sites where extremists congregate as they’re booted from mainstream platforms are harder for researchers and journalists to monitor. As Levin of Cal State San Bernardino pointed out, “a lot of the prejudice out there has already been mainstreamed,” particularly by political “leaders promoting bigotry.”
“I don’t think Gab is going to disappear,” the SPLC’s Hankes said. “If only to prove a point it will continue to exist—and we’re going to have to live with the consequences.”