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Gab goes offline as GoDaddy, PayPal cut ties after Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Pressure on the social media site intensifies after hatred spills off the web into the real world.

Pittsburgh Mourns Mass Shooting At Synagogue Saturday Morning
Mourners gather outside of the Tree Of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. 
/ Getty Images

Chatter on Gab, a fringe social media site, has gone silent.

Before he allegedly shot and killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, Robert Bowers spewed hatred for Jews on Gab, which has become in its two-year existence an echo chamber of racists, white nationalists, Islamophobes and anti-Semites.

In one post, an account in Bowers' name reposted a photo of the Auschwitz death camp, the legend above the gates doctored to read, "Lies Make Money." Another showed President Donald Trump taking orders from a man dressed in traditional Jewish clothing.

A final post, addressed to a Jewish organization that helps people settle in the US, hinted at Bowers' dark intentions.

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

Worried by Bowers' hate posts, GoDaddy pulled the domain registration from Gab, leaving its content unfindable on the web. Meanwhile PayPal, Stripe, Joyent, Shopify and Medium also severed ties with the site, which calls itself a defender of "free speech and individual liberty," cutting off transaction processing and other services needed for the functioning of a modern website.

Gab didn't respond to a request for comment, but CEO Andrew Torba told NPR that Bowers' post didn't run afoul of the site's rules against threats.

"Do you see a direct threat in there? Because I don't," he said, referring to Bowers' final post. "The answer to bad speech, or hate speech, however you want to define that, is more speech. And it always will be."

Gab's disappearance from the web is the latest in a string of cases that raises questions about the boundaries of acceptable speech on the internet, where private companies including tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple set the standards for what's tolerated. The debate intensifies after hatred spills off of the web and into the real world.

"Most extremists that engage in violent activity are in some shape or fashion radicalized online," said Oren Segal, the director of the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism. He estimated that 90 percent of extremist acts of violence the organization tracks are committed by people who've been interacting with hateful memes and other content online.

Pulling the plug

Now tech companies have a routine response -- pull the plug when violations of their community standards come to light.

Last year, more than half a dozen internet companies limited the activities of neo-Nazi groups and publications online in the run-up to and aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that left three dead.

Airbnb barred the rally's planners from renting homes in advance of the event. GoDaddy stopped providing web hosting for neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, while web protection company Cloudflare dropped the site as a client. (The site, one of the organizers of the rally, was driven to the darknet as it cycled through domains.) PayPal and Apple Pay stopped processing payments for white supremacist groups online, and Spotify pulled "white power" playlists off its music streaming service.

Even OKCupid, the dating site, pulled the profile of one of the neo-Nazi participants.

There isn't a way to make hate speech illegal under the US Constitution, according to David Greene, the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group focused on online freedoms. "Hate speech in and of itself -- if it's not a threat of violence, if it's not prevalent harassment -- is protected speech," he said.

But when web services like GoDaddy and Shopify pull their support of Gab, that's also a form of free speech, he said.

"There are ways of holding people somewhat accountable without legality coming into it," Greene said.

That's what GoDaddy, a domain registry and web-hosting company, did. The company said it had given Gab 24 hours to move its domain to another registrar. "In response to complaints received over the weekend, GoDaddy investigated and discovered numerous instances of content on the site that both promotes and encourages violence against people," GoDaddy spokesman Dan Race said in an email.

PayPal said it had been in the process of canceling the site's account before the shooting. "When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action," a PayPal spokesperson said in an email.

Medium also booted Gab after it turned to the blogging platform to post a statement. A spokeswoman said Gab violated Medium's rules but declined to provide details about "individual accounts."

Gab remains active on Twitter. Twitter declined to comment.

Unwanted attention

The Pittsburgh shooting brought unwanted attention to Gab, which was created in response to Twitter and other social media networks cutting off members of the alt-right, the loose grouping of racists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The site has fewer rules than other social networks, allowing almost any comments shy of threats and terrorism. Early users included white nationalist Richard Spencer, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos and neo-Nazi Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin. It currently reckons it has roughly 800,000 users, far fewer than Twitter's 326 million and Facebook's more than 2 billion.

Unlike other social networks, Gab doesn't ban hate speech. Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, though private companies can choose to prohibit it in their forums.

Gab isn't the only social network grappling with hate speech. A study released by the Anti-Defamation League on Friday found a rise in anti-Semitic content on Twitter ahead of the US midterm elections on Nov. 6.

"Online hate is not some idle threat that just lives online and can be ignored," ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said in a statement. "Technology companies need to work harder and faster to curb the vicious violence-inducing harassment on their platforms."

Torba launched Gab in August 2016 following allegations that Facebook was suppressing conservative news from its "trending" topics section. Earlier that year, Twitter had banned Yiannopoulos from its platform for violating its rules against harassment.

"Social networks are hiding behind the guise of very subjective terms and guidelines, so they call things hate speech and harassment," Torba told BBC in 2016. "We believe in free and open expression for everyone on the internet, and that's something we want to protect and we want to promote,"

The site, a hybrid of Twitter and Reddit, allows its users to post messages of up to 300 characters and upvote or downvote posts. It started to attract attention after conservatives and white nationalists got booted from Facebook and Twitter, and turned to "alt-tech" companies, including Gab, to voice their views.

Researchers from Cyprus University of Technology, the Princeton Center for Theoretical Scienceand other colleges, who analyzed 22 million posts by 336,000 Gab users for roughly a year and a half, found hate speech was more prevalent on the site than on Twitter. About 5 percent of Gab's posts included hate words, according to the study. That was 2.4 times higher than on Twitter, but 2.2 times lower than on 4chan's "Politically Incorrect board."

Gab has butted heads with Silicon Valley tech giants in the past. In 2017, Gab sued Google for allegedly violating antitrust laws after the search giant booted the social network's app from its Play Store. Its app has also been rejected by the Apple app store.

In August, Microsoft Azure threatened to suspend the site from its platform following anti-Semitic posts by Senate candidate Patrick Little, who was kicked out of the GOP convention in May for  his white supremacist views.

Gab says the fight to get its site back online isn't over.

"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," Torba said in a statement. "Gab isn't going anywhere."

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