Gab Goes Offline After Alleged Pittsburgh Shooter Posted Anti-Semitic Threats NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with researcher Joan Donovan about how the online platform Gab appealed to white supremacists, and why it provides lessons in combating extremism online.
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Gab Goes Offline After Alleged Pittsburgh Shooter Posted Anti-Semitic Threats

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Gab Goes Offline After Alleged Pittsburgh Shooter Posted Anti-Semitic Threats

Gab Goes Offline After Alleged Pittsburgh Shooter Posted Anti-Semitic Threats

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and allegedly gunned down 11 people, he posted, I'm going in, on his social media account. This was an account on Gab, a social network that prides itself on being censorship-free. Gab has since gone dark, but the company says it's working around the clock to get back online.

To talk more about how Gab has created a space for white supremacists and other extremist views, we turn now to Joan Donovan. She studies media manipulation at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City. Welcome.

JOAN DONOVAN: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: You're someone who's been monitoring Gab for a while now. Before it was taken down, how did people on Gab react to the synagogue shooting?

DONOVAN: There was a range of reactions, but the ones that were most concerning to a researcher like me were the ones that were talking about Bowers as a hero.

And one of the debates that's been playing out over Gab over the last year has been some white supremacists believe that they should present a clean-cut image, and other white supremacists were saying the only way to get the job done is to do violent acts in public as a way to get media attention.

CHANG: Can you describe how Gab became a home, in the first place, for white supremacist views?

DONOVAN: Yes, in the lead-up to the election of 2016, Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, was looking for users for his platform. And he saw that in the burgeoning MAGA coalition, that there was a question of free speech online and whose content was going to be able to stay online. And so he actively started recruiting people that were part of alternative media networks.

After the election and in the wake of the Unite the Right rally, Torba again went on a media spree asking for users - and explicitly tied this, then, to the white supremacists organizing and the no-platforming of white supremacists in the aftermath of the violence of the Unite the Right rally.

The third moment where Torba was actively recruiting users had to do with Twitter purging white supremacists and removing the blue check mark from white supremacists on their platform.

And in each of these instances, Torba was recruiting white people by saying that there's anti-white racism that persists on other social platforms and that you wouldn't suffer the same kind of moderation on his platform if you were to post pro-white statements.

CHANG: I want to play a piece of tape for you. NPR reporter Jasmine Garsd interviewed Gab CEO Andrew Torba about Bowers's post when he said, specifically, the words, I'm going in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ANDREW TORBA: What would you expect us to do with posts like that? Do you want us to just censor anybody that says the phrase I'm going in? Is that what you're proposing here? And here's the thing. The answer to bad speech or hate speech - however you want to define that - is more speech, and it always will be.

CHANG: What do you make of his response that Gab should just be this free-for-all?

DONOVAN: Yeah, I disagree because ultimately the counterpoint that he would hope would be present on Gab isn't there. So what users tend to do when platforms get filled with trolls, serial harassers, people generally opt out. Not many people go online to defend against these kinds of posts that get served through Gab. And there is no counterpoint that says this is heinous.

CHANG: Gab is down, as we said, for now. Web-hosting companies, payment companies, app stores, they've all cut ties with Gab. And yet Gab, in a tweet, estimates it'll be up and running by this weekend. How likely is that?

DONOVAN: Well, I can't tell you exactly how likely it is that they'll be able to replace their servers, their domain, their payment servicing and use the features that they are accustomed to serving to their audience.

But what we do know is that these companies that do support them in terms of their base infrastructure are backing out of these partnerships. And I don't know if they're going to find companies that are willing to take the risk to their reputation to be known as supporters of Gab.

CHANG: Joan Donovan is with Data & Society, a research institute in New York City. Thanks very much.

DONOVAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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