Gab.com, the social media site apparently favored by Robert Bowers in the months before the Tree of Life massacre in which he is charged, grows when Twitter bans extremist voices, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Anti-Defamation League and the Network Contagion Research Institute.
The report characterizes bans by Twitter as the lifeblood of Gab. It raises the question of whether banning voices deemed “hateful” from given social media platforms is the most effective way of combating communication that spurs violence.
"This suggests that removing users from mainstream social sites pushes them to other areas of the internet where fringe communities can grow," wrote Todd Gutnick, senior director for communications at the Anti-Defamation League, in an email Tuesday to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "These fringe web communities play a critical role in the dissemination of hate and extremist content, and Gab and its users are becoming increasingly empowered."
“There are unforeseen consequences from bans and talking openly about those is part of having an honest conversation that concerns everybody,” said Joel Finkelstein, director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, and a fellow at the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism. “And how can we have that conversation without transparency and accurate information?” he added, noting that information on who is banned from which social media platform, and when, is not commonly shared by the companies that run the sites.
The report was presented Tuesday at the SXSW event, commonly known as South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas, at an afternoon panel called Disrupting Extremism: New Tools to Fight Hate. Scheduled to speak there were Adam Neufeld of the Anti-Defamation League and Vidhya Ramalingam of Moonshot CVE — for Countering Violent Extremism.
Spikes in membership at Gab from August 2016 through late 2018 were associated with such events as Twitter's permanent ban of prominent extremist accounts, including a bar on Alex Jones and other accounts associated with his site InfoWars; the mass ouster from Twitter of the Proud Boys group; and, to a lesser extent, the publicity of Gab following the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh.
Researchers found a close correlation between notable bans of Twitter profiles “and global peaks of new members on Gab."
"Bans from companies like Twitter and Facebook illustrate the necessity of a platform like Gab to protect ordinary people from extraordinary censorship," a Gab spokesperson wrote to the Post-Gazette in an email response to questions. "We believe the best way to combat hate speech is public debate and the discrediting of hateful ideas."
The Network Contagion Research Institute tracked the relationship by following Wikipedia pages documenting mass Twitter bans, as Twitter declined to share detailed data on its decisions.
Additionally the analysis found that the concept of banning users — sometimes called deplatforming — is a major topic of discussion on Gab. The word "ban" appeared in close to 3 percent of all comments on the Gab platform and increased in frequency during times of Twitter bans. Often comments containing the word “ban” also referenced the concepts of free speech and censorship.
Gab users even developed derisive nicknames for platforms that banned certain commenters, calling Google “goolag,” and Facebook “fascistbook,” among other monikers.
The report recommends that platforms "need to consider the effects of their decisions on the broader online ecosystem."
Mr. Finkelstein said that bans may be “a solution for one platform and a detriment to the internet as a whole,” potentially “exacerbating hate.”
One solution the ADL has espoused involves reaching out to people who are promulgating hate and conducting interventions of sorts, to show that such speech isn’t within social norms.
Gab, by email, said that it has "publicly invited the Anti-Defamation League to use Gab" to fight hate speech, but the ADL has declined, instead favoring "advocacy of censorship, which history has shown only drives hate underground and ensures that evil ideologies fester unchallenged."
The statement noted that if Gab users' "speech crosses the line into illegality" they may face legal consequences.
Immediately after the Oct. 27 Tree of Life shooting, the vendors that made it possible for Gab to appear online, and to receive payments, cut their ties to the social media platform. For several days, Gab’s site was not functioning, or barely functioning.
A separate report issued in late January by the Southern Poverty Law Center indicated that Gab survived in part by finding new vendors — including one called 2nd Amendment Processing, which took on the role of handling credit card payments, and the crowdfunding site StartEngine.
"Without access to private investors, Gab’s financial outlook is uncertain," the Southern Poverty Law Center's report indicated. "Gab has lost more than $350,000 since it began operations in August 2016 through June 30, 2018." But Gab "may continue to survive on yearly injections of capital from a relatively small number of investors" through crowdfunding.
Mr. Bowers, 46, of Baldwin Borough, faces 63 federal criminal counts, some of which carry the death penalty, in relation to the massacre. He has pleaded not guilty. He also faces state counts, including homicide and ethnic intimidation.
Posts on Gab attributed to him included several targeting HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helps federally approved refugees of all faiths to settle in the U.S. Referring to HIAS, he posted: "You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us?" On the morning of the massacre, he posted: "HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord. Ashley Murray: 412-263-1750, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Ashley__Murray
First Published March 12, 2019, 4:17pm