Social Media Site Used by Pittsburgh Synagogue Gunman in Legal Crosshairs

Pennsylvania's Attorney General Josh Shapiro, himself a member of the local Jewish community, tells Haaretz that racist hate speech on Gab.com has pushed his office to review its activities

In this Aug. 14, 2018 file photo, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa.
Matt Rourke,AP

PITTSBURGH - Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney general, told Haaretz on Monday that his office was looking into the operation of the social media platform Gab.com, which was used by the gunman behind Saturday’s massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Gab.com, the website where Robert Bowers posted anti-Semitic views, said on Sunday it was offline for a period of time after being asked by its domain provider to move to another registrar.

Founded in 2016 by conservative Andrew Torba, Gab bills itself as the “free speech” alternative to Twitter and Facebook and has since become a popular place to post content unwelcome or prohibited on other platforms. Bowers, 46, joined the site in January.

Notable users include right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, as well as media personalities Alex Jones and Carl Benjamin.

Bowers, who is standing trial and is accused of murdering 11 people at the Pittsburgh synagogue this weekend, used Gab to spread violent contents and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. On the morning of the attack, shortly before he went into the synagogue, Bowers posted a comment on Gab against HIAS, a Jewish-American group that assists refugees.

This image shows 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. HIAS, mentioned in the posting, is a Maryland-based nonprofit group that helps refugees around the world find safety and freedom. (AP Photo)
,AP
This image shows 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

“My office is reviewing this platform, which was used by the killer to spread his hateful messages,” Shapiro told Haaretz in an interview. “We have strong first amendment protections in this country, and that’s very important for me, but when that speech includes incitement to violence, that crosses a line. We cannot tolerate that.”

Shapiro said the same rule applies to websites that “explain how violence is going to occur.” Bowers’ last post on the network included the phrase “I’m going in,” which could be perceived as an announcement of his intention to attack the synagogue. “We’re taking a look at all of this in the wake of the horrific incident,” Shapiro explained.

Himself a member of the Jewish community, Shapiro told Haaretz that it was “deeply painful” for him to be in Pittsburgh this weekend and witness the local Jewish community’s grief and sadness. “At the same time,” he added, “I found strength in people from all walks of life who have come together to condemn this violence.”

The attorney general warned that in his state and across the country, law enforcement authorities were noticing an uptick in racist hate speech. “It’s on the rise, no question about it,” he said. “Often times, the president and other elected officials use heated rhetoric that offers comfort and opportunity to those who are expressing anti-Semitic views.”

Despite the difficult events of this weekend, Shapiro said he was optimistic about the future of the local Jewish community. “Over the last 48 hours, despite the carnage, I have seen so much greatness here,” he explained, citing multi-faith gatherings across the city and the state in support of the Jewish community. “I believe we will rise above this.”

Shapiro said he was “incredibly proud” of local police who saved lives on Saturday by arriving to the scene of the terror attack and confronting Bowers. “Their bravery saved people’s lives,” he said. Shapiro quoted the famous Talmudic phrase - “whoever saves one soul, it is as if he saved an entire world” to express his gratitude to the local police officers, stating that “many souls were saved because of their actions.”

Gab raised $1 million through crowdfunding last year, but recorded a loss of $201,704, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Utsav Sanduja, Gab’s former chief operating officer, said the company and its mission will survive “guilt by association” and could do more fundraising through cryptocurrencies in order to bypass tech companies. “We created Gab for the purpose of letting off steam not to kill. That was not our intention,” he said.

Reuters contributed background to this report