Gab to Rein In Calls for Violence While Allowing Hate Speech

0

Social-media site Gab, a home to anti-Semitic and other extremist speech, shut down after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting but now has resumed service with a new web host and a pledge to police calls to violence.

Social-media site Gab, a home to anti-Semitic and other extremist speech, shut down after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting but now has resumed service with a new web host and a pledge to police calls to violence.


Photo:

Jenny Kane/Associated Press

The social-media site where the alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter broadcast his intentions is pledging to curb threats of violence, while it said it plans to remain a platform where hate speech and other forms of extreme content are permitted.

Gab.com, which resumed service this week after a stretch in digital exile, will proactively police the site rather than wait for users to report troubling posts, founder Andrew Torba said in an interview, vowing to bolster efforts to expunge threats of physical harm.

“Is there room for improvement? Absolutely,” Mr. Torba said.

A social media expert explains what Gab.com is and why you may want to pay attention to fringe sites like these even when you’re not the target user.

Since Monday, Gab has permanently banned 200 accounts for repeatedly violating its guidelines around threats of violence, Mr. Torba said. Gab prohibits calling for “acts of violence against others” as well as threatening language that “clearly, directly and incontrovertibly infringes on the safety of another user.” It also removed more than 1,000 posts that threatened violence and hadn’t been reported by users. He said the banned users weren’t notified, but he is working to add more transparency to the process.

Started in 2016 as a refuge for those who found the rules on mainstream social media too restrictive, Gab gained notoriety late last month after Robert Bowers posted anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying messages on the site shortly before allegedly shooting up a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people. Other companies quickly cut ties with Gab in the aftermath, including its web-hosting firm. As a result, Gab was offline within days.

Now Gab has found a new digital home with Epik Inc., a Bellevue, Wash.-based domain registrar whose chief executive, Rob Monster, says Gab was treated unfairly by

GoDaddy
Inc.,

its previous domain registrar. Mr. Monster said he got involved because he believed GoDaddy evicted Gab “without due process,” and thought Gab should have been given a warning or a chance to scrub the disturbing content.

GoDaddy typically issues a warning when a client hosts content that calls for violence, according to people familiar with the matter. In rare or egregious cases, more immediate steps will be taken, according to the people.

In taking on Gab as a client, Mr. Monster said he had received assurances from Mr. Torba that Gab would be more vigilant about removing posts in which users incite violence. Mr. Monster said that, in his conversations with Mr. Torba, he was persuaded that Mr. Torba was “prepared to step up in capacity as a steward” of freedom of expression. Mr. Torba said he would look to Mr. Monster as his mentor.

Mr. Monster’s firm was among the few options available to Gab, in large part because the tech industry broadly is taking a tougher stance against extremist content. Yet even much-larger companies like

Facebook
Inc.

and

Twitter
Inc.

are struggling to eradicate hate speech from their platforms and have said they continue to invest heavily in the effort.

While large tech firms have sophisticated artificial-intelligence systems designed to track troublesome speech, Mr. Torba and his team this week manually searched for keywords such as “kill” and “murder” to identify posts that violated the site’s guidelines. Mr. Torba said that the searches were a first step and the site is working on ways to automate the process.

Gab also may face tougher regulatory scrutiny after the Pittsburgh shooting.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office subpoenaed Epik for all documents related to its connection to Gab. The subpoena document, published on Gab’s Twitter account, suggested the request is related to an “ongoing civil investigation.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania confirmed the office had issued the subpoena. “We cannot comment further on an ongoing investigation,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Monster said Epik is cooperating with the subpoena request.

As mainstream social-media platforms have cracked down on extremist content, frustrated and banned users, mostly from the far right, found a haven in Gab. It has grown to 800,000 members and was adding about 100,000 users a month before the Oct. 27 shooting, according to Mr. Torba.

For the past two years, Gab has been a central platform for extremism, anti-Semitism and “hatred of all kinds,” according to Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Viewers spreading hateful content on Gab are able to find like-minded sympathizers, plan events and share propaganda with the expectation that their posts will go unchallenged, Mr. Segal said. Gab does little to encourage alternative positive messaging or counterspeech, according to Mr. Segal.

“Gab has a unique place in the history of online hate and extremism,” Mr. Segal said.

Mr. Torba said that he doesn’t have a responsibility to encourage anything other than free expression and that he believes the most effective way to combat hate speech is with good speech.

“Hate speech is protected by First Amendment and Gab’s guidelines,” Mr. Torba said. “We certainly do not endorse it, but rather would encourage others to use their speech to shine a light on it.”

That approach had failed at least in the case with Mr. Bowers, whose posts largely went unchallenged. Two days before the shooting, his posts on Gab described Jewish people as an “infestation” and contained an ethnic slur. The posts received no replies.

Mr. Torba said he has undergone “a very personal change” following the Pittsburgh shooting and its aftermath. He believes he was unfairly vilified in mainstream media outlets and has had his private life put under a spotlight.

In part due to that experience, Mr. Torba said, the company will be more stringent in punishing those who publish someone’s private and personal information without their consent, an act known as “doxxing.”

Mr. Monster said that, based on what he has seen on Gab in the past week, “the community is predominantly civil and capable of self-policing, self-governing and self-healing.”

On Monday, he published a post introducing himself to the Gab community. It was generally met with favor, and users said they were thankful for Epik taking the site on. But one used a slur to refer to Jews and said they should be gassed.

As of early Thursday, the comment hadn’t been taken down. Mr. Torba pointed out that the same offensive phrase can be found on Twitter. He added: “We certainly do not endorse it, but I don’t believe any particular individual is being directly threatened by that statement.”

Write to Yoree Koh at yoree.koh@wsj.com and Georgia Wells at Georgia.Wells@wsj.com