People gather in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Picture: Matt Rourke
People gather in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Picture: Matt Rourke

Sick response to synagogue shooting

AFTER news broke of a shooting which saw 11 people fatally gunned down while worshipping at a synagogue in the US on the weekend, the all too familiar displays of condemnation and grief made headlines.

But in one dark corner of the internet the response was very different. That place is, where the suspected killer had espoused hate-filled views and posted a harrowing message before allegedly committing the murderous act.

The 46-year-old suspect Robert Bowers frequently posted anti-Semitic messages on the little-known social media site which has earned the nickname "Twitter for racists" for its tolerance of discrimination and hate speech, making it a haven for radicalised groups such as conspiratorial white supremacists.

One group on the site called "GabStapo" describes itself as "aware of the deadly threat Jews pose to our very existence" and at the time of writing is still active with 840 members.

After accusing a Jewish charity of bringing in "invaders that kill our people", Mr Bowers allegedly wrote: "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

As the world reacted with horror, one Gab user praised the killer as a "brave fallen comrade" who went "above and beyond the call of duty".

Others on the platform worried that the killings would provide "propaganda" for the Jewish "globalist" community.

Users on the social media site reacting to the shooting.
Users on the social media site reacting to the shooting.

While these anti-Semitic users make up just a fraction of members, it has reignited the debate about the responsibility of social media companies to police the rhetoric and use of language on their platforms.

Gab promotes itself as a strident protector of free speech, but when signing up, members are told: "Users are prohibited from calling for the acts of violence against others, promoting or engaging in self-harm, and/or acts of cruelty, threatening language or behaviour that clearly, directly and incontrovertibly infringes on the safety of another user or individual(s)."

Notable users include right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website, as well as media personality Alex Jones who was recently banned from Twitter.

Since the shooting, the sites hosting provider Joyent would be suspending its services as of Monday morning, while PayPal has also reportedly banned the site.

"Gab will likely be down for weeks because of this," the site said on its Twitter account.

"We will continue to fight for free expression and individual liberty online for all people. Big tech cannot stop us. The mainstream media cannot stop us. The People will defend freedom against tyranny as they always have and always will," it tweeted.

Gab had earlier released a statement saying it had "zero tolerance" for violence or terrorism and was "saddened and disgusted by the news" from Pittsburgh.


Since the rise of social media, major companies like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have been grappling with how to set the rules around provocative, offensive and hateful speech. Their efforts often push more extreme users to niche social media sites.

While many advocate for the need to stifle and restrict hate speech on social media, there remains difficulties and challenges. In an interview last week with Technology Review prior to the shooting, former chief security officer at Facebook, Alex Stamos, cautioned against inadvertently creating a private Big Brother by relying on tech companies to govern debate.

Asking big tech to police hate speech is "a dangerous path," he said. Ultimately once democratic countries make tech firms impose limits on free speech, so will autocratic ones. Before long, the technology will enable "machine-speed, real-time moderation of everything we say online".