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Gab becomes latest focal point in battle over online hate speech

GoDaddy became the latest company to dump the social media network after finding "numerous" instances of content that promotes violence.
Gab is a site often promoted as an alternative to Twitter for those banned from the platform for racism or harassmentNBC News photo illustration
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By Tim Stelloh

The social media site favored by a Pennsylvania man accused of gunning down eleven people at a synagogue on Saturday has become the latest focal point in a battle over online hate speech and the platforms that host it.

The site, Gab, said Sunday that its domain registrar, GoDaddy, was severing ties with it — an announcement that came one day after the social network said two payment service companies, PayPal and Stripe, and its web host, Joyent, were also dumping it.

“When a site is allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action,” PayPal spokesman Justin Higgs said in a statement.

Gab, which says it has 800,000 users, bills itself as a champion of free speech. But it has also been criticized as a haven for the alt-right and a hotbed of racism, one that gained an audience hungry for extremist content after more mainstream platforms, particularly Twitter and Reddit, began to push hate speech off their services.

And as some social media companies have cracked down on the “worst of Facebook and YouTube,” said Jason Kint, CEO of the trade association Digital Content Next, Gab “welcomed them with open arms.”

In an email Sunday, a GoDaddy spokesman said the company had given Gab 24 hours to find a new domain provider after finding "numerous" instances of content that promotes and encourages violence on the site. PayPal, meanwhile, said it was already in the process of canceling Gab’s account before Saturday’s shooting.

Citing privacy concerns, a spokesman for Stripe declined to comment. The CEO of Joyent, Scott Hammond, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a Twitter post about GoDaddy, Gab appeared to plead for help from President Donald Trump, saying: “This is madness...I hope you are paying attention.”

In an earlier post Sunday, Gab CEO Andrew Torba said he expected the site to be “down for a bit” beginning Monday morning.

“Gab is not going anywhere,” he wrote. “We will emerge from this stronger than ever.”

In a study published earlier this year, researchers who looked at 22 million posts on the site over more than a year found that hate speech was “extensively present." Of those posts, 5.4 percent contained hateful language — more than twice the number of instances found on Twitter but less than 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” message board.

In a post Sunday, Torba referenced the study, saying: “Gab has been no-platformed off the internet for the expression of a minority of our user base."

The accused shooter, Robert Bowers, used the network to post conspiracy theories and messages about the “migrant caravan” walking from Central America to the United States to seek asylum. On Saturday, Bowers threatened the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — which has provided humanitarian assistance to refugees for more than a century — saying the group was bringing immigrants to the United States to commit violence.

“Screw your optics, I'm going in," he wrote.

The decision to oust Gab recalled a move last year by Cloudflare, a content delivery company, in which it cut ties with the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer shortly after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.

In a post at the time, Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince said the company had long been angry at “these hateful people” — but it had remained neutral as a network until the Daily Stormer said that Cloudflare quietly endorsed the site’s ideology.

“We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support,” Prince wrote.

Kint said it was a “no brainer” for businesses to do the same with Gab.

“Because it’s off the radar, it’s a simple decision to pull out,” he said. “The real spine is to not want to be associated with Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.”

The researchers who studied Gab described it as somewhere between a social media giant like Twitter and a fringe site like the 4chan message board.

Even though the site remains far less visible than Facebook or Instagram, said one of those researchers, Barry Bradlyn, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Illinois, it needs to be taken seriously.

“It’s very tempting to look at online communities like Gab as isolated fringe communities — as outside the mainstream, so maybe we can just let what goes on there stay there and ignore it,” he said. But “they have outsized influence on Twitter and other mainstream outlets. Just because these are fringe networks doesn’t mean they're not influencing everyday discourse.”

Tim Stelloh

Tim Stelloh is a reporter for NBC News, based in California.

Dennis Romero contributed.
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