In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack, attention turned to social media platform Gab, used by Robert Bowers. His final update, posted to Gab before the shooting read: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
In response, tech firms have been falling over themselves to cut ties with Gab. On Saturday PayPal banned the firm from using its money transfer service, while internet domain registrar GoDaddy gave the firm 24 hours to find a new provider. In addition to this, Gab has also been banned from Joyent, a web hosting service owned by Samsung, Stripe, an online payments processor and the blogging platform Medium.
As of the 29th of October, Gab is offline and it’s unclear when or if it will return.
All this comes in spite of Gab’s official statement:
“Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence. This has always been our policy. We are saddened and disgusted by the news of violence in Pittsburgh and are keeping the families and friends of all victims in our thoughts and prayers”.
The statement goes onto read that upon hearing the news, Gab suspended Robert Bower’s account and contacted the FBI offering to give any information they had on the suspect.
It’s difficult to imagine what more Gab could have done to distance themselves from this attack. Despite their condemnation, they have been blamed and punished for what are the actions of a crazed loon who happened to use their service.
Upon face value, it seems the lesson that upstart social media platforms must learn from Pittsburgh is that they are responsible for the offline actions of all their users. Established platforms however are safe from this toxic precedent, as Facebook, whom Robert Bowers also had an account with are suffering no repercussions in response to giving the attacker an online platform.
Even to the staunchest regressive, such a rule punishing social media platforms for the actions of their most repugnant users is patently absurd. Anybody can start an account on any service and expecting tech firms to establish the mental wellbeing of all new users before approving fledgling accounts is beyond the wildest dreams of even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
So to justify the actions taken against Gab in response to the actions of a rogue user, many in tech and the media are calling the site “a haven for the far right” and an “outlet for far-right figureheads and conspiracy theorists banned from other networks”. This argument however boils down to the same thing. Blame social media for the thoughts or actions of its users. It places the onus of responsibility on social media firms to eliminate users with unattractive or uncomfortable opinions, most of whom are only to eager to comply.
As a result, those social media platforms who don’t, like Gab, become a magnet for people with opinions have gotten them banned elsewhere. Currently it’s only right wingers who fall foul of the internet censors, so only right wingers need to use the platform dedicated to free speech.
This is why Gab is rubbish. It lacks the diversity of thought needed to truly make it a free marketplace of opinions, the marketplace Twitter used to be. Ironically, it was Twitter’s over zealous policing of thought that led to Gab existing in the first place. It was Twitter who pushed moderate conservatives, libertarians, patriots and yes, the far right too, to Gab. It was Twitter who denied these people their place to speak and be challenged in the free marketplace of ideas and it is this policy of online segregation according to opinions which has led to the worst ideas going unchallenged by the mainstream and being allowed to run their course.
It’s impossible to say whether those eleven worshippers would be here today had Robert Bowers had his anti-Semitism challenged and ridiculed in free marketplace of ideas, however, it’s not unreasonable to predict, that if we don’t turn our backs on the online censorship and platform blaming and return to a free speech paradigm, we will only see more such extremism and violence.
So instead of turning our attention to Gab, perhaps we need to look once more at the tech giants and their divisive policies.