Social Media IRL

Gab.com propagated much of the hate underlying the recent Pittsburgh shooting

By on November 6, 2018

Following the mass shooting at the Squirrel Hill Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Oct. 27, officials are investigating the digital footprint of the alleged shooter, Robert Bowers. His online activity reveals the dark inner workings of social media and highlights the drastic impact they have on the real world.

Just before entering the synagogue, Bowers posted an anti-Semitic message on Gab.com, a social media site built on free speech and populated by extremists.

“[The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] likes to bring invaders that kill our people,” Bowers wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Screenshot Courtesy of Heavy.com
At approximately 9:50 a.m. Eastern Time, the shooting unfolded during the synagogue’s morning Shabbat service. Bowers entered and fired at people in each of the three congregations being held, before barricading himself in the third floor of the synagogue and engaging in a shootout with police. By the time he was taken into custody, 11 were dead and six were injured, making this the deadliest attack on Jewish people in America’s history.

“I think [the shooting] does speak to our country’s attitude towards minorities,” Alessandro Woodbridge, senior business operations management major and International Student Association president said. “There is a freedom of religion and a freedom of speech but I feel people have manipulated this to fit their own ideologies. I feel like it’s time that freedom of speech doesn’t give the right for people to practice hate, as this may one day lead to an act of hate such as the shooting at the synagogue.”

In the wake of the tragedy, Gab’s site was dropped by both its cloud host, Joyent, and domain provider, GoDaddy. However, in a recent statement, Gab CEO Andrew Torba made it clear that the company was cooperating with the FBI and that they “will exercise every possible avenue to keep Gab online and defend free speech and individual liberty for all people.”

Since its launch in August 2016, Gab has amassed over 600,000 users and has had a highly controversial existence. Keegan Hankes, an expert of online extremism at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told Yahoo News why he believed the platform was established.

“The most extreme hate groups, leaders and extremists being purged from major social media platforms for blatantly inappropriate and harmful behavior [participate in Gab]. It didn’t take Gab very long to find itself a bona fide murderer, allegedly, on its platform,” Hankes said.

“Refugees flee hate, and for this kind of vile act to happen in our country is devastating,” HIAS President Mark Hetfield told NPR. “On top of that to have it happen in a sanctuary, on the holiest day of the week, is unfathomable.”

This hate crime comes on the heels of decades of gun violence in the United States. In the same week as the Pittsburgh massacre, two other shootings occurred at a high school in North Carolina and a grocery store in Kentucky, both of which resulted in fatalities. Gun homicide rates are 25.2 times higher in the U.S. than in other high-income countries according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“I would hope that [the Squirrel Hill shooting] is a wake-up call, but then again, we say that about every mass shooting,” Emily Micka, junior political science and public relations double major said. “We have seen a lot more people speaking up about preventing gun violence and showing their support for increased gun legislation but unfortunately our federal government has failed to act which I believe is an extreme injustice to everyone.”

The occurrence of mass shootings has become more frequent in recent years, as has the presence of hate groups across the United States. There are currently 953 of them operating in the U.S. according to the SPLC, many of which utilize social media platforms such as Gab to spread their messages. Although it monitors its content, Twitter alone saw a 900 percent increase in likes given to tweets and comments produced by hate groups between 2014 and 2016.

This contributes to a larger trend of negativity that exists in social media. A recent study done by Pew Research states that 95 percent of teenagers surveyed own or have access to a smartphone, 24 percent of whom felt social media had a mostly negative impact on their lives. Today, social media is an integral part of our culture, and it is up to the users to do their best in combating hate with positivity.

“As individuals, we play a huge role in reducing negativity online,” Micka said. “Regardless of political opinion, at the end of the day all of us want to be safe and happy and they only way we can do that is if we are able to actually sit down and truly listen to one another.”

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