A former president of the synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 people were murdered on Saturday has said President Donald Trump was not welcome in the city after labelling him a ‘purveyor of hate speech’. Legalbrief reports that Trump has regularly used his Twitter handle to fuel racial and ethnic tensions and the social media backlash after the tragedy serves notice that ordinary people are also using the power of their online platforms to sow division. Lynette Lederman, of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, has confirmed that she would rely on local political leadership in the aftermath of the mass shooting: ‘We have people who stand by us, who believe in values – not just Jewish – but believe in values, and those are not the values of this President,’ she said. The Guardian reports that her comments followed an open letter signed by a coalition of local Jewish leaders and published by the Pittsburgh chapter of Bend The Arc, a progressive advocacy group, that also called for the President to avoid the city.
A search on Instagram, the photo-sharing site owned by Facebook, has produced a torrent of anti-Semitic images and videos uploaded in the wake of the shooting. By Monday, search for the word ‘Jews’ displayed 11 696 posts with the hashtag ‘#jewsdid911,’ claiming that Jews had orchestrated the September 11 terror attacks. Other hashtags on Instagram referenced Nazi ideology, including the number 88, an abbreviation used for the Nazi salute ‘Heil Hitler.’ The New York Times reports that the Instagram posts demonstrated a stark reality. Over the past 10 years, Silicon Valley’s social media companies have expanded their reach and influence to the furthest corners of the world. However, it has become glaringly apparent that the companies never quite understood the negative consequences of that influence nor what to do about it. ‘Social media is emboldening people to cross the line and push the envelope on what they are willing to say to provoke and to incite,’ said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Centre for Digital Journalism. ‘The problem is clearly expanding.’ The repercussions of the social media companies’ inability to handle disinformation and hate speech have manifested themselves abundantly in recent days. Cesar Sayoc Jr., who was charged last week with sending explosive devices to prominent Democrats, appeared to have been radicalised online by partisan posts on Twitter and Facebook. And Robert D. Bowers, the suspect in the synagogue shooting, posted about his hatred of Jews on Gab, a two-year-old social network.
The anti-Semitic online screeds tied to the suspect are also rekindling a debate in Congress over the role that social media companies should play in policing their platforms – and the penalties they should face if they fail. The Washington Post reports that Gab, the social networking site that has become a haven for the alt-right, has billed itself as a hub for ‘free speech’ with few rules on what users can say and share. ‘Hate speech is free speech,’ Gab’s leaders argue. For lawmakers already concerned about incendiary, extreme content online, the posts offered the latest reason to consider new regulation of the tech industry writ large. Some questioned whether Silicon Valley’s prized legal shield – a decades-old law that protects social media giants from lawsuits – might be in need of an overhaul. ‘I have serious concerns that the proliferation of extremist content – which has radicalised violent extremists ranging from Islamists to neo-Nazis – occurs in no small part because the largest social media platforms enjoy complete immunity for the content that their sites feature and that their algorithms promote,’ said Virginia Senator Mark Warner. However, the report notes that regulating sites like Gab is no easy task. The First Amendment grants people the right to say repugnant things, whether online or in the real world, making it hard for Congress to define and outlaw hate speech on social media. ‘The government can’t pick the viewpoints it likes and discriminate against the viewpoints it doesn’t like,’ noted David Greene, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Meanwhile, Stripe and PayPal, as well as hosting provider Joyent, all said they would stop Gab from using their services, citing violations of their terms of services, which do not allow hate speech. Gab slammed the moves as ‘direct collusion between big tech giants’ against it. Stripe, the Silicon Valley-based online payments company established by Limerick brothers Patrick and John Collison, said it was suspending transfers ‘effective immediately’. The Irish Times reports that the company said Gab founder Andrew Torba had not ‘provided us sufficient evidence that Gab actually prevents violations of our policies’. In August, Microsoft threatened to remove Gab from its Azure platform over a series of anti-Semitic posts which it said could incite violence, breaching its terms of service. Apple has repeatedly rejected Gab’s app from its App Store, due to its ‘objectionable content’.