Last weekend, a horrible tragedy occurred when a gunman opened fire in a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people. In the wake of this tragedy, a devastated public has been seeking to make sense of this act of mass violence. But as is common when dealing with grief, sadness often turns to anger and confusion, and there is then a sense that justice must be served, not just on the perpetrator but even on those indirectly involved.
When an individual commits a violent act, only that person should be held directly responsible. But our country has lost its sense of personal responsibility, and when something goes wrong, the default response is to widely cast blame on anyone or anything that can conceivably be linked to the act. Following the Pittsburgh shooting, many have decided that punishing alternative social media platforms will somehow avenge the lives lost. Unfortunately, this is not the case. And by arbitrarily pointing fingers, we completely abandon the principle of personal responsibility.
Is Social Media to Blame?
Immediately following the massacre, it was discovered that the suspected gunman had made several anti-semitic social media posts, many originating on the platform Gab. In response, PayPal sent a letter to Gab stating that it would no longer offer payment services to the network. PayPal gave no specific reason for this action aside from specifying that it had the right to terminate business relationships at its own discretion, which, as a private company, it absolutely does.
The company is diligent in performing reviews and taking account actions. When a site is explicitly allowing the perpetuation of hate, violence or discriminatory intolerance, we take immediate and decisive action.
Shortly thereafter, Gab received word that its web hosting provider, Joyent, would also be ending their business relationship in light of the gunman’s social media presence on its site. GoDaddy has cut its ties with the platform, as well. Gab told its users that it would be working on finding alternatives, but these losses will surely cause the social networking site many problems in the coming weeks.
Adding expropriation to injury, the payment processing company Stripe sent a letter to Gab, saying:
While we continue our investigation, we are suspending transfers to your bank account, effective immediately. Your Stripe account will continue to be able to receive payments from your customers, but you will not receive payouts until we re-enable them.
Again, these companies certainly have the right to cut ties, but their decision does not make a whole lot of sense. After all, Gab is not the only social media platform that has been used by murderers and other monsters of humanity. At its peak, the terrorist group ISIS frequently made use of Twitter as a means of recruiting members. Twitter has also been used by several other users who were later discovered to be murderers. However, Twitter itself was never held responsible for these users’ actions.
In addition to Twitter, Facebook has also been utilized by many murderers, some even boasting about their kills on the popular social media site. Yet Facebook has never had to face the same negative backlash that Gab is currently having to endure. And to make matters worse, Gab is one of the few social media platforms that has committed itself to free speech even in our current climate of censorship hysteria. As Facebook and Twitter continue to ban users, we need to preserve as many alternative social media sites as possible.
The Problem with Purging
Over the last several months, both Facebook and Twitter have been deleting the accounts of users whose profiles and pages have been flagged as racist or offensive. While Facebook claims that many of the 800 accounts it banned recently were a result of spamming violations, many of the banned pages have denied these allegations. Additionally, many of the pages deleted were right-leaning groups. And given the proximity to the midterm elections, the whole thing is highly suspect.
Now, many users fear that their accounts might also be banned for simply expressing an opinion that doesn’t align with those who control these platforms. And many have begun to abandon these popular platforms in search of alternatives that do not threaten to ban users for expressing their opinions—no matter how radical or unfavorable these opinions may be.
Gab has been one popular haven for those fleeing traditional social media platforms as it prides itself on being “The Home of Free Speech Online.” But this mission has been threatened by PayPal and Stripe cutting off its accounts and Joyent dropping the site from its servers.
Yes, all these entities are allowed to freely associate or disassociate with whomever they please. Nevertheless, as the ability to freely express ourselves is quickly becoming limited at almost every turn, the shunning of Gab is a chilling sign of where we are headed as a society.
True, the gunman’s profile on the site was riddled with hateful rhetoric, but his words were his own and no one else’s. Punishing Gab would be akin to punishing a homeowner for a violent crime that occurred just outside of his home, even if he played no role in the altercation.
It should also be noted that as soon as Gab realized the gunman had a profile on its site, it promptly turned over all relevant information to the FBI. Gab was merely protecting his right to voice his opinion, they were not protecting him from the consequences of his actions.
Gab commented on the whole debacle, saying:
We refuse to be defined by the media’s narratives about Gab and our community. Gab’s mission is very simple: to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people. Social media often brings out the best and the worst of humanity.
And if we are being honest with ourselves, by exiling the “worst” of humanity and banishing it to remote corners of the internet, we do more harm than good. First, isolating hateful people only allows their hate to fester in fringe groups where they stay isolated from new thoughts that could potentially positively alter their worldviews. Additionally, by keeping these people hidden, we miss out on vital feedback that tells us that we may not want to associate these people.
Heinous acts of violence shake us to our core and leave us feeling vulnerable and confused. But this vulnerability should not cloud our reason. And by holding social media platforms accountable for someone else’s crime, we remove the personal responsibility that should fall on those who actually committed the murders.