Social media platforms Twitter and Gab.com were at the center of two shocking stories of domestic terrorism. Both platforms were used to send by the men responsible for the mail bomb attacks and Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue shooting to send cryptic threats.
Following the events, both platforms have been accused of failing to act appropriately, both in terms of their internal policies, and their ability to coordinate with law enforcement to deal with the threats. Twitter fails to recognize a bomb attacker.
Mail bomber sent a threat first on Twitter
Twitter neglected an abuse report by a Twitter user against mail bombing suspect. Rochelle Ritchie, a former congressional press secretary, tweeted that she had received threats from Cesar Altieri Sayoc via Twitter. Sayoc was later arrested and charged in connection with mailing at least 13 suspected explosive devices to prominent Democrats, the staff at CNN, and other U.S. officials, as Bloomberg reported.
On October 11, Ritchie received a tweet from an account using the handle @hardrock2016. The message was bizarre, saying, “So you like make threats. We Unconquered Seminole Tribe will answer your threats. We have nice silent Air boat ride for u here on our land. We will see you 4 sure. Hug your loved ones real close every time you leave your home.”
Ritchie immediately reported this to twitter as abuse. Following this, Twitter responded that the tweet did not qualify as a “violation of the Twitter rules against abusive behavior.”
The tweet was visible on Twitter until Sayoc was arrested on Friday. Ritchie tweeted again on Friday, “Hey @Twitter remember when I reported the guy who was making threats towards me after my appearance on @FoxNews and you guys sent back a bs response about how you didn’t find it that serious. Well, guess what it’s the guy who has been sending #bombs to high profile politicians!!!!”
Later in the day, Twitter apologized in reply to Ritchie’s tweet saying it should have taken a different action when Ritchie had first approached them. Twitter’s statement said. “The Tweet clearly violated our rules and should have been removed. We are deeply sorry for that error.”
Twitter has been keen to assure users that it is working hard to combat harassment and abuse on its platform. But many users disagree.
People: Someone is harassing me on your platform and I feel unsafe.
Twitter: Nah it's fine. They don't mean it.
People: No really. This is abuse.
Twitter: It's not that bad. Just mute/block them. pic.twitter.com/UzlHQfMhZS
— Awesomely Luvvie (@Luvvie) October 26, 2018
Even the apology sent to Ritchie looks a lot like the company is trying to push the matter under the carpet. This wasn’t the first time Sayoc used Twitter to post his sentiments.
On September 18th, Sayoc tweeted a picture of former Vice President Joe Biden’s home and wrote, “Hug your loved son, Niece, wife family real close everytime U walk out your home.”
On September 20, in response to a tweet from President Trump, Sayoc posted a video of himself at what appears to be a Donald Trump rally.
The text of the tweet threatened former Vice President Joe Biden and former attorney general Eric Holder. Later that week, they were targeted by improvised explosive devices.
Twitter suspended Sayoc’s accounts late Friday afternoon last week.
Shooter hinted at Pittsburgh shooting on Gab.com
“It’s a very horrific crime scene; One of the worst that I’ve seen” – Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said at a press conference
Gab.com, which is described as “The Home Of Free Speech Online” was allegedly linked to the shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, 27th October’18.
The 46-year-old suspected shooter named Robert Bowers, posted on his Gab page, “jews are the children of satan.” He also reportedly shouted “all Jews must die” before he opened the round of firing at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
According to The Hill’s report, “Gab.com rejected claims it was responsible for the shooting after it confirmed that the name identified in media reports as the suspect matched the name on an account on its platform.”
PayPal, GoDaddy suspend Gab.com for promoting hate speech
Following the Pittsburgh shooting incident, PayPal has banned Gab.com. A PayPal spokesperson confirmed the ban to The Verge, citing hate speech as a reason for the action, “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.”
— Gab.com🍂 (@getongab) October 27, 2018
Similarly, GoDaddy, a domain hosting website, has threatened to suspend the Gab.com domain if it fails to transfer to a new provider. Currently, Gab is inaccessible through the GoDaddy website.
Gab.com denies enabling hate speech
Denying the claims, Gab.com said that it has zero tolerance for terrorism and violence.“Gab unequivocally disavows and condemns all acts of terrorism and violence,” the site said in a statement. “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.”
Gab was quick to respond to the accusation, taking swift and proactive action to contact law enforcement. It first backed up all user data from the account and then proceeded to suspend the account. “We then contacted the FBI and made them aware of this account and the user data in our possession. We are ready and willing to work with law enforcement to see to it that justice is served”, Gab said.
Gab.com also stated that the shooter had accounts on other social media platforms including Facebook, which has not yet confirmed the deactivation of the account. Federal investigators are reportedly treating the attack as a potential hate crime.
This incident is a stark reminder of how online hate can easily escalate into the real world. It also sheds light on how easy it is to misuse any social media platform to post threat attacks; some of which can also be a hoax. Most importantly it underscores how social media platforms are ill-equipped to not just identify such threats but also in prioritizing manually flagged content by users and in alerting concerned authorities on time to avert tragedies such as this.
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