Pennsylvania Sen. Doug Mastriano’s campaign to become governor of Pennsylvania paid $5,000 for “advisory services” to Gab, a social media platform that hosts conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic content.
Gab is the website used by Robert Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill in 2018. Bowers regularly posted anti-Semitic content about Gab before the shooting, according to the postal archives.
The payment was disclosed in a routine financial statement filed by the Mastriano campaign for the month of April. Mastriano’s campaign did not respond to an email seeking comment.
But Gab founder, CEO and majority owner Andrew Torba said in an email that Mastriano’s $5,000 campaign payment on April 28 was for an advertising campaign. Torba said he launched the site as an antidote to mainstream social media sites which he considers too liberal.
During an interview with Mastriano posted on Gab on May 2, Torba warned Mastriano that he would likely be criticized for agreeing to be interviewed on Gab. “You could even be slandered for doing this interview with me. So be prepared for that,” Torba told Mastriano.
Mastriano expressed no reservations during the 16-minute interview about Gab’s content and thanked Torba for providing space for conservative voices like his. Mastriano has routinely refused interviews with mainstream media and banned some media from participating in certain campaign events.
Mastriano has posted 66 times on Gab since joining in February. A recent article from July 9 – a critique of Democratic economic policies – received 157 comments. At least two dozen of those responses — by far the most common response — were anti-Semitic slurs directed at state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee in the gubernatorial race. Shapiro is Jewish.
The response to the message is typical of Gab content, according to a number of media reports and University studies on the site. Although the site’s founder says its purpose is to provide a haven for free speechin practice, this means the site has often been dominated by conspiracy theories and hate speech.
Torba himself has openly promoted white nationalist content and conspiracies on Gab, according to a New York Times report. After the recent mass shooting in Buffalo where a gunman targeted black shoppers at a supermarket, Torba encouraged Gab members to marry and have babies only with other white people. Gab actively courted Qanon supporters.
Gab announces that his site includes tools to block users and filter comments and specific topics. The Mastriano campaign did not respond to questions about whether it had attempted to block or remove anti-Semitic comments.
Will Simons, spokesman for Shapiro, said in an emailed statement that the affiliation with Gab was typical of Mastriano’s extremism. Mastriano has expressed support for unproven allegations of voter fraud and attended the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, although he claims he stayed behind police lines and did not enter the Capitol. during the riot.
“Doug Mastriano has proven once again that he is unfit to be governor by funding and accepting endorsement of the hateful organization that allowed the Tree of Life shooter to spread anti-Semitic and white nationalist rhetoric before murdering 11 Jews in Pittsburgh,” Simons wrote.
The Shapiro campaign did not respond to questions about whether it was taking precautions because of anti-Semitic content posted about it on Gab.
But Pittsburgh attorney Steve Irwin, who recently lost a close primary for the Democratic nomination in the 12th congressional district, said he fears Mastriano’s relationship with Gab could have unintended consequences. Irwin, who has held leadership positions for the Anti-Defamation League and is Jewish, said he believed Mastriano thought he needed extremist voters to win.
“And frankly, he kisses her and leans into her. He realizes that’s what he has to do, and he does it. And that’s, that’s just unconscionable,” Irwin said.
On May 2, days after Mastriano paid Gab, Torba interviewed Mastriano on the video posted on Gab. And then on May 12, Torba endorsed Mastriano to the website’s more than three million subscribers. Torba, a native of Scranton, runs his business near Clarks Summit in Lackawanna County. He said his endorsement of Mastriano in the Republican primary had nothing to do with Mastriano’s campaign payment to his company.
Torba said other politicians had advertised Gab without getting his approval. Torba forwarded an article from Media Matters with the title “Several Republican politicians ran ads about Gab, a haven for white nationalists.” The article posted screenshots of ads on Gab from four Republican Party officials and candidates, including U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Representative Paul Gosar of Arizona. (Media Matters also has reported on Mastriano’s contribution to Gab.)
Kathy Barnette, the unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, was the only other candidate besides Mastriano that Torba endorsed. Torba said he backs candidates because of their open support for the Christian religion, not because of their ads on his site.
Tree of Life shooter on Gab
Anti-Semitic violence is at an all-time high in western Pennsylvania, according to the Anti-Defamation League. There were more than twice as many anti-Semitic incidents in 2021 as in 2017.
Irwin said he was concerned that Mastriano’s support for a website that hosts posts from extremist groups could embolden some of its users.
The Tree of Life shooter has found encouragement for his Gab posts. Shortly before entering the synagogue, the accused gunman posted on Gab: “I can’t sit around and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I enter.
After the Tree of Life shooting, Gab says he cooperated with authorities, removed the shooter’s positions and condemned the violent attack. But the website continued to spread anti-Semitic content as he faced a series of financial difficulties, his web hosting company, GoDaddy, and payment processors such as PayPal refused to do business with the company.
Gab’s assets grew from $1.2 million in 2018 to around $600,000 in 2019, according to a company filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2020. Apple and Google stores also removed the company’s apps, according to the filing. The site has since launched an encrypted messaging service that at least one law enforcement agency fears it will become a haven for white nationalist plots.
Shapiro investigated Gab in his role as Pennsylvania attorney general after the Tree of Life shooting, but ultimately dropped the investigation a year later.
Updated: July 14, 2022 at 2:02 p.m. EDT
This story has been updated with details regarding the uprising at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.