In the months leading up to Robert Bowers’ murderous rampage, he was in deep on the social media platform Gab, frequently reposting content from influential alt-right accounts including Jared Wyand and Bradley Dean Griffin.
This finding is based on an analysis of data provided to Hatewatch by the Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI).
Before he murdered 11 and wounded six worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh Saturday, Bowers posted a cryptic message to the social media platform Gab reading, “Screw your optics, I'm going in.”
The reference to “optics” was evidence that Bowers was well acquainted with the white nationalist “alt-right.” As Hatewatch reported Sunday in an initial analysis of Bowers’ Gab activity, “the optics debate” was a roiling argument within the movement that began after the 2016 presidential election and accelerated following the devastating after-effects of the deadly “Unite the Right” riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
The main conflict was whether avowed white nationalists should veil their rhetoric, at least until potential recruits had been sufficiently radicalized to accept talk of genocide and racial violence. Bowers’ final Gab post makes it clear that he was no longer interested in these discussions and was ready to take murderous action.
Hatewatch and NCRI aggregated the killer’s activity on the platform to determine how frequently he posted and which Gab accounts he engaged with most. The analysis includes an assessment of the actions Bowers took on Gab, including to:
- repost a user
- respond to a user’s post
- repost another user’s parent post (in Twitter terms, retweet a retweet).
Among the accounts Bowers engaged with most, several usernames stand out. The list includes Bradley Dean Griffin, Patrick Little, Jared Wyand and a user named “Jack Corbin.”
While these engagements represent a small fraction of Bowers’ overall activity of 767 posts and reposts between Dec. 22, 2017, and Oct. 9 this year, during that time period these are the accounts he interacted with the most. Bowers’ contact with these accounts suggests how easy it is for prominent white nationalists to solidify their influence on Gab. Using that megaphone, they can reach people like Bowers who are willing to act on extremist rhetoric. A review of these accounts and interactions also helps sharpen the picture of a radicalized white supremacist.
Bowers shared content produced by virulently antisemitic personality and alt-right influencer Jared Wyand 15 times between February and May, including one direct interaction. A sampling of the content shows themes that would also appear in Bowers’ later Gab activity:
Why is there a \"DACA Debate\" topic? Why are people allowing a debate over whether millions of people who invaded our county will be allowed to cancel out our votes u give democrats indefinite one party rule? People who’ve been stealing $115 billion from us a year. This is not a debate. This is a red line and act of war if you have any dignity in your body.
In one chilling post, Wyand argues that “we’re being invaded” and “our people are being completely destroyed.” He urges action “by any means necessary” to stop it. Bowers’ final post echoes those sentiments exactly.
Can we all agree that we’re being invaded? An actual orchestrated overthrow of our countries that is on track to succeed? And that our people and culture will be (are being) completely destroyed? And that it’s on us to stop this by any means necessary? And the people telling us we can’t are the people orchestrating overthrow? Are we all in agreement?
In March, Bowers and Wyand had a short back-and-forth about using secure messaging systems.
WYAND: “Don't care what's going on today. Trying to come up with E to E encryption solutions. If this is your expertise, holllllla.”
BOWERS: “for messaging or direct voice? what platform?”
WYAND: “messaging through browser”
BOWERS: “this is one i have not fully vetted yet but looks promising. (Bowers provided a link to a messaging service) i am onedingo on there too and pretty much everywhere else except instagram and my long gone twitter account that i never much used.”
Wyand amassed 130,000 followers on Twitter before being suspended in December 2016 following a multi-tweet rant about Jews, as well as arguing that the Star Wars film franchise promoted “white genocide” — another theme that obsessed Bowers and helped inspire him to murder.
Before his suspension, Wyand’s account was popular among the far right as well as prominent Trump supporters. Wyand was retweeted by Gen. Michael Flynn and racist commentator Ann Coulter, among others.
On Gab, Wyand eventually landed into trouble as well. In June, Gab chief operating officer Utsav Sanduja allegedly contacted law enforcement following a post from Wyand that Sanduja saw as threatening. Nevertheless, Wyand had a paid pro account on Gab.
Between May and October, Bowers also engaged with 14 posts from the account of white nationalist Bradley Dean Griffin.
Griffin, who operates the white nationalist blog “Occidental Dissent” under the pseudonym “Hunter Wallace” and serves as the “PR Chief” of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, was a prominent fixture in the “optics” debate of 2017 and was at the center of violence during the deadly “Unite the Right” event.
Griffin also created a website called “Antisemitica,” the purpose of which was to “explore the Jewish Question and anti-Semitic discourse from a cooler, more collected perspective… Instead, we shall argue that Jewish influence (in the aggregate) is a menace to the racial and cultural health of American society, and that White Americans would be better off without a Jewish presence within our borders.”
On his website after the Tree of Life massacre, Griffin wrote, “As it happens, I was in the middle of a heated argument with someone on Gab about how Jewish donors control the Trump administration when the Pittsburgh shooting happened.” Bowers shared this antisemitic criticism of Trump.
The Griffin posts Bowers shared spanned an assortment of topics and movement events. One criticized the Republican Party for moving to oust white nationalist James Allsup from his position as a precinct committee officer in Washington state. Another shared legal developments regarding the “Unite the Right” riot. Another gloated about the then-impending confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. In one post, Griffin wrote, “Every time you are accused of an -ism or -phobia remember this communist garbage has nothing to do with morality.” While image content is not available in the Gab dataset, Bowers’ response suggests Griffin’s post contained an image of person who Bowers thought was Jewish: “hmmm. that hair... that nose... #EverySingleTime #ExposeTheNose.”
The user Bowers engaged with the most was someone who went by “Jack Corbin.” Corbin appears to collaborate with Griffin on Griffin’s pet project doxing activists affiliated with anti-fascist groups.
Bowers shared multiple posts from Corbin in early July following a riot in Portland, Oregon, that involved far-right groups, including the SPLC-designated hate group the Proud Boys, clashing with “antifa” and other counter-protesters. Throughout 2018, the Proud Boys have been at the epicenter of far-right political violence in the streets.
During the Portland riot, Ethan Nordean, a Proud Boy who goes by the nickname Rufio Panman, was captured on film knocking out an antifascist protester. The video went viral among the far-right and led to a major boost in recruitment for the group. Bowers, through Corbin’s running commentary, enjoyed it from afar.
Here are several posts from Corbin that Bowers shared:
The SHARP who got KO’d by Rufio Panman in Portland had a seizure after getting KO’d. I hear there’s a 75% chance he might die. One less Antifa terrorist and one less loose end if that happens!
I’m asking people to take a page from Rufio’s handbook wear Kevlar forearm bracers at rallies to block ASP Baton attacks from Antifa like [names of alleged activists] of Philly ARA. Goggles \ Helmets too!
i’m gonna waste my sunday binge watching beat-downs. antifa vs. wall (Corbin linked to a video of a Proud Boy ramming an antifascist protestor into a wall).
Bowers also shared homophobic and white nationalist commentary from Corbin, including a post that read, “Whites have a right to exist, faggots do not. Faggots are not human beings, they are AIDS carrying flesh muppets,” and “It’s OK to be White. It’s OK to be Russian. It's not ok to be an Antifa terrorist.”
Between May and July, Bowers shared 10 posts from antisemite Patrick Little, a failed Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in California whose campaign was more of a stunt to draw attention to a litany of antisemitic messages (Little won nearly 90,000 votes in the primary), including his catch phrase “name the Jew.” In August, Little called for the “complete eradication of all Jews” and made a call for their death by torture, which led to Microsoft threatening Gab to remove the posts. Little eventually removed the posts to save the site.
A sample Little repost from Bowers includes:
“I am organizing protests calling for the demolition of all holohoax memorials. Never again will we let jewish lies be used as a weapon against our children. #NeverAgain”
More significantly, Little encouraged his audience to take more action, in a post that Bowers shared and clearly resonates with much of Bowers’ other Gab postings:
Stop chatting on the Discord Servers, stop endlessly listening to podcasts. Sit your ass down, study the jews, then go out there and be a professional jew namer. You can do it, it is like studying for your CCNA, Series 7, CPA, or any other certification. But you have to read like 25 professional grade books on the jews, and then get out there and save your people!
Through these account interactions we can see that Bowers closely followed major figures within the movement and major events that occurred in 2018. The conspiratorial grievances are also there, and are in fact rampant across Gab. These factors helped a white supremacist terrorist along his path to violence.
Gab and other social media platforms have clearly served as gigantic amplifiers for influential racist propagandists. They have built something that hate groups could never have built themselves, and in large part, have made many traditional hate group membership strategies obsolete.
Hatewatch and NCRI will continue to analyze Bowers’ Gab activity as well as the social media platform’s role in facilitating white supremacist extremism more broadly.
The Network Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) deploys machine learning tools to expose hate on digital social networks within a cross-platform, public-minded and global framework. We are a multidisciplinary group of scientists and engineers who apply our technical skills to further public insight into the problem of online hate. We examine how hateful images and language grow within and between Web communities and how the infection of hate spreads between the online and the real world.
Photo illustration by SPLC