The Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial continued Monday with prosecutors focusing on the defendant’s antisemitic social media posts on Gab.com. Those increased in frequency and vitriol in the weeks leading up to the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue building on Oct. 27, 2018, which left 11 worshippers dead and seven other people wounded.
The Anti-Defamation League describes Gab as a “haven for hate and disinformation” as well as “extremist and conspiratorial content.” Prosecutors brought FBI Tactical Specialist Evan Browne in to testify about the defendant’s increasingly hateful and frequent posts on the site.
Gab CEO and founder Andrew Torba testified that he created Gab as a near-unmoderated alternative to Twitter and Facebook. If a post did not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, it would be allowed on the site.
When the prosecution asked Torba if he had shared false information on Gab, he said, “I’m a Christian, sir, I don’t lie.” The prosecution questioned Torba about posts he allegedly made about the “Great Replacement” theory — a conspiracy theory that suggests immigrants are replacing white Americans. He said the theory is discussed on Gab and that “it could be” something he posted, but that he could not remember all his posts as he has made more than 70,000 on the site.
The defendant made frequent use of images of cats that resembled Adolf Hitler, antisemitic slurs and use of terms such as “gassed” and “oven-dwellers” in Gab posts in the months leading up to the shooting. He also alluded in several posts to the conspiracy theory that the deaths from the Holocaust had been faked.
His Gab bio reads: “Jews are the children of Satan.”
He also posted an image of a body burning inside a Holocaust crematorium with the caption “Make Ovens 1488°F Again,” a number which prosecutors have previously said is code used by white supremacists. The 14 stands for the 14 words in “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” a white supremacist phrase, and the 88 stands for “Heil Hitler,” as H is the eighth letter in the alphabet.
The defendant’s Gab posts included threats to Jews, with one reading that “it will not be safe here for you.” Another post featured a photo with several handguns and magazines alongside a message reading “My Glock family.”
The defendant had 380 followers on the platform before the massacre, and was a mutual follower of users such as @whiteknight1488, @holocaustliesexposed, and @hitlerwasright.
The shooting is the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history and the defendant is facing the death penalty.
His lawyer Judy Clarke said in her opening statement that there was no doubt as to the identity of the perpetrator. Instead, the defense’s case focuses on fighting charges such as 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. The prosecution must prove that the violence was motivated by religious hatred for the death penalty to be imposed.
On Oct. 27, 2018, prior to the shooting, the defendant posted: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
HIAS’ CEO Mark Hetfield testified that the Jewish organization that helps resettle refugees had organized a welcome campaign for refugees, including a special Shabbat program that was held a week before the shooting. Dor Hadash, one of the congregations attacked, participated in the welcome campaign, which was publicized on the HIAS website.
While the organization was originally founded in 1903 to focus on resettling Jewish refugees, HIAS now offers its services to refugees of all religions and backgrounds. This mission is based on the Torah’s message that Jews welcome strangers, according to Hetfield.
The defendant’s Gab account was locked after the shooting and Torba provided law enforcement with records containing information about his activity on Gab, including posts and reposts.
Monday morning’s testimony was dominated by discussion of the firearms and ammunition recovered by law enforcement following the shooting. Among the witnesses was Kevin Kauffman, a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, who testified that the firearms used in the shooting had crossed state lines. PJC
Abigail Hakas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Delaney Parks writes for the Pittsburgh Union Progress. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.