Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano’s use of the far-right social media platform Gab.com to engage potential voters is a step towards the extremism that more moderate members of the Republican Party have claimed. responsibility to repudiate, according to political and internet experts.
Mastriano paid $5,000 for campaign advice to Gab.com, according to his campaign finance reports filed in May. Gab was the site where a gunman posted anti-Semitic screeds before the October 2018 shooting when he allegedly killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The 49-year-old Allegheny County man, who faces federal hate crime charges, wrote on the site about the white supremacist conspiracy theory that white people are being replaced in American society by white people. immigrants and people of color, a theme that Mastriano also touched upon. in public statements.
Libby Hemphill, a University of Michigan professor who studies political communication and social media, said Gab became a haven for hate speech after mainstream platforms such as Facebook, Reddit and Twitter took action. to moderate and remove racist and sectarian content.
“When a mainstream politician says I want to reach out to hate groups where they meet, that scares us,” Hemphill said.
Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who tracks misinformation on social media, said hate speech and conspiracy theories peddled on Gab and other sites breed political extremism and violence. The main political parties establish a baseline of what is acceptable and serve as an essential bulwark against extremism.
“Pulling back requires all political figures from all mainstream parties to say it’s irrelevant,” said Puntam, who is a member of Congregation Dor Hadash at the Tree of Life Synagogue. “We haven’t heard that from Doug Mastriano yet.”
Mastriano did not respond to messages left on his cellphone or with his campaign.
Gab founder Andrew Torba responded to reports of Mastriano’s association with the platform on Friday in a live stream in which he endorsed the Franklin County state senator as a Christian nationalist candidate. In the 40-minute video, Torba said Christian nationalists would form a coalition of local, state and federal candidates.
“[Mastriano] is our guy, and he’s the guy from Pennsylvania, and he’s going to change that state for the glory of God. And that’s the mission here, folks,” Torba said.
Torba also dismissed gay and Jewish right-wing activists, saying they are not conservative.
“They don’t share our values. They have inverted values for us as Christians, so don’t fall for the bait,” Torba said.
Torba went on to say that the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian country and would be the focal point of the Christian nationalist movement as it builds a parallel society and economy.
“We’re not going to take over the country tomorrow, are we? It’s not going to happen. Maybe it will. … You know, God works in mysterious ways,” Torba said.
“The way I see it playing out is we’re playing the long game. So we are raising our children with biblical Christian values,” Torba said.
Torba could not be reached for comment.
Mastriano also spoke about the marginalization of Christians. At a Charter Day event at the state Capitol this month to mark the anniversary of Pennsylvania’s founding, Mastriano compared himself to William Penn, a Quaker who left England to escape religious persecution.
“He was mocked in the media, ridiculed, castigated, as we see today. The religious freedoms we have enjoyed for the past few centuries here have been an anomaly in American and world history,” Mastriano said during a speech in the rotunda.
“And we see that being swept away, where the media thinks it’s okay to attack Christians for their faith and mock us, castigate us, insult us,” Mastriano said.
The Tree of Life shooter, wrote Gab about the Replacement Theory, an alleged conspiracy in which Democratic donor George Soros would smuggle immigrants into the United States to illegally vote and commit crimes against Americans. Soros is Jewish and is frequently the target of anti-Semitic attacks.
“The false claims about immigration mixed with the false claims about Jews has been a really powerful false narrative that has been part of the political ecosystem for six years,” Putnam said.
While Putnam said there is a legitimate debate to be had on immigration and politicians like Mastriano have a right to be as conservative as they want, they also have a responsibility to distance themselves from theories of destructive plot.
“Doug Mastriano could be an important conservative voice in distancing himself from these conspiracy theories,” Putnam said. “He did not choose to distance himself from Gab. He is doing the opposite right now.
Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies online political communication, said politicians who use platforms such as Gab often say they value free speech and the lack of censorship.
“We just go to these tech platforms because they make themselves available as a marketplace of ideas,” Stromer-Galley said.
But the big question, Stromer-Galley said, is whether there should be limits.
“When these social media platforms become the public sphere, what role should they play in monitoring and moderating hate speech? said Stromer-Galley.
It remains to be seen how voters will react to Mastriano’s association with Gab, Hemphill said, noting that it could motivate voters for or against him.
“For a statewide office, it’s a risky move,” Hemphill said.
As the number of voters across the country who identify as moderate dwindles, candidates such as Mastriano may be making calculated decisions to engage with their party’s base. The effect on partisan politics is likely to be long-lasting.
“Even if it doesn’t work out in 2022, if it moves the window of what’s acceptable to include engagement with white supremacists, that’s a significant push for the Republican Party,” Hemphill said.
Stromer-Galley noted that in the past, extremist candidates such as Pat Buchanan, a Republican presidential candidate with anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, have been rejected by party leaders and lost party support.
“As a democracy scholar, I worry about what it means for our society when mainstream Republicans actively court advocates of right-wing extremism,” Stromer Galley said.