Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks during an event in Gettysburg to formally announce a run for governor on Jan. 8, 2022. (Screenshot)
Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano’s use of the far-right social media platform Gab.com to engage potential voters is a step toward extremism that more moderate members of the Republican Party have a responsibility to repudiate, experts on politics and the internet say.
Mastriano paid $5,000 for campaign consulting 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 immigrants and people of color, a theme Mastriano also has touched on in public statements.
Libby Hemphill, a University of Michigan professor who studies political communication and social media, said Gab emerged as a refuge for hate speech after mainstream platforms including Facebook, Reddit and Twitter took steps to moderate and remove racist and bigoted content.
“When a mainstream politician says I want to reach hate groups where they meet, that’s scary to us,” Hemphill said.
Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who tracks disinformation on social media, said hate speech and conspiracy theories peddled on Gab and other sites breed political extremism and violence. The mainstream political parties set a baseline for what is acceptable and serve as a critical bulwark against extremism.
“Pushing back requires all political figures in all of the mainstream parties to say that is beyond the pale,” said Putnam, who is a member of the Tree of Life Synagogue’s Dor Hadash congregation. “We have not yet heard that from Doug Mastriano.”
Mastriano did not respond to messages left on his cellphone or with his campaign.
Gab founder Andrew Torba on Friday responded to reports of Mastriano’s association with the platform in a livestream in which he endorsed the state senator from Franklin County as a Christian nationalist candidate. In the 40-minute video, Torba said Christian nationalists would build a coalition of candidates at the local, state, and federal levels.
“[Mastriano] is our guy, and this is Pennsylvania’s guy, and he’s going to turn this state around for the glory of God. And that is the mission here, folks,” Torba said.
Torba also dismissed right-wing activists who are gay and Jewish, saying they are not conservatives.
“They don’t share our values. They have inverted values for us as Christians, so don’t fall for the bait,” Torba said.
Torba continued, saying the United States was founded as an explicitly Christian country and that it would be the focal point of the Christian nationalist movement as it builds a parallel society and economy.
“We’re not going to, like, take over the country tomorrow, right? That’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’re raising our kids with biblical Christian values,” Torba said.
Torba could not be reached for comment.
Mastriano has also spoken about the marginalization of Christians. At a Charter Day event at the state Capitol this month to mark the anniversary of the founding of Pennsylvania, 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’re seeing today. The religious freedoms that we’ve enjoyed over the past several centuries here have been an anomaly in American and world history,” Mastriano said during a speech in the rotunda.
“And we’re seeing that’s being swept away, where the media think it’s OK to attack Christians for their faith and mock us, castigate us, call us names,” Mastriano said.
The Tree of Life gunman wrote on Gab about the replacement theory, a purported conspiracy in which Democratic donor George Soros is said to be smuggling immigrants into the United States to vote illegally 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 have been a really potent false narrative that has been part of the political ecosystem for the last six years,” Putnam said.
While Putnam said there is a legitimate debate to be had about immigration and that politicians like Mastriano have a right to be as conservative as they want, they also have a responsibility to distance themselves from destructive conspiracy theories.”
“Doug Mastriano could be an important conservative voice by distancing himself from these conspiracy theories,” Putnam said. “He has not chosen to distance himself from Gab. He’s doing the opposite right now.”
Jennifer Stromer-Galley, a professor of communications at Syracuse University who studies online political communication, said politicians who use platforms such as Gab often say they value free speech and freedom from 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 be playing in monitoring and moderating out hate speech,” Stromer-Galley said.
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 becomes smaller, candidates such as Mastriano may make calculated decisions to engage with their party’s base. The effect on partisan politics is likely to be lasting.
“Even if this doesn’t work in 2022, if it moves the window of what is acceptable to include engaging with white supremacists, that is a significant push for the Republican party,” Hemphill said.
Stromer-Galley noted that in the past, extreme candidates such as Pat Buchanan, a Republican presidential candidate with anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, were repudiated by party leaders and lost the party’s support.
“As a scholar of democracy I do worry what it means for our society when mainstream Republicans are actively courting advocates of right-wing extremism,” Stromer Galley said.
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