Tech companies already have the tools to stop hate speech in its tracks. Why won’t they use them?

Tech companies don’t have a duty to give hatred a place to gather.
Tech companies don’t have a duty to give hatred a place to gather.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Hidden somewhere deep within the cavernous user agreements of almost every social media platform, every website template, every hosting service, every fundraising tool, every email account is a clause that allows the service to shut down your account for any reason at all. And because nobody in the history of technology has read the entirety of these agreements, it may come as a surprise for some to find their accounts suddenly deleted. This, after all, is what happened when Neo-Nazis and members of the Alt-Right started losing their AirBnB accounts after trying to book rooms in Charlottesville last month. These refusals of service came as such a shock that they felt almost like violations of first amendment rights. They were not, of course, constitutional violations, and it is time that tech giants and startups alike quash the internet megaphone that has allowed these hate groups to grow.

In the last few weeks, several other companies, including PayPal, Squarespace, GoDaddy, and even OkCupid have followed suit and booted hateful users from their services. But these aforementioned services are used primarily for maintaining the operations of hate groups, and tend to serve the people that already belong to these groups. To really hurt them—to put a massive dent in their growth—one must target their recruiting grounds: YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Last month the New York Times published an article about the vast Alt-Right network that exists on YouTube. Though innocuous in appearance, these right wing videos are very effective against young, impressionable internet users.

Unlike the Daily Stormer—an infamous stomping ground for white supremacists where explicitly violent rhetoric is commonplace—members of Alt-Right groups have found ways to skirt direct calls for race war, allowing them to espouse a vaguer but similarly hateful ideology with a measure of impunity. It is no mystery that GoDaddy found justification for booting the Daily Stormer from its services. (The only mystery is why it didn’t happen sooner).

The issue may not appear as transparent with someone like Richard Spencer, a popular Alt-Right figure who marched in Charlottesville and is known best for his infamous “Hail Trump” speech shortly after the 2016 Election (and for getting punched in the face). He claims to be nothing more than a peaceful standard bearer for the white race. Booting him requires interpretation of his remarks, which can be seen as politically motivated, and therefore controversial. But to most, there is absolutely no ambiguity as to what Spencer stands for—a man who at his most innocuous helped popularize the not-so-affectionately named “Nazi Youth Haircut.”

People like Spencer or Paul Joseph Watson, a radical right-wing YouTuber with over a million subscribers, purposefully toe the line while still leaving no mystery about what their beliefs are. Why are we waiting for them to explicitly cross that line before curbing their ability to reach people with not-so-couched messages of hate?

Twitter’s user agreement reads We may suspend or terminate your account or cease providing you with all or part of the Services at any time for any or no reason. Is publicly supporting Nazi ideology and waving Nazi salutes not a good enough reason?

The dangers of the Alt-Right is its ability to make public affiliations with the Nazi party and the Klan seem like justifiable behavior.

The ability to proliferate ideas on the internet has worked in unison with the general anonymity of the internet, or, at least, with the feeling of relative anonymity that comes from posting from behind the screen of a computer while still using one’s own name. This creates a sort of immoral playground where leaders of hate groups can unleash their rhetoric on the internet’s most secular sites, such as Twitter and YouTube. No longer must one actively choose visit militant websites like Stormfront of The Daily Stormer, which may feel like a big jump for someone on the fence. Now, with just two clicks, one can get a more palatable, washed-out version of it on their newsfeed. The general innocuousness of Twitter and Facebook do a lot to wash out and therefore obfuscate the appearance of hate speech.

When those who preach these fringe ideas imitate and reproduce the medium and the tenor of traditional news or communication, they normalize themselves. This is why it’s so easy for some people to confuse Alex Jones for real news—his desk, his InfoWars ticker tape are all the trappings of mainstream media. Richard Spencer doesn’t immediately look like a Neo-Nazi, but rather, like a Millennial using twitter to state his opinions.

Baked Alaska, the former Buzzfeed editor and now of Alt-Right fame, doesn’t come off, at first glance, as much like a bigot as he does a tweeter of silly memes, and a general silly person on the internet. Because memes are a uniquely modern expression of humor, it becomes harder to believe that someone so visibly tapped into pop culture could possibly have militant Alt-Right ideas. Twitter offers Baked Alaska this mask while still allowing him to spread extreme messages.

Similarly, Ben Garrison, a cartoonist beloved by the Alt-Right and an avid retweeter of Nazi images, has a verified Facebook page and an Instagram account where he still posts cartoons. The ability to see posts by Garrison just after seeing photos of brunches that one’s friends have posted, and photos of Taylor Swift’s new album cover makes one psychologically inclined to see Garrison as part of mainstream culture, regardless of how fringe his ideas actually are. He has a lot of the same ideas as Lyndon LaRouche’s supporters, but with an infinitely larger soapbox.

The blue check mark that people like Garrison and Spencer have beside their names on social media is what makes them so dangerous. It makes them credible sources. It makes their ideas serious. It means they should be taken seriously when in reality this is the last thing that should happen. This, in part, is why Alt-Right leaders and thinkers should be subject to the arbitrary nature of social media’s user agreements and banned immediately.

Squarespace and GoDaddy are working to take down the websites of people like Spencer and Nathan Damigo, who founded the white supremacist group Identity Evropa. This is fantastic progress. However, all manner of prominent Alt-Right Youtube and Twitter accounts are still active, and these remain the home to the bulk of their ideology, still very much available for consumption. Why should someone like Damigo, who has decried Jewish intellectualism—literally something the Nazi party did—be allowed to use social media and Youtube, where we know too well that people turn for this sort of race-hate-masking-as-conservative indoctrination?

Why should Millennial Matt, a popular figure in the online world of white nationalism known best for his oh-so-hilarious remark “Hitler did nothing wrong,” be allowed to continue posting on Twitter? Doesn’t this mean that he believes at least 11 million Jews, homosexuals, and ethnic minorities deserved to die? How does this remark not constitute threatening language? The idea that Hitler did nothing wrong isn’t an opinion on an alternative version of history. It’s an opinion on whether or not it was wrong to murder 11 million people. It’s just a careful rhetorical step away from “They deserved to die and still do,” while still meaning just that. This, certainly, is threatening language.

David Duke, former Imperial Wizard of the Klan is still on Twitter, posting images and ideology for his 50,000 followers. The Twitter servers are not kept in the hallowed grounds of Independence Hall. The first amendment does not govern them. User agreements do. And every tweet that David Duke sends out is a threat against non-whites.

The glaring loophole in the argument that freedom of speech should allow users such as these to keep posting is a failure to recognize that any public affiliation, however soft, with Nazis or the Klan is a threat on its own. These are not social or cultural clubhouses; they are not political affiliations worthy of respect. The truth remains that supporting these groups is a statement in no uncertain terms that certain people deserve to die. And this message must be silenced.

Twitter has been working diligently to shut down ISIS accounts, presumably not only because the content posted by these accounts is offensive, but also to curb their operations. James Alex Fields, who drove a car into a crowd in Charlottesville, showed us what similar domestic terrorism looks like.

The problem with the condemnation of hate speech by the government is that is has very little common-sense flexibility. Swastikas, inexplicably, don’t count as hate-speech, nor do stated desires for an ethno-state. Fortunately, there is plenty of room for common-sense distinctions on social media. Regardless of how social media platforms wish to brand themselves, they are not, nor have ever been bastions of free speech.

And because so much communal organization takes place on social media, places like Twitter and Facebook Live have started being used as bat signals, allowing organizers to plan events on short notice and guarantee attendance without attracting too much unwanted attention. It also allows them to send out information blasts during events themselves. Remove social media, and the Alt-Right become chickens without heads.

Neo-Nazis have run amok and made use of social media to coax the ill-informed, the disaffected, the discontent, and the prejudiced, over to the side of extremism. It is time for that to stop. It is time they lost their loudest, most insidious megaphone.

In the 1927 decision Whitney v. California, a case that set out to determine whether the intent of hate speech was itself criminal, Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis wrote a line that should on its own be enough to condemn any who bears a Swastika or a Klan flag or uses the transparent pseudopolitical phrase Alt-Right to describe themselves. “To justify suppression of free speech,” Brandeis said, “there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced.” The question now is what the tech world considers evil.