Digital Platforms Connect, Media Exposes and Live Gatherings Make It All Real

Neo-Nazis marched in the United States, leaving a young woman dead, while radical Islamic terrorists killed 13 people in Barcelona and left dozens more injured.

Last week was a bad week for good people.

It was a week where business leaders and social networks chose or felt forced to take stands.

And it was the digital networks that were, once again, front and center in the ongoing debate about free speech vs. hate speech, a matchup that many people no longer feel requires debate, or does it?

Kevin Systrom, the cofounder of Instagram, has been outspoken on this topic over the past week, as covered by WIRED: “To Systrom, it’s pretty simple: Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to shitpost.”

The article sets the context:

Technology platforms, the conventional wisdom now goes, are not neutral. Their design and structure encourage certain behaviors, and then their algorithms control us even more. We may feel like we’re paddling our own boats, but the platform is the river and the algorithms are the current….

The line of censorship in Silicon Valley—what it is and what it isn’t—is a crooked one, or at least a blurry one. The government has constitutional limits on its right to censor you, but private platforms do not….

When pressed on the matter, [Systrom] asks, “Is it free speech to just be mean to someone?” Jackson Colaco makes the same point more sharply. “If toxicity on a platform gets so bad that people don’t even want to post a comment, they don’t even want to share an idea, you’ve actually threatened expression.”…

…“Maybe trying sends a signal to other companies that this is a priority, and starts a national and international conversation that we should all be having about creating safe and inclusive online communities, not only for our kids but for our friends and our families,” [Systrom] says. “I think that will be success.”

And yet, while I have written before that algorithms will never solve this problem, denying access to networks and otherwise limiting the ability of hate groups to reach out is actually simple. And yet Gizmodo reports, “Tech Companies Race to Finally Enforce Policies After Charlottesville Violence”:

Policies that could have prevented sites like The Daily Stormer from using these services have, in most cases, existed for many years—and even now, the half-hearted purge of a few specific aggressors involved in the Unite the Right rally look a lot like half-assed window-dressing designed to satisfy public opinion. These are companies that won’t—or can’t—meaningfully crack down on extremism in broad terms.

So which companies have finally chosen to act this week?

Airbnb

To its credit, Airbnb is one of the few companies to take action before all hell broke loose in Virginia this weekend, opting to ban users it had reason to believe were booking rooms to attend the Unite the Right rally….

The company, in a statement to Gizmodo, also interpreted the booked lodgings for Unite the Right as a breach of the company’s Community Commitment, and intends to make use of preemptive bans in the future to mitigate ease of travel for similar rallies.

Cloudflare

The distributed domain server and internet security services company also presents an unusual circumstance… In an internal email obtained by Gizmodo, company CEO Matthew Prince said he acted against neo-Nazi blog The Daily Stormer because “the people behind the Daily Stormer are assholes and I’d had enough.”…

GoFundMe

Like Airbnb, GoFundMe (and a few other crowdfunding platforms) began shutting down alt-right personalities’ accounts ahead of—though sometimes in connection with—Unite the Right. Baked Alaska appears to have been banned on July 28. Kyle Chapman AKA Based Stickman—an alt-right personality best known for snapping a pole over a counter-protester’s head and for founding the Fraternal Order of Alt Knights, a militant subset of the Proud Boys—was kicked around May 4. As far back as January 30, Brittany Pettibone—a sympathizer on the periphery of the “alt-right”—had a fund for her podcast removed….

Google

Following GoDaddy’s decision to part ways with The Daily Stormer, publisher Andrew Anglin re-registered the site with Google, which, within an hour or so told Gizmodo it was “canceling Daily Stormer’s registration with Google Domains for violating our terms of service.”…

PayPal

…Starting in May, as Buzzfeed reported, alt-right and anti-immigrant groups—from the aforementioned Kyle Chapman and Generation Identity to sympathizer and pickup artist Roosh V—had their accounts limited or removed entirely….

Reddit

…Incremental removal of extremists started this year with the banning of r/altright, followed on Tuesday by banning r/Physical_Removal, a community which frequently glorified Augusto Pinochet’s murder of political dissidents….

Spotify

Of all the measures taken by companies to remove white nationalist content, Spotify’s seems the most like a PR grab. The music repository’s ToS forbids activity that’s “offensive, abusive, defamatory, pornographic, threatening, or obscene,” or “is intended to or does harass or bully other users,” but considering there’s no meaningful community element, its decision to remove 27 Southern Poverty Law Center-identified “hate bands” is welcome but not hugely impactful….

Twitter

…Following Charlottesville, three accounts associated with The Daily Stormer—@dailystormers, @dailystormer and @rudhum—are no more.

Business leaders also spoke out in very unprecedented public ways and walked the walk.

Apple CEO Tim Cook commented in reaction to Trump’s comments on Charlottesvile: “Hate is a cancer.”

The Inquirer reports:

Apple will donate $2m to charities.

Cook poo-pooed Trump’s weak response to the violence, telling Apple staff – in an email obtained by Buzzfeed News – that “hate is a cancer,” and that the firm must be “unequivocal” about fighting bigotry.

“I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights,” he said. “Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans.”

Apple will donate $1m each to the Southern Poverty Law Centre and the Anti-Defamation League. It will also double employee donations to these and other groups until the end of September, and will offer a way for users to contribute through iTunes. Hey, a reason to use iTunes again!

Trump’s statements also prompted Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to quit the White House’s manufacturing council, calling the rally “abhorrent.”

Leaders from 3M, United Technologies, Johnson & Johnson and Campbell Soup have all left White House positions in the past week, forcing Trump to shut down both the Manufacturing Council and Strategy & Policy Forum.

Yet, it is clearly not so simple. We, for years, protected the rights of hate groups to speak out in public and to march and demonstrate. Why are digital channels any different? Clearly we are at a crossroads.

As Vanity Fair asks, “Can Silicon Valley Disrupt Its Neo-Nazi Problem?”

Tech leaders still have no coherent vision for how to police hate speech without becoming tyrants, themselves.

There’s a hypothetical question about Nazis that is often posed to non-Nazis: if you could go back in time and kill baby Adolf Hitler, would you? Believe it or not, it’s actually a tough question for a lot of people to answer, with almost a third of those asked saying they’re unsure…. [L]et me ask an easier hypothetical question: if social media existed in the 1930s and 40s, and you could go back in time and ban Hitler from using Twitter (and a dozen other platforms) would you? To me, that question is a lot easier to answer with an unequivocal yes. But for most companies in Silicon Valley, it’s not so simple….

…Racial terror, it goes without saying, predates the Internet. But in an era when it is becoming harder to succeed in polite society as an uncloseted racist—with a few notable exceptions—white supremacists have found comfort in the anonymity of online avatars. When they descended on Charlottesville this past weekend, they found courage, and a kindred hatred, in the anonymity of the crowd….

…No one has a clear idea of what is accepted and what is not on these platforms and, in many respects, that ambiguity is more dangerous than anything….

…Cloudflare’s C.E.O. was torn over his decision. “I woke up this morning in a bad mood and decided to kick them off the Internet,” Matthew Prince, the company’s chief executive said in a statement. “Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.” Now before you go and give Prince credit for what seems like a good deed, in May ProPublica wrote about Cloudflare, and found that it not only helped protect neo-Nazi sites online for months, but that it also passed along personal information to those sites about people who complain about their content, often leading to trolls coming after the people behind the complaints. In 2013, Prince defended his view on sites like The Daily Stormer, writing in a blog post that, “A website is speech. It is not a bomb.”…

…To me, the ambiguity of companies like Facebook, Twitter, GoDaddy, and Cloudflare being able to decide in the spur of the moment what can stay and what must go is more terrifying than neo-Nazis using their platforms. Just last week, all of these companies were perfectly O.K. hosting domains for the Daily Stormer, and after the backlash post-Charlottesville, they are not. “No one should have that power.”

Perhaps the change in tone relates not to digital channels but what actually happened offline as reported by CNBC:

“There is a difference between freedom of speech and what happened in Charlottesville,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, an online racial justice group. The battle of ideas is “different than people who show up with guns to terrorize communities.”

And as Variety reported, the need to move from the silos of the Web to the public fronting of “media” was critical to the strategy:

The timing of the rally dubbed “Unite the Right” was pegged to the city’s decision to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from Emancipation Park, which was the site of violent clashes Saturday between protesters, counter­protesters, and police. But the real agenda, according to Hankes, was to garner mainstream media coverage as a recruitment tool….

“The whole thing has been orchestrated around trying to getmedia attention,” Hankes [Keegan Hankes, a research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center] told Variety. “They used the controversy
around the Lee statue as a peg but
what you really have is all these little
hate groups competing in the same
space trying to make a name for themselves. They’ll use media coverage and strategically controlled images (from the gathering) to bring in new members.”

And there you have it…

Digital channels are inward-looking, self-directed ways of connecting, hiding, planning. Media is public, adding credibility and excitement while actual gatherings make it all very, very real.

When it was harder for disparate groups to connect, making their public gatherings irrelevant, they received little or no coverage.

Today, as we have seen, the equation has changed.

So while free speech is a right and hatred is an acquired trait, if we don’t understand that the danger of impressionable young people getting sucked into the siloed vortex of hate threatens us all, we will still be wringing our hands at the next Charlottesville and Barcelona.

Honestly, I am conflicted. Limiting free speech and expression goes against my very core. In the past I would have said let them rant and demonstrate and let us show up in bigger numbers with a message of respect for all.

My fear is that the longer we let this fester, the harder it will be to stop…listen:

“Hate is like water in a dry gulch. The longer it runs, the deeper it digs.” Ken Alstad

What do you think?

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