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Tech companies turn on Daily Stormer and the 'alt-right' after Charlottesville

Demonstrators in London stand in solidarity with Charlottesville, Virginia, after an attack over the weekend killed a women who was protesting a neo-Nazi rally.
Demonstrators in London stand in solidarity with Charlottesville, Virginia, after an attack over the weekend killed a women who was protesting a neo-Nazi rally. Photograph: Szymanowicz/REX/Shutterstock

For more than four years, The Daily Stormer has used the internet to dish up a daily menu of hate-fueled, neo-Nazi, white supremacist red meat to its readers. On Sunday, a handful of the companies involved in making that possible decided that enough was enough.

Go Daddy, a popular internet domain registrar and web hosting service, announced that it would no longer serve as the domain name service provider for Dailystormer.com, saying that, in light of the violent events in Charlottesville, the site had “crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence”.

Within hours, the Daily Stormer moved its registration to Google, which quickly announced that it too was booting the site “for violating our terms of service”.

After years of fomenting hatred, the Daily Stormer may just be on the run.

The internet has long been fertile ground for extremists looking to congregate and recruit. But while big internet companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have taken seriously the task of combatting Islamist terrorist groups such as Isis and al-Qaida, domestic hate groups have continued to flourish online. The weekend’s events in Charlottesville, however, seem to be inspiring at least some companies to reconsider their willingness to host the online activities of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other members of the so-called “alt-right”.

On Monday, video game chat application Discord announced that it was shutting down a server and several accounts “associated with the events in Charlottesville”, including the AltRight server, which was affiliated with prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer and his website.

Who coined the term 'alt-right'?

The white supremacist Richard Spencer devised the term in 2010. He has described the movement as "identity politics for white Americans and for Europeans around the world". 

What does it stand for?

The movement supports extreme rightwing ideologies, including white nationalism – used interchangeably with white supremacism – and antisemitism. It positions itself broadly against egalitarianism, democracy, universalism and multiculturalism.

Some "alt-right" supporters have argued that their hardline, extremist positions are not truly meant, but are a way to disrupt conventional and accepted thinking. Memes, irony and ambiguity are sometimes used in an attempt to wrongfoot critics.

How does the 'alt-right' relate to the Trump administration?

The Trump administration includes figures who are associated with the "alt-right", including the former Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon, now the White House chief strategist. Many of Trump's policy positions have won favour with the movement.

“We unequivocally condemn white supremacy, neonazism, or any other group, term, ideology that is based on these beliefs,” Discord chief marketing officer Eros Resmini said in a statement. “We will continue to be aggressive to ensure that Discord exists for the community we set out to support – gamers.”

Though not yet a household name, Discord has raised more than $30m in venture capital from major investors like Benchmark Capital and Greylock Partners. A Discord server is a particular channel where users can congregate to discuss a particular video game or topic.

The decisive action is a turning point for the company, which has been grappling with how to deal with its popularity among the “alt-right” for several months.

“Discord has had a monopoly on communication between members of the far right hate groups for the past six months if not more,” said Keegan Hankes, an intelligence analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Almost every leader in this movement has an account there. So much of the coordination and collaboration of Charlottesville took place on Discord.”

On Monday, a Discord server that remains active, “the ARIAN Ethnotent – the Alt-Right-Identitarian Alliance Network”, was flooded with requests for entry by AltRight exiles. There, a bot titled “Adolf Hitler” welcomed new members and explained the vetting process, while users bemoaned the fact that AltRight had been “shoah-ed”, a reference to the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. The server subsequently changed its name to “Friends united”, an apparent effort to avoid being shuttered.

Other internet companies took action before Charlottesville to crack down on right-wing hate groups. Airbnb barred people from using its service to book rooms in order to attend the rally. Payment processing platforms such as PayPal and Patreon have banned a number of far right figures from using their platforms to raise money.

The blacklisting has prompted some in the far right to create their own platforms, such as Hatreon, WeSearchr, and Gab – alternatives to Patreon, GoFundMe and Twitter, respectively.

A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer.
A photograph of Charlottesville victim Heather Heyer. Photograph: Justin Ide/Reuters

But the leaders of the far right don’t want to be sequestered from the rest of the internet, said Hankes, because it prevents them from getting press attention and finding new recruits. “They make a big thing of saying that they want to be where the ‘normies’ are,” he said. “Why would you want to preach to people who already agree with you?”

Because of this, mainstream sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube remain the most important platforms for hate groups – and their commitment to policing their sites for white supremacist hate speech remains in question.

As the Guardian reported in July, the Southern Poverty Law Center provided Facebook with links to more than 200 pages affiliated with hate groups, including some of the groups that organized the Charlottesville event, in 2016. The Guardian found that at least 175 of them remained active in July, though Facebook took down nine additional links after being contacted by the Guardian.

Among the groups that were not deemed to violate Facebook’s terms of service are the neo-Nazi Traditionalist Workers Party, which helped organize the Charlottesville rally, and the Council of Conservative Citizens, which was cited by Dylann Roof as helping to inspire his massacre of black churchgoers.

“Our hearts go out to the people affected by the tragic events in Charlottesville,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “Facebook does not allow hate speech or praise of terrorist acts or hate crimes, and we are actively removing any posts that glorify the horrendous act committed in Charlottesville.”

“Alt-right” figureheads such as Richard Spencer and Baked Alaska have verified accounts on Twitter, which remains an important platform for carrying out targeted harassment and catching the attention of journalists. And YouTube plays an important role in the spread of extremist beliefs, its algorithms serving up a steady stream of what Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, called “pseudo-intellectualized bigotry”.

Hankes argued that these major platforms have the power to be more pro-active about shutting down hate groups already, thanks to their terms of service and community stands.

“The biggest problem is a failure or refusal to enforce the terms of service that they have,” he said. “The question for the Googles of the world is: Do you really want to be party to what is going on with these websites?”

This article titled "Tech companies turn on Daily Stormer and the 'alt-right' after Charlottesville" was written by Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Monday 14 August 2017 09.30pm

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