In recent days, web services and platforms have rushed to drop any clients tied to hate groups or other extremists, hoping to cut any apparent links to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Apple Pay and PayPal have changed policies to stop payments to white nationalist groups, Facebook has stepped up anti-violence enforcement, and the notorious neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer has been kicked off the internet entirely, unable to secure a registrar.
At the same time, the rush to clean up platforms has raised new questions about the appropriate tactics for censoring content — and answers have been hard to find. Even where companies have taken aggressive steps, the response has often been thrown together, ignoring entire categories of hate groups. Efforts have been dogged by conflicting policies or inconsistent enforcement, leaving large swaths of white nationalist content untouched.
GoDaddy still hosts the white supremacist Creativity Movement
The most prominent example is GoDaddy, which dropped service to the Daily Stormer earlier this week, ultimately leading the site to drop off the web entirely. A number of hate groups still use the service, including the white supremacist Creativity Movement, which boasts more than a dozen chapters throughout Montana. A WhoIs search shows that GoDaddy serves as host for the group’s official site, which is shot through with anti-Semitic rhetoric and racial slurs. (A recent post titled “What We Believe In” decries the “Jew-instigated demographic explosion of the mud races.”) GoDaddy also provides services to American Viking and Free American websites, both of which are listed in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s recent survey of active US hate groups. GoDaddy did not respond to a request for comment on the sites.
Other platforms have ended up with similar half measures. Shortly after the attack, WordPress dropped support for Vanguard America, the group most closely associated with alleged Charlottesville killer James Fields. But while the group’s site, Bloodandsoil.org, now directs to a holding page, other white nationalist sites remain untouched. WordPress continues to host Southern Future, a blog run by prominent Southern nationalist Michael Cushman, best known for popularizing the “Cushman Flag.” The blog was set to private sometime after Wednesday afternoon, although a cached version remains public. Inquiries to WordPress regarding its status went unanswered.
Zuckerberg pledged to “take down threats of physical harm”
Squarespace, which hosts both Identity Europa and Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute, has announced plans to ban an undisclosed number of sites, although it has given the sites in question 48 hours to plead their case. It’s still unclear which sites will be affected by the ban.
The issue is just as fraught on platforms like Facebook, which are often more comfortable taking a firmer hand in moderation. Facebook took aggressive action against the Daily Stormer this week, launching an unprecedented moderation effort against a specific post in which the Daily Stormer applauded the Heyer killing. On Wednesday, Zuckerberg personally pledged to “take down threats of physical harm” from Facebook’s network, although it’s still unclear what that will look like as a moderation system. In the meantime, Facebook’s reaction to Charlottesville hasn’t reached every white nationalist organization, and groups like the European American Front maintain a presence on the platform.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that a few groups have slipped past the recent crackdown. These are massive platforms, and finding every last hate group is bound to take more than a few days. There are also hard policy issues in play, and it’s plausible that Facebook’s definition of an unacceptable hate group differs from the hard line taken by SPLC, which often lumps ostensibly non-violent racism under the broader category of hateful propaganda. But in the absence of any clear policy from Facebook, it’s difficult to tell which groups are officially permitted and which simply haven’t been found yet.
“an extremely dangerous decision”
So far, the most explicit statement of policy has come from CloudFlare, a content distribution network that drew sustained criticism for retaining the Daily Stormer as a client. CloudFlare dropped the site yesterday, a move that CEO Matthew Prince described as “an extremely dangerous decision.” In a subsequent blog post, he called for a more complex system of due process for deciding when a site is too vile or dangerous to host. But since such a system doesn’t exist yet, he framed the decision as a one-off move, a necessary prerequisite to the more important policy conversation ahead. While that conversation inches forward, CloudFlare continues to work with a number of hate groups, including the long-standing neo-Nazi site Stormfront.
In the meantime, the patchy nature of anti-extremist bans raises real questions about companies’ commitment to more aggressive enforcement. Will platform bans target ambient hate or stop at specific threats of violence? Should white nationalism be treated more harshly than anti-LGBT hate or separatist groups? Much of this week’s pushback has come quickly, in response to extreme circumstances. As Charlottesville protests turned ugly — and President Trump fanned the flames — providers have been forced to confront moderation issues more directly than ever before. The result has been haphazard, laying little groundwork for how to handle these cases in the future. With the immediate shock dying down, the question is whether web companies will face those issues head-on or simply let the issue drop.