And then there was The Associated Press, which made the thoughtful editorial judgment to avoid using the term “alt-right,” a neat bit of branding created to “disguise racist aims,” the A.P. said. Other news organizations should do the same.
It may come as a relief that people in high places in the media and technology world decided it was no longer tenable to give extra oxygen — digital and financial — to those who worship the champions of slavery or march under the Nazi flag, glorifying one of the most morally reprehensible regimes in history.
But it is truly remarkable that it only happened now, after the nation had to witness a white supremacist rally gone wrong, a latter-day Munich Beer Hall Putsch in miniature.
And it was a resounding answer to what should be an easy hypothetical question, easier than the “baby Hitler” conundrum: Would you facilitate the publication of Hitler’s newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, and provide him the means to organize his movement? It started as a joke, after all.
You can view the Stormers and their ilk as fringy “losers,” as the White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon described them this week. But the internet can rocket the fringe to the front and the center in an instant. The Stormers certainly saw the rally as their step out of the web’s shadows, one made possible by the following they had built online.
As a Daily Stormer “feature writer” says on the appropriately praised “Vice News Tonight” documentary on the rally, “As you can see we are stepping off the Internet in a big way.” Putting a finer point on it, he tells the Vice correspondent Elle Reeve, “People realize they are not atomized individuals. They are part of a larger whole because we have been spreading our memes. We have been organizing on the Internet, so now they’re coming out.”
That came to an end this week when GoDaddy said it would no longer host The Daily Stormer because its article mocking Ms. Heyer “could incite violence, which violates our terms of service.” The Daily Stormer hit the same problem when it moved its domain to Google, where the “terms of service” also prohibit content that could incite violence. And then Google booted The Stormer from YouTube.
A cascade of others followed: Visa, MasterCard and Discover said they were reassessing or ending their financial service agreements with extremist sites; GoFundMe shut down campaigns supporting the man accused of killing Ms. Heyer, James Fields; OKCupid banned the white supremacist Chris Cantwell for life; the streaming music service – and New York Times partner — Spotify told Billboard on Wednesday that it was removing a collection of bands that the Southern Poverty Law Center had identified as “hate bands.”
Then again, that list had been out for three years.
As we’ve seen time and time again in recent months, it often takes an extreme moment to push the platforms to address extreme content.
Part of the problem is logistical: There is so much material flooding the platforms that the most dangerous items can slip through.
But moves to stanch certain kinds of content also clash with the spirit of the First Amendment and, more to the point, the free-speech ethos that is so ingrained in the web.
That ethos has been the game-changer, and often for the good.
Unlike the last big communications revolutions — brought about with radio and then television — this one came with no barrier to entry in terms of expensive equipment like towers and studios. There have been no governmental limits like broadcasting standards and licensing requirements.
That has democratized information, giving rise to new political and social movements as well as to a phalanx of innovative media ventures that have diminished the traditional gatekeeper role of the mainstream media. It gave anyone with an internet connection an opportunity to have his or her voice heard widely via Facebook or Twitter, Reddit or Medium.
But as the downsides of informational democratization become more evident — the opening it has provided for nefarious state actors, terrorists and hate mongers — those who have some control over the web’s content stream have had a hard time figuring out where to build some much-needed dams.
Google, in keeping with Silicon Valley’s aversion to the news media, would not provide anyone to speak on the record about its policies but pointed to new moves aimed at starving hateful or violent sites of advertising revenue and to detect and remove terrorist videos.
The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday vowed to do more to take down any message that “promotes or celebrates hate crimes or acts of terrorism” and said his staff was watching closely for “threats of physical harm.”
The trouble has come in finding the line between what some may find offensive and what is objectively dangerous speech.
YouTube shut down The Daily Stormer. But I had no trouble finding a recording of Thursday’s edition of “David Duke Radio” on YouTube, or, for that matter, the latest audio from “Stormfront Radio,” which is connected to an older supremacist site.
Twitter has sought to ban or suspend accounts of brazen online troublemakers like the former Breitbart star Milo Yiannopoulos, yet it struggled to keep up with the frenzied attempts from the left and right to use the site to identify opposing demonstrators and make their lives miserable. In at least a couple of cases those attempts resulted in harassment campaigns against people who were nowhere near the rally.
Then again, the efforts to police content can go too far. Mixed in with complaints from right-wing provocateurs who have already been shut down are serious conservative fears that the moves will result in censorship for right-leaning political thought.
The challenge for all sides was laid bare last fall when Facebook removed a post of Nick Ut’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of children, including a naked girl, fleeing a napalm attack.
The conversation needs to continue. It can’t only be had at the height of a crisis, and it can’t only be relegated to social media.
But at this point, if we can’t set a line at neo-Nazis and white nationalists inciting hatred and violence, can we set any line at all?
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