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When Will Twitter Ban White Nationalists? Civil Rights Leaders Urge the Site to Take Action

August 12, 2019, 12:39 PM UTC

As the two-year anniversary of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville approaches, civil rights and digital activists say Twitter has not done nearly enough to prevent white nationalists from spreading hate speech online.

Twitter is facing increased pressure to take action following the mass shooting in El Paso, where the shooter—who appeared to embrace white nationalism—killed 22 people and injured dozens more. Patrick Crusius shared his anti-immigrant screed on the online message board 8chan, which was shut down over the weekend.

Following the shooting, Twitter users urged the tech company to also ban 8chan’s verified account from its platform, using the hashtag “untwitter8chan.” When reached for comment, a source from Twitter said it has “nothing to share on 8chan right now.”

Some activists say Twitter is responsible for allowing far right actors to spread violent ideologies on its platform.

“This is a sophisticated and organized international network designed to bring about white ethnostates,” said Jessica J. González, the vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press and co-founder of the Change the Terms coalition.

Change the Terms is a coalition of more than 50 civil rights, human rights, technology policy, and consumer protection groups urging social media platforms to combat the spread of hate groups and their messaging online.

There’s been “incomprehensible levels of white supremacist and misogynist violence,” in the two years since the 2017 rally, said González, adding that it’s time for tech companies to take the steps to curb the spread of that violence online.

Susan Bro, the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in the car attack during the 2017 far right rally, said in a statement that social media platforms have a duty to enforce policies against hate, and urged Twitter to consider Change the Terms’ call to ban white supremacists.

“Words have consequences,” said Bro. “We have to stop this inflammatory rhetoric from taking root in society.”

Facebook and YouTube have both taken some measures against white nationalists on their platforms, though the latter has allowed several prominent accounts to remain.

But some say Twitter hasn’t done enough.

White nationalism “is increasingly normalized through rhetoric, comments, blog posts, and memes,” said Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor at the University of Virginia and organizer with Charlottesville Black Lives Matter. Woolfork added that Twitter has a responsibility to reduce harm, but that it also must account for its role in the “proliferation of fascism and white nationalism globally.” 

A source from Twitter pointed Fortune to some of its figures on terrorism enforcement. The platform does not allow users to make threats of violence “or wish for the serious physical harm, death, or disease of an individual or group of people.”

Likewise, its rules against hateful conduct bar the promotion of violence or attacks based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and other identities. But civil rights advocates say Twitter needs to do more, and that the rules are not consistently enforced.

Twitter says it suspended 166,513 accounts for promoting terrorism between July and December 2018. When asked for clarification on what constitutes “promotion of terrorism” and what kind of groups would fall under this banner, Twitter pointed to its “Terrorism and violent extremism policy,” which makes no mention of white nationalism, specifically.

Despite Twitter’s efforts to take action against accounts that violate these policies, a 2018 study from author J.M. Berger, who researches extremism and propaganda, found that there are at least 100,000 alt-right—a name embraced by some white nationalists—users on Twitter.

Organizers with the Change the Terms coalition, some of whom are Charlottesville community-members, say Twitter does bear some responsibility for the violent attacks in their community during the weekend of the 2017 rally, which was planned and shared via social media.

“We continue to deal with the trauma from that weekend here in Charlottesville,” said Don Gathers, a community activist, and co-founder of the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“Not all speech is free, a lot of it is hate,” Gathers said. “It can’t be allowed.” 

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