Is it possible to cleanse the internet of white supremacy, neo-Nazism and other expressions of violent, hate-based ideologies? Is it a good idea even to try?
These are some of the questions that linger after the violent confrontation between members of the racist alt-right and counter-protestors at the so-called Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., last month.
Most of us are familiar with the internet comments-thread racist and the Twitter fascist. This type of individual spreads his vile, vindictive thoughts anonymously, derails civil conversation with lies and hate speech, and nobody is any the wiser about who he is in real life. Journalists, among others, are well acquainted with the anonymous sender of death threats, often embellished with anti-Semitism, racism and/or violent misogyny.
We also have long known that vast tracts of cyberspace are claimed by kooks and racists of every stripe to commune with each other and share conspiracy stories. And we’ve made our uneasy peace with that. Freedom of speech, after all.
But in Charlottesville, the hoods came off.
We learned that these people are organized and emboldened, and they have plans.
Charlottesville will long be remembered as a turning point in America’s confrontation with organized, militant hate groups, ones that many of us once believed were too marginal to represent a threat. Let’s not screw it up.
One thing that has happened since Charlottesville is that the leading websites for self-described racists and anti-Semites have been banished by web hosting companies.
The first to go was The Daily Stormer, a favorite of white supremacists. GoDaddy and Google canceled its domain registration after the site published a derogatory story about the death of Heather Heyer, the woman who died protesting against the racists in Charlottesville. She was struck by a car driven by an alt-right adherent.
Daily Stormer bounced around to some other hosts, including one in Albania, before going dark. It was followed by Stormfront, which has long billed itself as “the country’s oldest white supremacist website,” boasting 50,000 to 60,000 visitors daily.
On the surface, these actions feel like a victory for tolerance and public peace. And given that the websites can be used to incite violence or organize the neo-Nazis for action, that’s a fair argument.
That’s the perspective of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the stellar organization that pressured Stormfront’s domain host by letter, specifically citing its role in helping to organize the Unite the Right rally.
The problem is that quashing their websites is unlikely to change the beliefs or motivation of fervent racists. And it may drive these movements further underground. And that could be even more dangerous. Police, journalists and average citizens deserve a look at who these people are and what they are saying.
A perfect example is a situation unfolding in Kansas City. An African-American man has been charged with two murders of white men and is suspected in the deaths of three others. The deaths were vicious, execution-style killings. It’s possible he is a racially motivated serial killer. The known facts conjure one of America’s most historically charged and vexing racist narratives: that of the violent black perpetrator slaughtering innocent white people.
Police haven’t established race as the prime motive or labeled the murders hate crimes. But there are salacious details in the suspect’s past, including a municipal conviction from three years ago where he yelled about wanting to kill white people — an obvious fertile narrative for white supremacists.
It would be good to know if the white power groups latched on, if the case is being used to recruit or, worse, stage an event.
It’s counterintuitive at first glance. But there is a flip side to forcing hate groups underground. Hate speech is protected, no matter how heinous. What isn’t allowed is inciting violence. Anonymity makes bigoted people vile. Stealth makes vile people dangerous. We need potentially dangerous people to be visible to law enforcement.
Remember, Charlottesville ignited a strong response. For the first time in many people’s lives, they saw the neo-Nazis stomping through normally quiet streets, spewing anti-Semitic chants and boldly proclaiming their hatred of anyone who doesn’t fit their racial ideal.
It’s a perfect moment in America. We have chosen the constitutionally sound response of meeting hate speech with good speech. It’s the response we must hold to, no matter how discomforting it is to watch the forces of hate hold forth.