In the past two months, longstanding debates about the role of social media companies in policing hate speech have come to a head. Twitter and Reddit have cracked down on hate speech and content that incites violence, while Facebook is facing an all-out advertiser boycott organized by civil rights groups critical of its lack of action on hate speech and harmful misinformation.Platforms are also being used used to organize real-world events. Such was the case with the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., a white supremacist and neo-Nazi march during which Heather Heyer was murdered by a rallygoer who purposely drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters.The civil rights group Integrity First for America (IFA) is funding a lawsuit against the rally’s organizers, including Jason Kessler, Andrew Anglin (founder of the Neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer) and the alt-right leader Richard Spencer.Ahead of her appearance at Adweek’s NexTech 2020 summit, we caught up with IFA executive director Amy Spitalnick about the role of social media in spreading hate, both online and off.This interview has been edited for clarity and length.You’re suing the neo Nazis and white supremacists responsible for the 2017 Unite the Right rally. What role did social media play in allowing hate groups to organize the physical rally online?
Social media was central to the Unite the Right violence. What’s important to understand is that the violence was no accident; rather, it was planned for months in advance via private Discord chats and other communications. In those chats, these neo-Nazis and white supremacists discussed everything from what to wear and what to bring for lunch to which weapons to carry and whether they could hit protesters with cars—which is of course exactly what happened. “Next stop: Charlottesville. Final stop: Auschwitz!” they wrote while meticulously planning the details of that violent weekend.Those chats are the basis of our lawsuit, which details a racist, violent conspiracy to target people based on their race, religion and willingness to stand up for the rights of others. It’s important to note that this isn’t a [free] speech case—in fact, the court underscored that point in rejecting the defendants’ motion to dismiss, noting that the First Amendment does not protect violence. Rather, it is a conspiracy case, rooted in a number of federal and state statutes including the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.Social media has provided a way for these extremists to connect across the country and around the globe—not just ahead of Charlottesville, but also when it comes to the broader cycle of white supremacist violence. We see firsthand how each attack is celebrated online and used to inspire the next one, from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Christchurch to El Paso and beyond.In many ways, social media has become the Klan den of the 21st century. These extremists are no longer meeting in the forest wearing white hoods; rather, they’re meeting in Discord chats and other online forums.Which social media platforms were responsible, what policies allowed hate to spread, and have any of them changed for the better since Charlottesville?
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville violence, there was a wave of companies that claimed they’d start taking action against extremism. Some are trying to walk the walk; others less so. Some of the companies that took action are highlighted in the Communities Overcoming Extremism report, which came out of a yearlong initiative (in which IFA was proud to participate).But as has been the case with the broader crisis of white supremacy and violent extremism, the news cycle is such that—until the next attack or other awful reminder—these topics tend to fall off people’s radar. We can’t keep waiting until it’s too late (again and again) to recognize the urgency of this issue and demand real change.Continue Reading