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2018 in review: The year in deplatforming

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This was the year we began to answer the age old question: if a bigot rants in a forest, and nobody is around to hear him, does anybody care what that idiot says?

Over the past year, internet companies wielded the hammer known as “deplatforming” more than ever. Deplatforming, or no-platforming, is the term for kicking someone off social media or other sites when they break the rules by, say, using hate speech, or participating in harassment campaigns. Getting deplatformed means that the rule breaker can no longer use that platform to share their thoughts or feelings with the world.

Most of the bans on people like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones came after widespread public calls for their removal.

“There was a shift in the way social media companies utilized deplatforming as a tool for enforcement, hands down,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the right-wing media watchdog Media Matters. “There’s no doubt that 2018 was a landmark year.”

Experts think it’s beginning to emerge as an effective tool for stemming the amount of garbage online. And just in time. This year, the tide of online hate speech from bigots, conspiracy theorists, and Nazis came with rising incidents of real-world unrest and violence.

“These social media platforms are some of the most effective vehicles for this stuff becoming mainstream,” Keegan Hankes, senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), said.

People with abhorrent world views have always existed. But social media, YouTube, and other corners of the internet have given these (and all) individuals an impressive reach and a powerful tool to sway others to their way of thinking.

“Do not allow them to use these tools that are incredibly powerful and incredibly effective to spread hatred”

“Individuals who lead hate groups and create propaganda are very, very good at fostering grievance, particularly with young white men.” Hankes said. “Social media amplifies that, and just makes the pool of people who are exposed and might be susceptible to it all the larger.”

To some on the right, however, the term “deplatforming” is an anti-liberal media rallying cry, a catch-all phrase to protest the censorship of free speech online. To others, it represents the bare minimum that social media platforms can do, a PR-friendly Band-Aid in place of the dire changes needed to proactively prevent racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, radicalization, and blind hate from spreading online and into the real world.

“It’s an effective tactic, a powerful tool in the tool kit,” Carusone said. “But it doesn’t comprehensively solve the problem unless there’s a whole range of other proactive tactics.”

Still, it’s a much, much, MUCH needed start to both combatting and understanding how toxic speech that leads to real-world violence spreads online.

“Getting them off the platform is the first, best step to take,” Hankes said. “Do not allow them to use these tools that are incredibly powerful and incredibly effective to spread hatred.”

Here are some of the most significant moments from the year in deplatforming.

Alex Jones and InfoWars

Call him the Big Kahuna of deplatforming.

Conspiracy theorist and InfoWars host Alex Jones regularly crosses the line against hate speech, harassment, and other horrors on social media, podcasts, YouTube, and payment platforms. For years — especially after he pushed the deadly Pizzagate conspiracy theory — people could not understand why social platforms kept him around.

Summer 2018 was when the shoe dropped.

“As the year went on, the social media companies resisted deplatforming as best as they could,” Carusone said. “It really came to a head over the summer with Alex Jones, where there was this protracted, month-long public battle, and finally there was this tipping point where he was deplatformed.”

Jones had repeatedly called the Sandy Hook shooting — in which 20 children were killed — a hoax, and his followers had been harassing the families of victims for years. On Aug. 1, a lawsuit brought by those families went to court, and the momentum to remove him from social media increased. 

On Aug. 5, Apple removed several Alex Jones-affiliated podcasts from iTunes. Over the next 48 hours, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Mailchimp, the radio broadcaster Stitcher, and even Pinterest followed suit. Twitter eventually banned Jones after a short and awkward controversy, in which the company’s CEO Jack Dorsey tried and failed to defend his decision not to ban him earlier. In September, PayPal also dropped InfoWars.

It was a start, but what’s needed in the future is consistency. 

“You saw him get banned from a variety of platforms, but not always for the same reasons, and with no real logic,” Hankes said. “As an entire industry, there needs to be some soul searching, and serious effort and attention put into this stuff.”

Gavin McInnes and the Proud Boys

Self-proclaimed “western chauvinists” Gavin McInnes and his men’s rights gang, the Proud Boys, also received their fair share of social media bans in 2018. 

“In some ways, I think about the last year being a parade of violence connected to this group,” Hankes said. “I thought it was very significant that they finally got taken off the platform.”

Twitter banned Gavin McInnes and his very Proud Boys amidst the Alex Jones controversy in August. Facebook, Instagram, and PayPal also removed their accounts. YouTube banned their accounts in early December; the move received a lot of press tinged with “finally.” But after just two days, and with little fanfare, McInnes was back on YouTube

YouTube banned McInnes-affiliated pages because of “copyright infringement,” not hate speech or incitements to violence (of which they do plenty). So once McInnes fixed the copyright issues, he was back on the platform that’s now been shown to be a “radicalization machine.”

Gab

For those uninitiated with the darker corners of the internet, Gab is an ~alternative~ social media sight based on “free speech.” What that looks like in real life is a platform filled with bigotry and hate.

The shooter in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was a Gab user, and announced his intention to carry out his crime on Gab. In response, Gab’s hosting company Joyent, domain provider GoDaddy, and payment processors PayPal and Stripe all revoked their services. Gab came back online a few days later, with more alt-right-friendly service providers on board, but it has not been as robust or worked as well since.

A Georgia Tech study found that a 2015 ban of subreddits filled with hate speech successfully decreased the amount of hate speech on the platform overall. The study provides the closest blueprint for the potential impact of the Gab ban. It showed that banning a space rather than an individual can both reduce the amount of hate speech on a platform, and the amount of hate speech an individual participates in. 

“By banning these spaces, they’re making it harder for them to congregate,” said study author Eshwar Chandrasekharan. “Even if they did congregate in smaller spaces, they were not able to function at the same rate they were able to before.”

Rohingya Muslims use their cellphones as they sit on a hill overlooking Balukhali refugee camp, in Bangladesh.

Rohingya Muslims use their cellphones as they sit on a hill overlooking Balukhali refugee camp, in Bangladesh.

Image: Dar Yasin/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Myanmar officials

Facebook has been implicated as a major factor in the murder of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, whose government the UN has described as acting with “genocidal intentions.

Recently, Facebook removed the Facebook presences of Myanmar military officials for inciting violence. While some have described the move as too little too late, it is the first instance of a government account removal, ever. Facebook also removed hundreds of pages spreading hate and misinformation. 

The British alt-right

Facebook has exerted a huge influence on the rise of isolationist politics in the UK. Conservative British MEP Nigel Farage personally and unironically thanked Mark Zuckerberg for the role Facebook played in making Brexit happen when the CEO appeared before the European Parliament.

So, naturally, the UK has seen its share of notable bans. In March, Facebook banned the far-right anti-Islamic group Britain First and its ring leaders. Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant English Defence League, was banned from Twitter and PayPal, and conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson was banned from Twitter. 

Other alt-right leaders

The internet also said goodbye to a host of other white nationalists, anti-Semites, leaders of the alt-right, misogynists, racists, Islamophobes, and more. Let’s remember: these people were not banned because they are “conservative.” They were banned because they broke platforms’ rules by using hate speech, targeting protected groups, and engaging in harassment campaigns. 

Alongside the social media bans, a lot of the important moves came in the form of cutting off payment to white nationalist leaders and groups.

“Anything that’s tied to fundraising is really, really, really important,” Hankes said. “A little money goes a really long way in this movement. It’s something that’s scarce, that they’re all competing for, and enables all the activism and real-life consequences. So when companies like Patreon start banning people with more vigorousness, and PayPal takes this more seriously, and Stripe takes action, it has an outsized impact on the movement.”

Some of the more notable bans (let’s hope these names mean nothing to you, and that they continue to dwindle in significance):

  • White nationalist and congressional candidate Paul Nehlen (Twitter)

  • Anti-Semite Mike Enoch, aka Mike Penovich (Twitter)

  • Hitler-loving congressional candidate Patrick Little (Gab)

  • Alt-right blogger Jared Little (Twitter)

  • Hate group The League of the South (Facebook)

  • Fake news monger Chuck Johnson (Twitter)

  • Nazi Richard Spencer (Facebook)

Of course, the problem with some of these bans is that many alt-right leaders make new accounts under different names as soon as they are banned (such as Mike Enoch). So for people who spread hatred, but aren’t well-known figures like Alex Jones, without constant public pressure, it’s easy for them to continue to proliferate.

“When Mark Zuckerberg says we don’t allow hate groups on the platform, it’s hard not to just laugh”

“Just because you take out one or two shitty people, doesn’t mean that the underlying problem is resolved,” Carusone said. 

Hankes agreed. 

“When Mark Zuckerberg says we don’t allow hate groups on the platform, it’s hard not to just laugh. I come into work and look at this stuff every single day. It’s never been off the platform.” 

Laura Loomer

Conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer would have been on the above list of “other white nationalists,” if not for her actions in November that backfired spectacularly. 

One week after Twitter banned her for launching a racist attack against Congressperson-elect Ilhan Omar, Loomer staged a protest. She handcuffed herself to the front door of Twitter’s New York City headquarters to protest what my colleague describes as “unsubstantiated claims about the suppression of conservative viewpoints.”

Good protest, right? There was just one problem: Twitter refused to engage. Twitter allowed Loomer to stay handcuffed as long as she wanted, avoiding the dog fight she was clearly gunning for. So Loomer was just ranting outside, in the cold and the dark, with no one to pay attention to her. 

If only there was a term for that …

The final nail in Milo Yiannopoulos’ digital coffin

Alt-right agitator Milo Yiannopoulos may well be the poster boy for deplatforming. After his 2016 Twitter ban, the 2017 end of his gig with Breitbart, the cancellation of his book deal, and the refusal of universities and conferences to book him for speaking engagements, the once-prominent figure has seen his influence reduced to nothing. He said as much on Facebook.

“I have lost everything standing up for the truth in America, spent all my savings, destroyed all my friendships, and ruined my whole life,” Yiannopoulos wrote. “At some point, you realize it’s occasionally better to spend the money on crabs and cocktails.”

So, aptly for a year in deplatforming, 2018 closed with yet another platform loss for Milo. In December, documents surfaced that showed that Yiannopoulos was more than $2 million in debt. He subsequently launched a Patreon to stage a “magnificent 2019 comeback.” And, on the same day, Patreon banned him for his former affiliation with the Proud Boys.

“Well, that’s that,” Yiannopoulos wrote on Instagram. “Back to square one I guess!”

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