Can Communications Unite Us? Lessons from Charlottesville

Can Communications Unite Us? Lessons from Charlottesville

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Robbie's Round-Up for the Week of August 14-18, 2017

Robbie McBeath
Robbie McBeath
"Clearly Trump's bellicosity is driving a wedge through America, and we'll be a long time recovering from it. This goes far beyond statues to the very foundations of civil society." -- Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps
This week, a white supremacist terrorist killed counter-protester Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia. In his initial response, the President of the United States condemned violence “on many sides.” Three days later, President Donald Trump spoke with reporters, again assigning “blame on both sides” in remarks that, according to the New York Times, “buoyed the white nationalist movement...as no president has done in generations.” Much has been written, and will be written, about the President’s choice of words, the timing of his remarks, and the effects all of this will have on our Republic. The incidents this past weekend will be an indelible, dark mark in our nation’s history. At Benton, we believe that communications policy -- rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity -- has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. These values are vital in a political climate swelling with hate and intolerance.

I will discuss the President’s words later on, but, for now, I will take a closer look at the role of communications in this tragedy, in hopes of gleaning some lessons so as to not repeat nor increase this racial and political violence. Looking at Charlottesville through the lens of media and democracy, I come to these questions: Do citizens have the right to protest using hate speech? Does violence override or neutralize speech? Do some tactics to hold individuals accountable violate their privacy? What is the responsibility of tech platforms to impede the spread of hateful speech? Should journalists use the names groups pick for themselves? Is our President using his office to communicate in a way that stokes the flames of racial animosity?

Eugene Volokh pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed that there are similarities between recent calls for suppressing white supremacist speech and past calls for suppressing Communist speech. Some believe both Communist speech and white supremacist speech fall outside of First Amendment protection because:

  • the speech is inconsistent with basic constitutional values
  • their supporters back violence and not just peaceful change
  • similar movements overseas are responsible for killing millions
  • similar movements in the U.S. are responsible for various terror attacks over the decades
  • this speech isn’t just speech but is itself violence

How do we respect the First and Fourth Amendment in the Digital Age, and what should be our appropriate response to hate speech?

The Right to Protest: Charlottesville - Yes, Inauguration - No?

On August 14, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, "[Y]ou can be sure that this Department of Justice ... is going to take the most vigorous action to protect the right of people, like Heather Heyer, to protest against racism and bigotry." He added, "We’re going to protect the right to assemble and march and we’re going to prosecute anybody to the fullest extent of the law that violates the right to do so, you can be sure about that."

For a visual timeline of the violence in Charlottesville, read the Washington Post’s Recounting a day of rage, hate, violence and death and watching, with viewer discretion, the short documentary from Vice, Charlottesville: Race and Terror.
The Attorney General said that terrorism investigators from the FBI are working on the Heyer case with civil rights specialists and attorneys at the Department of Justice (DOJ). "It does meet the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute," AG Sessions said. "We are pursuing it in the Department of Justice in every way that we can make it — make a case. You can be sure we will charge and advance the investigations toward the most serious charges that can be brought because this is an unequivocally unacceptable and evil attack that cannot be accepted in America."

But also on August 14, Los Angeles-based online hosting provider DreamHost disclosed in a blog post that it has been involved in a months-long legal battle with the DOJ over records on visitors to an anti-Trump website. The dispute focuses on a DOJ demand for information on data related to disruptj20.org, which described itself as a group of activists “building the framework needed for mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump and planning widespread direct actions to make that happen.” The search warrant was served to DreamHost on July 17.

“In essence, the search warrant not only aims to identify the political dissidents of the current administration, but attempts to identify and understand what content each of these dissidents viewed on the website,” the company said in a legal filing arguing against the warrant.

Chris Ghazarian, general counsel for DreamHost, said, “What you’re seeing is pure prosecutorial overreach by a politicized Justice Department, allowing the Trump administration to use prosecutors to silence critics.”

The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA), whose members include Amazon, Facebook, Google, and eBay, came to the company's defense. CCIA President Ed Black said, “U.S. tech companies are often compelled to resist sweeping dragnets aimed at political dissent from foreign regimes. The U.S. government itself has criticized countries that target political dissent with criminal process. We would urge DOJ to consider the consequences of such requests both in terms of emboldening countries like China and in the message this sends to democratic allies.”

Privacy Online vs Offline: @YesYoureRacist Exposes Racists

Debates concerning the right to privacy and the right to protest extended beyond the DOJ. While the DOJ may be infringing on the privacy of inauguration protesters, some activists in the wake of Heyer’s death are using social media to identify and shame people who attended the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.

Peter Cvjetanovic
Peter Cvjetanovic
Most prominently, on Twitter, the account "Yes, You're Racist" has been soliciting help and crowdsourcing efforts to identify the people participating in the rally. Logan Smith, who runs the account, thinks people should see the faces of white supremacists. "They're not wearing hoods anymore -- they're out in the open," Smith says. "And if they're proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are."

An NPR article noted that one man who was photographed screaming at a torchlit march at the University of Virginia told a local news station that it was definitely him — but he insisted he is "not the angry racist" people see in the photo. "As a white nationalist, I care for all people," said Peter Cvjetanovic. "I did not expect the photo to be shared as much as it was," he told KTVN. A "Yes, You're Racist" tweet about Peter Cvjetanovic was retweeted more than 32,000 times.

Defenders of Smith and others who have been actively exposing the men and woman at the rally argue that the demonstrators should have no expectation for privacy or anonymity.

So far, at least one protester is no longer employed after being identified. Companies are well within their rights to fire people for their political beliefs, as this New York Times piece from 2015 outlines:

For private employees, who account for about 85 percent of the work force, the First Amendment’s guarantee offers no protection from being fired for something you’ve said, either in the workplace or outside of it, as on social media. That’s because the amendment addresses actions by the government to impede free speech, not by the private sector. And while federal laws bar employers from firing workers because of such variables as their race, religion and gender, there is no such protection for political affiliation or activity.

The actions of @YesYoureRacist have not been without controversy. Jon Ronson, who wrote the book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, chimed in on Twitter saying. "They were undisguised in a massively contentious rally surrounded by the media." There's "a big difference" between making a thoughtless or offensive comment online and marching in the name of white power. That said, Twitter is "a terrible information swapping service," he said, and some innocent people would inevitably get caught up in the process.

Tech and Hate Speech

“Neutral” Online Platforms
USA Today noted that the white supremacist rally could be the tipping point for tech’s tolerance of hate speech. AirBnb, Facebook, PayPal, Google, and others have come out to say they will be limiting their business with hate groups. GoFundMe has already begun banning donations in support the accused murderer in Charlottesville.

The gamer-focused chat app Discord announced it was banning an array of alt-right-affiliated channels. A New York Times reporter, embedded with a large group of white nationalists on Discord, asked what, if anything, Discord executives planned to do about the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had set up shop on their platform and were using it to spread their ideology prior to Saturday’s events. “Several said they were aware of the issue, but had no concrete plans to crack down on any extremist groups. On Monday, Discord finally took action, banning several of the largest alt-right Discord communities and taking away one of the white nationalist movement’s key communication tools.”

For years, that kind of ban has been shunned by most tech platforms, who generally promote a corporate, libertarian interpretation of free speech and work to maintain an image of being “content neutral.” There has been growing criticism from both the right and the left over the power large tech companies have over our national discourse.

The left has been calling on tech platforms to do more to combat hate speech, and to use the tools available to progressively fight hate. The right’s concern is that these powerful tech companies are not going to give their views a fair shake. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) recently said that he's worried about "large tech companies putting their thumb on the scales and skewing political and public discourse." On Monday, Fox News host Tucker Carlson said that since Google "has the power to censor the internet, Google should be regulated like the public utility it is to make sure it doesn't further distort the free flow of information."

[For more on this topic, see: Silicon Valley escalates its war on white supremacy despite free speech concerns and The walls are closing in on tech giants]

Tech Has the Tools to Fight Hate

“Social media has allowed [hate groups] to spread and share their messages in ways that was never before possible. They’ve moved from the margins into the mainstream.” -- Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
Issie Lapowsky, writing for Wired, noted that large tech companies have the tools to take a more proactive approach towards fighting hate online, but that the companies still need to implement them. She writes:

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have taken aggressive approaches to curbing ISIS activity on their platforms, a type of extremism they handle distinctly from hate speech. Facebook uses artificial intelligence to spot text that advocates for terrorism or terrorist groups, and deploys image-recognition technology to identify terror-related photos or memes. Apparently less sensitive to the free speech rights of ISIS aspirants, Facebook even works to wipe out clusters of users that might have terrorist ties.

YouTube, meanwhile, has gone so far as to deploy a tool known as the Redirect Method, which serves anti-ISIS content to users searching for ISIS-related videos. Now that the Department of Justice has deemed Heyer’s murder an act of domestic terrorism, it remains to be seen whether these companies will apply the same sort of rigor to white-supremacist groups.

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “These tech companies are very sophisticated. They’ve dealt with issues like child pornography or pirated content or terrorist activity. I don’t think any of the strategies are perfect, but applying some of those lessons learned from dealing with other public hazards would have a lot of value here.”

Web Hosting
On August 13, Internet domain-seller GoDaddy said it was ditching neo-Nazi news site The Daily Stormer after it published a story using sexist and obscene language to disparage Heather Heyer. GoDaddy spokeswoman Karen Tillman explained the decision, saying, "In our determination, especially given the tragic events in Charlottesville, Dailystormer.com crossed the line and encouraged and promoted violence," in the run-up and aftermath of Charlottesville.

Domain-name registry services allow people to access the site's content by linking the address to the actual computer hosting the content.
GoDaddy did not host The Daily Stormer’s information on its servers. A domain-registry search tool on August 14 showed the account was transferred to Google, which also said the site violated its terms of service and removed it. After being ejected by three different domain services, The Daily Stormer moved to the dark web, and, later, was hosted in Russia. But by August 17, it was it had been booted from there as well; the country’s media watchdog asked it to be taken down because of extremist content.

The Center for Media Justice applauded GoDaddy’s decision to drop the site, citing the extreme nature of the Charlottesville killing. “For me, this isn't about speech at all — it's about the violent actions that led to the death of a young woman,” said Media Justice’s director, Malkia Cyril. “Cutting off sponsorship of violent white supremacy isn't corporate censorship. It's a positive assertion of values and a clear rebuke of domestic terrorism.”

But digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation disagrees, saying that all speech should be protected, and that GoDaddy and Google should not have refused to manage the domain registration for The Daily Stormer. In a editorial on Thursday, EFF said:

All fair-minded people must stand against the hateful violence and aggression that seems to be growing across our country. But we must also recognize that on the Internet, any tactic used now to silence neo-Nazis will soon be used against others, including people whose opinions we agree with...

Protecting free speech is not something we do because we agree with all of the speech that gets protected. We do it because we believe that no one—not the government and not private commercial enterprises—should decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t.

Journalism and the Power of Words

How to Cover Hate
The horrific events in Charlottesville have sparked debates among journalists over how to properly report on the protesters. In particular, journalists have been debating whether to say “Nazis”, “white supremacists”, “white nationalists”, or “alt-right” when describing some of the rally participants. The term “alt-right” gets specific scrutiny. In the Associated Press’ Stylebook, the term “alt-right” is defined as “a name currently embraced by some white supremacists and white nationalists”, but, notably, the AP adds: “the term may exist primarily as a public relations device to make its supporters’ actual beliefs less clear and more acceptable to a broader audience.” On August 16, AP wrote that it was adding “anti-Semitism” to the definition of “alt-right”.

For some, allowing white supremacist groups to name themselves “alt-right” means journalists are enablers in an oppressive narrative. In an Op-Ed for Columbia Journalism Review, Shay Tayefe Mohajer wrote:

It doesn’t matter if perpetrators call themselves neo-Nazi, or white separatist, or European “Identitarian”...It matters that we call racism and white supremacy by the terms best understood by our readers and our history. These groups may take up different names and pretend that they are new, novel, or special—but they all unapologetically stoke racial violence and promote white supremacy...

Journalists can’t allow agents of hatred to set how they are defined. Their rebrand is little more than a cover-up for white supremacists to continue to commit foul acts of disrespect, intimidation, and violence.

The terms journalists use to identify groups carry heavy weight. Examples include gendered pronouns, "illegal" vs "undocumented" immigrants, and "alt-right" vs "racist." Journalists must be aware of the debates over these names, as their choices have the power to enable and encourage cultural narratives.

President Trump Using ‘Alt-Right’ -- and ‘Alt-Left’
The Trump administration has frequently used the term “alt-right”. In fact, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, previously editor-in-chief of Breitbart, called the news outlet the “platform for the alt-right.”

At his press conference on August 15, President Trump dove into the terminology debate:

Q Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville.  
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Well, I don’t know.  I can't tell you.  I'm sure Senator McCain must know what he's talking about.  But when you say the alt-right, define alt-right to me.  You define it.  Go ahead.
 
Q    Well, I'm saying, as Senator --
 
THE PRESIDENT:  No, define it for me.  Come on, let's go.  Define it for me.
 
Q    Senator McCain defined them as the same group --
 
THE PRESIDENT:  Okay, what about the alt-left that came charging at -- excuse me, what about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right?  Do they have any semblance of guilt?
 
Let me ask you this:  What about the fact that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs?  Do they have any problem?  I think they do.

Right-wing websites, commentators, and Fox News personalities have for months advanced the term “alt-left” to call out violent, left-wing activists.

President Trump’s “Many Sides”
President Trump’s “many sides” remark, and the perceived false equivocation of violence between the “alt-right” and “alt-left”, have left many wondering why he has used such language. This rhetoric can easily be perceived as sympathetic to the views of white supremacists. Was he pandering to white people who voted for him out of a sense of racial grievance? Was he offering his white nationalist supporters a wink and a nod, in effect engaging in racial dog-whistling? Was he being guided by his main strategist, Steve Bannon? Some believe his comments may have a meaning rooted in the disdain he has shown towards “fake news”. Jeremy Peters, writing in the New York Times, said:

In [the Right’s]version of events, a violent and dangerous left fringe is ignored by news media that would rather elevate far-right extremism as the nation’s more urgent threat. This view of the left as unhinged and anarchistic has become popular with some Republicans who insist that Democrats still refuse to accept Mr. Trump. And it stokes the powerful emotions behind perceptions of excessive political correctness and media bias.

Callum Borchers, writing in the Washington Post, noted, “Part of the answer is that he hates the media and just can't stand to give reporters what they want — or admit that he was wrong.”

Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert said, “I think there's — it's almost like a counterintuitive thing with him, as it relates to the media. The media's expecting him to do something; he sometimes does the exact opposite.” Colbert seemed dumbfounded by the notion that Trump's disdain for the media could drive him to take such an offensive and politically ill-advised stance. “Just to thumb his nose at them?” the comedian asked Scaramucci. “Wait a second. You're saying that he does something to do the opposite of what is expected of him?” Scaramucci shrugged. “But some of that worked during the campaign,” he replied.

Conclusion
The attention on the tragedy in Charlottesville offers us the opportunity for overdue national conversations not just on race in America, but also on the basic tenets of democracy, free speech, and nonviolence. The tragedy recommits Benton to our mission of ensuring that our communications policies reflect the values of access, equity, and diversity, so that we may work to use communication tools as powerful bridges, not hateful dividers.

You can be sure to follow along with these developments in benton logoHeadlines, as our country continues to adapt its discourse to the Digital Age.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)
coffee iconWho did Trump borrow his press tactics from? Joe McCarthy. (Washington Post)
coffee iconSinclair: How a Conservative TV Giant Is Ridding Itself of Regulation (New York Times)
coffee iconCongress starts work on net neutrality — but does it understand the issue? (LA Times Editorial)
coffee iconThe Open Internet Rule expands online streaming video options (Tom Wheeler Op-Ed)
coffee iconWhy I Was Fired by Google (Wall Street Journal Op-Ed)

Events Calendar for August
Aug 20 -- New Directions in Technology Policy: Removing Barriers to Growth and Innovation, Aspen Forum 2017
Aug 21 -- Community Broadband Workshop (Des Moines), NTIA

ICYMI from Benton
benton logoGot a Smartphone? Then You've Got Broadband!, Robbie McBeath

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