PayPal announced this week it will stop doing business with Infowars, a notorious right-wing conspiracy website headed by Alex Jones, according to The Verge. Last month, the relationship between Infowars and PayPal was highlighted by Right Wing Watch, which pointed out “highly publicized and egregious violations of the platform’s own terms of service.”
The site has faced mounting scrutiny over the issue, particularly for Jones’s harassment of Sandy Hook victims. But, as PayPal said in its email to Infowars, the site had long “promoted hate and discriminatory intolerance against certain communities and religions,” in direct violation of the company’s policies.
Infowars had been largely banned from Facebook in August, and Twitter and Youtube followed shortly thereafter. Yet, PayPal held out.
Jared Holt, of Right Wing Watch, said to The Verge:
“Removing PayPal from the Infowars platform inhibits Jones’ ability to make money from his malice, but it’s a bit odd it took so long given how egregiously Infowars violated the platform’s terms of service.”
Despite the delay, PayPal is making the right move banning Infowars. But even though a consensus has formed on Alex Jones and his trademark brand of outrageous and confrontational conspiracy theory, social media and other internet platforms have been slow and rather selective in their banning of hate groups – even as they have proliferated and led to the death of counter protester Heather Heyer at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year.
That incident is one of the reasons it’s so vexing, for example, that leaked documents from Facebook show that the platform’s moderators go through great pains to differentiate between white supremacy, which is not permitted, and white nationalism and separatism, which are. While Facebook did consult academic experts, and the policy might appear to be a nuanced approach to preserving free speech, it is also a vast oversimplification.
Speaking to Quartz, a Facebook spokesperson said their experts had indicated clear differences in the ideologies. Namely, that white supremacy inherently involves a belief in the inferiority, and therefore the political domination of, other groups, while the other belief systems technically do not. However, both these ideologies promote laws built on racial discrimination, according to other experts like Eric Kaufmann, Birkbeck University professor and an expert on politics and ethnicity. Also, Southern Poverty Law Center directly contradicts Facebook’s conclusion, saying that both white nationalism and white separatism are based on a belief in the fundamental inferiority of nonwhites.
As far as white separatism, the platform asserts that other separatist groups exist throughout the world, and don’t necessarily promote the inferiority of others. But this ignores the specific history of America, in which institutionalized racism has played such a large role.
In another example, Twitter said earlier this month that Richard Spencer, an increasingly well-known white nationalist, does not have any known affiliations with hate groups, in response to criticism over their hesitance to ban him from the platform. Spencer is known for coining the term “alt-right,” a catch-all term that has come to include white supremacism, other extreme if less overtly hate-based right-wing views, and nearly everything in between.
He is president of the white nationalist group the National Policy Institute, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers an extremist group. It was founded by William Regnery II, a white separatist millionaire who says he is funding efforts to build a “white ethnostate.” Spencer has quoted Nazi propaganda at the group’s meetings. The National Policy Institute has been banned from Facebook for violation of its policies on hate groups.
Spencer also spoke at the Charlottesville rally at which Heyer was later killed.
A Twitter spokesperson said this month they had no “active knowledge” of Spencer’s involvement with the National Policy Institute. In short, any claims that he has not been linked to hate groups, or does not engage in hate speech are splitting hairs at best, and blatant falsehoods at worst.
Most of this reticence to ban hate groups comes from a laudable effort to preserve free speech and focus on overt promotion of violence. But many of the lines they are trying to draw are ultimately arbitrary. Social media, and the internet in general, have played such a significant role in the resurgence of hate groups in the US, that these companies need to reexamine their role. While there is a place for detestable opinions that do not promote violence, these companies are going too far, providing platforms for speech that clearly leads directly to violence. As private companies, they do not have the same obligation as the government to avoid censorship. With violence from these groups becoming a very real threat to other Americans, they should err on the side of caution and use their power to stem the rising tide of hate.