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Protesting Twitter’s ‘Normalizing Racism,’ Activists Call on Social Network to Ban White Supremacists

Emily McPhie

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WASHINGTON, August 7, 2019 — As the second anniversary of the Unite the Right rally approaches, activists are calling for Twitter to ban key advocates of white supremacy from its platform.

David Duke, Richard Spencer, and other key organizers of the alt-right rally—which left counter-protester Heather Heyer dead after a white supremacist deliberately rammed his car into a crowd—still have access to their Twitter accounts. That allows them to spread their ideologies to tens of thousands of followers.

Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 human, civil, and digital rights groups, on Wednesday petitioned Twitter in a conference call and press release to ban these and other controversial speakers from their platform—and expand their content moderation policies.

“The deadly Unite the Right rally was planned on social media, and our community is still feeling the profound impact of that violence today,” said Don Gathers, co-founder of the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter. “It’s time these companies use their terms of service to keep white supremacists off Twitter and reduce the hate that leads to tragedy.”

The coalition has put together a set of recommended policies for corporations to adopt to address dangerous hate speech on their platforms, which Change the Terms defines as “activities that incite or engage in violence, intimidation, harassment, threats, or defamation targeting an individual or group based on their actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”

The definition was written in an attempt to mirror language from existing hate crime laws, in which courts have said that particular types of speech are not protected under the First Amendment.

While Facebook and YouTube have taken steps to remove white supremacy from their platforms, Twitter has yet to do so.

In response to criticism, Twitter has repeatedly referred to its existing content policy, which prohibits users from threatening or glorifying violence, targeted harassment, and hateful conduct. But critics argue that these policies are not being enforced and that they should be more comprehensive.

Critics argue, however, that these policies are not being enforced and that Twitter’s approach needs to be more comprehensive.

“When Twitter gives well-known white supremacists a platform, even after they have been deemed too extreme by Facebook and YouTube, their company becomes complicit in normalizing racism and the hateful acts inspired by it,” said Jessica González, vice president of strategy at Free Press.

“How white supremacy has become normalized directly connects to Twitter,” said Lisa Woolfork, a professor at the University of Virginia. “Extreme discourse has become not-so-extreme anymore. We are anesthetized to its toxicity.”

Fringe platforms such as 8chan may be magnets for anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic ideologies, but Twitter is where these ideas become mainstream, said MediaJustice Co-Director Steven Renderos. He added that American culture is increasingly being shaped by social media.

White supremacy is not a new ideology, Woolfork said. But the ease with which its proponents can spread their ideas to a global audience is unprecedented. Twitter’s current policies amplify the harms of white supremacy, she continued, and as a leading global communications platform, it has a responsibility to consider this harm and take action to stop it.

Among other white nationalists enjoying access to wide-reaching audiences on the platform is conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus, whose anti-immigrant writings were cited by the gunmen who attacked in El Paso and Christchurch, New Zealand as an inspiration. Camus still uses Twitter to defending his thinking.

“From Charlottesville two years ago to El Paso this week, we’ve seen the tragic outcomes of white nationalism spreading on Twitter, made even more dangerous every time Trump is allowed to tweet his bigoted rhetoric,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director for Color Of Change.

While Change the Terms is not explicitly calling for Trump’s account to be banned, MediaJustice Co-Director Steven Renderos emphasized the importance of platforms proactively enforcing their content policies across all accounts, even those belonging to prominent politicians.

White nationalists are taking advantage of online platforms like Twitter to harass marginalized communities, build power and organizational strength, and amplify violent ideologies, said Collins-Dexter, calling for Twitter’s leadership to “get over their fear of conservative backlash and fully stamp out discrimination on the platform.”

(Photo of Brandi Collins-Dexter of Color of Change by New America, used with permission.)

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