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The internet in Trump’s nation

White nationalist sentiments could force tech companies to finally decide how much unfettered free speech matters online.

CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos
CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos

The 2016 election is over, but the tide of hate that fueled President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign has not abated. Instead, it’s only getting stronger. And everyone — especially tech companies — will need to find a way to deal with it.

Throughout most of his campaign, Trump flirted with white nationalists who became more vocal each time he retweeted one of them or posted an apparent dogwhistle. Over the past year, Google searches for terms related to white nationalism, such as “white genocide,” rose quickly.

And in the week since Trump clinched the electoral vote, reports of hate-fueled attacks have risen to levels even higher than the country experienced after 9/11, with many attackers invoking Trump’s name. That could mean a similar increase in online abuse targeting Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants, according to one study that linked physical attacks to online abuse.

“Fear. Now is the time for it.”

Engy Abdelkader, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Muslim-Christian relations center, the Bridge Initiative, told ThinkProgress the uptick in hate crimes was expected.

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“In the span of just a few days, the word ‘TRUMP’ was scrawled on the wall of a Muslim prayer room at New York University; in two separate incidents in California, Muslim women observing hijab were physically attacked by men speaking about Trump’s election; and in New Mexico, a Muslim college student was attacked by a classmate wearing a Trump shirt as he attempted to remove her hijab and insinuated that she was a terrorist,” she said.

“These attacks were anticipated because many Americans, both for and against Trump, viewed his win as a win for racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.”

Heidi Beirich, intelligence director for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), told ThinkProgress the center was inundated with hate incident reports immediately following the election.

“From the moment we walked in this morning, we’ve been getting reports of hate crimes,” she said. Within the first twenty-four hours following Trump’s victory, the SPLC got 60 unconfirmed reports; that number has since climbed to over 300. “The most extreme people in this country are calling for street action against Muslims and people of color,” said Beirich.

She cited one a post from the white supremacist news site Daily Stormer titled, “Female Hajis Fear to Wear the Headtowel in Public After Trump Win — You Should Yell at Them.” The post leads with: “Fear. Now is the time for it.”

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Trump denounced the acts of violence and harassment against minorities in his name during a 60 Minutes interview Sunday, saying the perpetrators should “stop it.” But the damage may have already been done thanks to a growing white nationalist social media presence.

Prominent white nationalists, including those in the new “alt-right” wave, have been credited with rallying dormant Trump supporters through online campaigns. They’ve also been linked to harassment of celebrities and journalists. Their ideology is rooted in the belief that demographic shifts and are responsible, at least in part, for the decline of white dominance, which has forced America into a downward spiral.

The feeling that the country needs to be “made great again” has been subtext in conservative politics for decades; now those views have burst into the mainstream. Online harassment, whether it’s sexist, racist, anti-Semitic— is likely to stay unless tech companies decide untrammeled free speech no longer outweighs consumers’ desire to have abuse-free platforms.

So far, there’s no consistent standard across, or even within, companies. Facebook in particular has struggled to define what kind of user behavior it considers out of bounds.

The social media titan has an enormous reach, with 60 percent of U.S. adults actively using the site every day. But Facebook also has a reputation for unequally applying its rules regarding what words and images are allowed. The company has been trying to crack down on its white nationalist presence, but when faced with the ultimate test —a presidential candidate who regularly says and posts things that come across as racist, sexist, and xenophobic — it chose not to act.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on December 2015 that, in the name of public discourse, Facebook would allow Trump’s posts to remain on the site. In the 10 months since, Facebook employees have complained to Zuckerberg that Trump’s more offensive posts violate the company’s ban on hate speech. Facebook responded by updating its policies to say it would allow some content that breaks its conduct code, the Wall Street Journal reported.

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“In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest — even if they might otherwise violate our standards,” Facebook’s policy team wrote in a post announcing the change.

In the wake of the election, there have been reports that Facebook’s double standard on abuse was censoring victims of harassment. Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern wrote that the social network removed a post featuring a screenshot of an emailed death threat because it violated the site’s guidelines.

Additionally, Facebook has had to fend off criticism that its algorithm influenced the election in Trump’s favor by elevating bogus — and typically anti-Hillary Clinton-leaning — stories about the election. Zuckerberg denied it, saying that such a claim was “a pretty crazy idea” even though more than 40 percent of U.S. adults primarily get their news from Facebook. But on Tuesday the company announced it would move to limit the advertising revenue collected by fake news sites.

Twitter, on the other hand, may be faring even worse than Facebook partly because it has been so slow to ban prominent white nationalist accounts and hate-fueled bots. Instead, the company’s answer to harassment has been to roll out quality filters and other tools that allow users to block out some unwanted messages. The results have been mixed; while the tools were sorely needed, they don’t address the fact that accounts dedicated to sending offensive messages go untouched. A recent report found that white nationalists and their sympathizers had a larger Twitter presence than the Islamic State. But, as a sign of good faith, the company recently pledged to stop the spread of online hate and began suspending alt-right accounts, including the one belonging to the movement’s de facto leader Richard Spencer.

Even smaller companies aren’t containing the hate on their platforms. The online audio platform Soundcloud recently banned a white supremacist podcast, “Fash the Nation,” but the website Anti-Fascist News says it has identified more than 20 other racist Soundcloud podcasts that are still up and running. Soundcloud did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment, but hate speech is banned in the site’s community guidelines as it pertains to “race, cultural identity or ethnic background, religious beliefs, disability, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” (Facebook and Twitter also did not respond to requests for comment and have similar policies.)

While some tech leaders have been more laissez faire in fighting problematic speech online, others have condoned alt-right bigotry, both tacitly and otherwise. One week before the election, Facebook board member and Trump donor Peter Thiel — now a member of the president-elect’s transition team — defended the Republican candidate in a National Press Club appearance, saying that Trump supporters don’t take his offensive statements literally. And employees of the virtual reality firm Oculus threatened to quit and publicly denounced its co-founder Palmer Luckey after news reports surfaced that he had donated money to the alt-right group Nimble America. Luckey had also reportedly advocated “shitposting”and anti-Clinton memes.

“We are…confident that this behavior and sentiment does [sic] not reflect the values of the many Oculus employees we work with on a daily basis,” the company said in a statement. (Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion in 2014, but the firm runs independently.)

Luckey apologized, saying that his Nimble America donation was in support of the group’s “fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards.”

Now that the 2016 campaign is over, tech companies may hope the alt-right will fade on its own accord, but that isn’t likely to happen. Trump’s white nationalist fans now have validation in the country’s highest elected office. Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon, who left running the alt-right blog known for publishing inflammatory racist and misogynistic content to join Trump’s campaign, has been appointed as his chief strategist.

But even if online racism and harassment continue at their current rate, there may be a silver lining in all of this. The ugliness of the 2016 election cycle means that tech companies may be forced to decide which is more valuable, consumers’ online experience or unbridled free speech. As Twitter’s leadership recently discovered when the platform’s harassment problem ruined their efforts to sell the company, passivity and unequal enforcement come at a price.