Social Media Bans Aren't Enough to Stop the Far Right
To fight white nationalist propaganda, we need to understand why it works, not simply ban it.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Public outcry over last summer’s violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville was quickly followed by a series of bans targeting racists on the web. Prominent sites lost their domains while leading figures and channels were driven from social media. Months later, however, it’s clear that these bans haven’t had the desired effect.
Even in the best of circumstances, trying to keep content off the web is a lot like sweeping sand off a beach. The problem, however, goes deeper than that. Contemporary white nationalism is highly networked and lacks centralized organization. While that structure may make coordination more difficult, it also makes white nationalists incredibly hard to silence.
In the days following Charlottesville, the well-trafficked white nationalist site Daily Stormer was dropped by its domain hosts for publishing a grossly disparaging article about Heather Heyer, an activist killed by a white nationalist during the rally. Later that week, Cloudflare ceased its DDoS protection—a critical service for controversial websites—for the embattled site, forcing it to retreat to the so-called “dark web.”
Less than two weeks later, the two-decade-old forum Stormfront had its domain seized by its registrar, Network Solutions, LLC. The company’s decision was apparently made at the behest of the nonprofit Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who claimed responsibility in a tweet proclaiming that “Stormfront is no more.”
Social media companies also joined in. Facebook and Reddit shut down white nationalist pages and subreddits they said promoted violence, while Twitter suspended accounts connected to the Daily Stormer. YouTube rolled out a new policy it had announced in June to put “offensive” videos in a “limited state” that inhibits sharing and prevents them from generating ad revenue.
Yet little came from these wide-reaching efforts. Almost immediately after being driven to the dark web, the Daily Stormer’s staff began circulating their content using the hashtag #samizdat, a reference to the networks which distributed banned material in the Soviet Union. Stormer material was also made available on a “parallel” site. The Daily Stormer has even managed to make its way back onto the regular web. It’s had to change domains frequently over the past few months, but it hasn’t been unavailable for more than a few days at a time.
Stormfront’s domain seizure initially appeared to hit the forum hard. However, it was quickly made apparent that the seizure didn’t actually prevent users from connecting to the site. A simple modification of a computer’s hosts file would enable access. White nationalists shared information on how to modify the file through various platforms, and even the Washington Times reported on the availability of this workaround. Within a month, all this became moot as Don Black, Stormfront’s owner, reasserted control over the domain. The site has remained accessible ever since.
The results of social media bans have been slightly more mixed. There is some evidence to suggest that an earlier removal of hateful subreddits actually did lead to a decline in racist rhetoric on Reddit. However, efforts to drive white nationalists from social media have simply enabled the growth of alternative platforms like Gab. Andrew Anglin, the Daily Stormer’s founder, established an active presence there after Charlottesville, attracting more than 10,000 followers. Twitter’s bans have also been less than effective. The Daily Stormer, in fact, published an article gloating over the persistent presence of and harassment by white nationalists on the platform. “No matter how many holes you poke at the bottom of a bucket, it’ll never get dry while it’s standing underneath a waterfall,” the Stormer declared. “And yes, the waterfall here is groyper [an alt-right meme] Nazism.”
I want to be clear: I’m not talking about the moral or ethical dimensions of prohibiting white nationalist speech. There is no moral equivalency between white nationalists and those who oppose them. The goal of white nationalism is to establish ethnically “pure” societies where rights will be denied to anyone—people of color, women, LGBT people, leftists and progressives—who doesn’t match the ideal “racial type.” White nationalist speech, then, is aimed at denying rights to large swathes of our plural societies.
But when it comes to combatting this rhetoric, we need to consider the practical dimensions of banning white nationalist speech. In practical terms, those efforts have largely been a failure. Not because we didn’t try hard enough, but rather because the structure of white nationalist activism makes prohibition effectively impossible.
Roger Griffin, a scholar who studies the racist right, pointed out in a 2010 paper that contemporary white nationalist movements are “groupuscular,” meaning that they’re a mass of small groups connected through a dense network of relationships. In the age of digital communication and social media, many of these groups are not traditional political organizations but digital platforms with overlapping user bases. Shut down one site and its users migrate to another. Staff at the banned site can also use the network to distribute content to users, or inform them when that site reemerges at a new address, as with the Daily Stormer. Because these sites and groups aren’t centrally organized, singular bans do little to actually disrupt the larger network. Nor do they prevent new sites from popping up. As a result, Griffin suggested, the collective white nationalist movement “has actually achieved an invulnerability to attempts by democracies to destroy it.”
We are not, in other words, going to be able to ban our way to a world free of white nationalism.
What, then, can be done? The truth is, there is likely not a simple solution to the problem of racist rhetoric, in no small part because the staying power of white nationalist worldviews is not attributable to speech alone.
In a 1974 book about 19th-century German nationalists, historian Fritz Stern noted that the ideas of these movements “had some basis in reality.” They were responding to serious upheavals caused by the arrival of industrial capitalism and modernity to Germany during that period. Ecological devastation, the displacement of traditional ways of living, and the explosion of urban populations living and working in abhorrent conditions all factored into their denunciations of modern life. That turmoil lent weight to their ideas and helped them resonate in ways they probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
The figures studied by Stern influenced key figures in contemporary white nationalism, a fact which should lead us to ask why their ideas continue to have such staying power more than a century later. Are similar issues of social turmoil—from reduced opportunities for young people to the seemingly endless “war on terror”—lending weight to white nationalist rhetoric? This is a wide-ranging question, and one that can’t be adequately addressed here. Still, it’s important to ask it, and to see where it leads us. Asking a question like this, of course, doesn’t excuse racist beliefs, but it may help us better understand them. And that understanding has the potential to carry us a lot further towards effectively addressing a resurgent white nationalism than simple speech prohibition.
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Kevan A. Feshami is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he studies white nationalist history and activism.