Free speech & white supremacy: boo(t)ing Nazis on the web
Many of my friends and contacts have been celebrating the decisions of companies to fire people identified at the Charlottesville white supremacy rally. Of course, that’s been happening based on intelligence gathered from social pools on the internet–and, like normal, that social intelligence has sometimes been wrong. Kyle Quinn, an assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, was misidentified as a protester at Charlottesville and harassed on Twitter. Doxing, as is typical, has brought muddy ethical waters in the wake of Charlottesville.
Emma Ellis of WIRED recently called doxing “a perilous form of justice” because, according to Jared Colton of Utah State University, it “often hurts many beyond the intended target,” including their families, people with similar appearances, or people with the same name. I can only imagine a different Jeremy Johnson being doxed, only for me to be harassed because, apparently, Jeremy Johnsons are everywhere. While the left typically employs doxing to shame and exact social justice, the right more often employs troll tactics, looking to harass people either out of disdain or just “for the lulz.”
In the aftermath of Charlottesville, neo-Nazis have been identified, shamed, and in a few instances fired from their jobs. Moreover, white supremacist websites have been booted from web hosting services and have had their domains rescinded (in the Daily Stormer’s case, even in Russia). Most discussion I’ve seen has cheered on these hosts, but a few people have questioned the free speech implications of booting Nazis from certain parts of the internet. One persuasive argument is that the first amendment is only about government restriction; when it comes to corporations and private individuals, there’s no obligation to give Nazis a platform. Fair enough. But there’s a bit more to it than that, I’d say.
If Twitter and Facebook want to ban white supremacists, that seems to be within their rights. But, strangely, I want to bring up antitrust laws for a second. Part of the argument I’m seeing is predicated on something like a free market ideology: companies get to treat consumers as they wish, as long as they’re not violating laws. So, the argument goes, if you boot the Nazis, they’ll be able to find another home, because it’s a marketplace of ideas. But what happens when the main connections you have are severed? Fine, ignore that Facebook is pretty central to most people’s social lives. What if Comcast decides they don’t want to serve white supremacists?
The internet is so crucial for modern life that–you’d think–access to it should be a basic expectation at this point. If you’re a white supremacist, should a company be able to decide that you simply shouldn’t have access to a central part of modern living? “Ah, but they could go get internet elsewhere!” Well, if we’re talking about their home internet connection, that might not be true. Or they might be forced to use dial-up (cringe). Sure, they’re awful people in a lot of ways, but the furthest end of this “corporations can restrict free speech, but the government can’t” argument is pretty scary. What if Comcast decides it’s not just white supremacists they want to ban, but also far-left progressives?
We may need to closely scrutinize what we’re celebrating when white supremacists get outed, shamed, and disconnected. It might seem like justice–and it is in a lot of ways–but it could exceed the bounds of reasonable response. And while some of us might be happy to not have to share digital spaces with Nazis, radical social ostracizing can lead to even more radical and extreme behavior. I’m not saying we should change our behaviors based on the possibility of white supremacists getting upset, but we should know there are real, tangible ramifications of doing so.
As always, doxing is ethically problematic. It can and does bring justice, but the flip side is harassment and possibly more radicalization. I’ll cautiously celebrate the outing of white supremacists in Charlottesville, but it’s hard to know where we’ll go next.