21st August 2019
By Barrington M. Salmon
(TriceEdneyWire.com) — A coalition of racial justice and civil rights organizations, based in Charlottesville, Va., has launched a campaign to force Twitter to respond to widespread concerns that Twitter allows white supremacists to flourish on its platform.
The Change the Terms Coalition was deliberate in timing the launch on the eve of the second anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville that led to the murder of activist Heather Heyer on August 12, 2017. The 32-year-old paralegal civil rights activist, was struck and killed by 22-year-old James Fields, a Neo-Nazi white supremacist who drove a car into a crowd of counter-protesters. Fields is serving a life sentence plus 419 years for the murder.
The announcement also comes on the heels of two mass shootings that killed at least 31 people in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio August 3rd and 4th respectively. The massacres have exacerbated the group’s concerns about racially motivated attacks fueled by inflammatory online hate. They say President Donald Trump is fueling the violence and called for an uprising against it.
“Donald Trump has legitimized violence and it’s time for people to stand up,” said Jessica J. González, co-founder of Change the Terms and vice president of Strategy and Senior Counsel at Free Press.
The coalition, which held a press conference by phone August 7, is demanding that Twitter ban white supremacists and adopt model corporate policies.
“White supremacists fundraise, recruit and normalize the murder of marginalized people,” said González. “We’ve been working with Big Tech to accept our demands. But Twitter is slow to change. It’s the only platform that has failed to commit to banning white supremacists. David Duke, a former grand wizard of the KKK, is one there as is Richard Spencer and key organizers.”
Richard Spencer is a widely known neo-Nazi and president of the National Policy Institute, a white supremacist Think Tank. Spencer was the leader of the torch-lit march in Charlottesville the evening before the death of Heather Heyer.
The Change the Terms Coalition includes more than 55 human-rights, civil-rights and digital-rights groups. They include Free Press, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for American Progress, Color of Change, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, MediaJustice, Muslim Advocates and the National Hispanic Media Coalition. It has called on Twitter and other online companies to develop more comprehensive policies to disrupt hate and racism on their platforms and has also urged these platforms to adopt the model corporate policies that Change the Terms has developed.
“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 González, vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms. “Twitter must tell White supremacists they cannot rely on the platform to espouse harmful rhetoric, intimidate, and plan more attacks.”
Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director of Color of Change, agreed.
“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,” she said. “White nationalists use Twitter every day to harass Black people and users from marginalized communities, to build power and organizational strength, and to amplify violent ideologies in this country. It’s time for Jack Dorsey and Twitter’s leadership to get over their fear of conservative backlash and fully stamp out discrimination on the platform. Our civil rights should not be negotiable.”
Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, president of the diversity consultant firm, Incite Unlimited, cites statistics which illustrate the danger White extremism poses:
• According to the most recent FBI data, the number of hate crimes in America has increased three years in a row, jumping about 17 percent in one year alone.
• The number of white supremacist groups in America has soared 30 percent in the last four years.
• white supremacists account for nearly three out of four murderous terrorist acts in the U.S.
• Counties that hosted a Trump rally during his run for president in 2016 have subsequently experienced a 226 percent jump in hate crimes.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the correlation between the political rise of Trump (his campaign run in the primaries, the general election and his time in office), his specific policy negligence around white terrorism, the white supremacist language he infuses in his rhetoric on a daily basis, and the rise in white nationalist violence that has ensued,” Jones-DeWeever said. “When we refuse to speak this truth, we fuel white terrorism. We not only allow it to exist, we also allow it to thrive.”
González, who moderated the August 7 conference call, said Twitter is a space that allows key White nationalist influencers to operate. Reportedly, there are at least 100,000 verified accounts of racists and White extremists who are sophisticated and organized.
“There are 173,000 tweets, 4,000 per white supremacist account and Twitter has not removed them,” González said. “Twitter talks a good game while vile, racist extremists continue to spew hate. Latinos have been targeted because of Donald Trump. People are scared to go to school, grocery store, other places because of the color of our skins.”
González said Latino communities including where she lives have been profoundly affected by the shooting in El Paso on August 3. Patrick Crusius, a 21-year-old White man drove more than six hours from Dallas to El Paso “to kill Mexicans.”
González said fear has increased exponentially among her friends, family and neighbors and in Latino communities since the killer, who admitted that he is an anti-immigrant white nationalist and Trump supporter, opened fire in a Walmart, killing 22 people and wounded dozens of others.
The coalition notes that a range of Unite the Right organizers and associated White-nationalist influencers continue to benefit from their presence on Twitter. This includes key rally organizers like Richard Spencer, Evan McLaren and Tony Hovater; so-called alt-right podcasters and YouTubers who broadcast live from the rally like Faith Goldy and Mike Peinovich; and figureheads of hate like former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke, who attended and broadcast from the deadly rally, and continue to enjoy unfettered use of their Twitter accounts.
Twitter, for its part, released a statement last week saying that it is researching whether white supremacists should be banned or allowed to continue operating on its platform. Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, legal and public policy said in published reports that the research aims to understand the effectiveness of both removing such individuals, as well as allowing them to remain online to be debated by others.
Gadde said in an interview with Motherboard that Twitter is working with academics to see if it can be confirmed that “counter-speech and conversation are a force for good” and “can act as a basis for de-radicalization,” which is Twitter’s current position. She also added that Twitter has seen evidence on other platforms that radical viewpoints can change through an exchange of ideas.
“We’re working with them specifically on white nationalism and white supremacy and radicalization online and understanding the drivers of those things,” Gadde said in the Motherboard interview. “What role can a platform like Twitter play in either making that worse or making that better?”
A Twitter spokesman wrote The Daily Dot saying: “We’ve made great strides in creating stronger policies against hateful conduct, violent extremist groups and violent threats on Twitter. We will always have more to do, and collaboration with outside researchers is critical to helping us effectively address issues like radicalization in all its forms.”
But the coalition contends Twitter’s response is nowhere near close enough.
“Twitter has some responsibility for that. Black and brown communities here and globally are under attack,” said Don Gathers, co-founder of the Charlottesville chapter of Black Lives Matter. “The person who shall not be named has enabled others. It all spews from the same ideology. He has to stand up and speak forcefully. If he’s not willing to do so, we must. As a social platform, Twitter has not taken responsibility. What they’re allowing is not all speech is free, much of it is hate. Intimidation and bullying can’t be allowed. They cannot be allowed to use the cloak and cover of anonymity. We’re calling on Twitter to denounce that … We just have to say enough.”
Gathers, former Chair of Charlottesville’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces, said Charlottesville is still reeling from march and rally’s fallout.
“The deadly Unite the Right rally was planned on social media, and our community is still feeling the profound impact of that violence today,” he said. “We’re still reeling from [that] fateful day and fateful actions. Whole communities are still living in fear. It’s time these companies used their terms of service to keep white supremacists off Twitter and reduce the hate that leads to tragedy.”
This article originally published in the August 19, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.