Web haven for far right

Os­tra­cized by Sil­i­con Val­ley, neo-Nazis and oth­ers cre­ate their own cor­po­rate space.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Matt Pearce

Over and over again, those on Amer­ica’s far right have learned that the 1st Amend­ment doesn’t pro­tect them from Sil­i­con Val­ley tech com­pa­nies.

For weeks, neo-Nazis, white na­tion­al­ists and other far-right fig­ures have been or­ga­niz­ing for Sat­ur­day’s “Unite the Right” demon­stra­tion in Char­lottesville, Va., which erupted in vi­o­lence, prompt­ing the gov­er­nor to de­clare a state of emer­gency.

But days be­fore the rally, the short-term lodg­ing ser­vice Airbnb started sus­pend­ing the ac­counts of rally at­ten­dees who had rented houses in the area. Why? The San Fran­cisco-head­quar­tered com­pany re­quires cus­tomers to “ac­cept peo­ple re­gard­less of their race, reli­gion, na­tional ori­gin, eth­nic­ity,” among other things — a deal-breaker for white na­tion­al­ists, who have been banned by other pop­u­lar com­pa­nies for sim­i­lar rea­sons.

It was a blow for the or­ga­niz­ers, who had “taken over all of the large Airbnbs in a par­tic­u­lar area,” ac­cord­ing to a user on the mes­sage board for the Daily Stormer, a pop­u­lar neo-Nazi web­site, who had “set up ‘Nazi Uber’ and the ‘Hate Van’ to help in mov­ing our peo­ple around as needed.”

This wasn’t the first time

the far right had to find some­one will­ing to pro­vide ser­vices for its mem­bers. In­creas­ingly, the group’s so­lu­tion is to pro­vide its own.

Over the last two years, a crop of start-ups has be­gun of­fer­ing so­cial me­dia plat­forms and fi­nan­cial ser­vices cater­ing to right-wing In­ter­net users.

“We’re get­ting banned from us­ing pay­ment-pro­cess­ing ser­vices, so we have no other choice,” said Tim Gionet, who goes by the name “Baked Alaska.” He had been sched­uled to speak at the Char­lottesville rally, but po­lice shut it down be­cause of the vi­o­lence.

“If that’s the gam­ble they want to take, I guess they can, and we’ll make our own in­fra­struc­ture,” he said.

The new com­pa­nies are small, pal­ing in au­di­ence size to their gar­gan­tuan, main­stream coun­ter­parts. But piece by piece, sup­port­ers of the far right are as­sem­bling their own cor­po­rate tech world — a shadow Sil­i­con Val­ley, one with fewer rules.

Af­ter be­ing banned from Twit­ter dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, many mem­bers of the “alt-right” move­ment of white na­tion­al­ists joined Gab, which de­scribes it­self as “an ad-free so­cial net­work for cre­ators who be­lieve in free speech, in­di­vid­ual lib­erty, and the free flow of in­for­ma­tion on­line.” On Tues­day, one of the site’s most pop­u­lar posts was an im­age that said, “I ♥BE­ING WHITE.”

“The mar­ket is owned and con­trolled and op­er­ated by the oli­garchy of Twit­ter and Face­book and Google,” said Gab’s founder, An­drew Torba.

“The re­al­ity is hate speech is free speech,” Torba added, cit­ing U.S. Supreme Court prece­dent. With pre­dom­i­nantly left-lean­ing com­pa­nies, many of them in the Bay Area, set­ting the bound­aries on what speech isn’t ac­cept­able on for-profit plat­forms, “that’s a huge op­por­tu­nity to sit here and de­fend the In­ter­net that I grew up on,” he said.

Right-wing ac­tivists banned from the crowd­fund­ing site Pa­treon can fundraise on Ha­treon, a plat­form cre­ated to counter the “in­ex­cus­able con­tent polic­ing of ser­vices like Pa­treon.”

Ha­treon — pro­nounced HATE-ree-on — cur­rently fea­tures fundrais­ers sup­port­ing Richard Spencer, one of Amer­ica’s most promi­nent white na­tion­al­ists (who has 34 “pa­trons” pledg­ing to do­nate a to­tal of $362 to him a month), and An­drew Anglin, who, as founder and ed­i­tor of the Daily Stormer, is one of Amer­ica’s most promi­nent neo-Nazis (with 50 donors pledg­ing $869.17 a month).

Spencer, who had also been sched­uled to speak in Char­lottesville, called Ha­treon’s founder, Cody Wil­son, of Austin, Texas, to praise the ser­vice, telling him he would use it “even if you were the most left-wing Jewish com­mu­nist,” ac­cord­ing to Wil­son. (Spencer con­firmed the ac­cu­racy of the re­marks.)

Wil­son, who is best known for his ef­forts to pro-

duce guns through 3-D print­ing, de­scribed him­self as an “In­ter­net an­ar­chist” who wants to dis­rupt the es­tab­lish­ment’s sta­tus quo. He was in­trigued by far­right users on so­cial me­dia, who some­times post racist, sex­ist and anti-Semitic com­ments and im­ages but also play­ful memes of their de facto mas­cot, Pepe, a car­toon frog. “Frog Twit­ter and the so-called ‘alt-right’ — there’s a lot of life there,” Wil­son said. “I’m kind of happy to help it mu­tate.”

An­other crowd­fund­ing start-up, WeSearchr, has raised more than $150,000 for Anglin’s le­gal de­fense in a law­suit filed by the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter, the anti-ex­trem­ism non­profit, af­ter Anglin or­ga­nized a “troll storm” against a Jewish woman on the Daily Stormer.

WeSearchr of­ten spon­sors fundrais­ers for med­i­cal bills and le­gal de­fense funds for far-right fig­ures who have got­ten in fights with left-wing ac­tivists who call them­selves “anti-fas­cists.” It also of­fers “boun­ties” — money do­nated by users to meet a cer­tain ob­jec­tive — seek­ing the iden­ti­ties of anti-fas­cists in­volved in vi­o­lent en­coun­ters.

WeSearchr’s owner, Chuck C. John­son, a rightwing jour­nal­ist and provo­ca­teur who has been banned from Twit­ter, told The Times in an email that it was “good busi­ness to al­low free speech” and that he be­lieves not dis­crim­i­nat­ing against users’ po­lit­i­cal views might give him bet­ter pro­tec­tion from law­suits.

John­son, whose op­er­a­tion is based in Cal­i­for­nia, added that his at­tor­ney ad­vised him that, un­der state law, it’s il­le­gal to dis­crim­i­nate on the ba­sis of pol­i­tics. “All are wel­come to fundraise on my prop­er­ties,” John­son wrote.

One of WeSearchr’s other founders, Pax Dick­in­son, re­cently split from the com­pany to start his own crowd­fund­ing site, Counter.Fund, with an “ex­plicit ded­i­ca­tion against Marx­ist po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and the glob­al­ist pro­gres­sive Left,” ac­cord­ing to its web­site.

Dick­in­son was the chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer of Busi­ness In­sider un­til he was forced to re­sign in 2013 af­ter sex­ist and racist tweets of his were un­cov­ered by the news site Gawker. Dick­in­son since has chan­neled his en­tre­pre­neur­ial en­er­gies into cre­at­ing fi­nan­cial in­fra­struc­ture to sus­tain the far right.

“Counter-cul­tural con­tent cre­ators are trapped into fun­nel­ing in­come streams through plat­forms owned by their ide­o­log­i­cal en­e­mies,” Dick­in­son wrote in a man­i­festo ex­plain­ing the need for his new com­pany. “A non-lib­eral on Pa­treon or Kick­starter is just one hack jour­nal­ist’s hit piece or pro­gres­sive cul­tural cam­paign away from be­ing cen­sored from their plat­form and los­ing their in­come stream en­tirely.”

Dick­in­son de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Amer­ica’s far right and lib­eral tech world was mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial at first.

As the alt-right move­ment gained mo­men­tum over the last two years, sup­port­ers found that ad­ver­tis­ing-sup­ported plat­forms like Face­book and Twit­ter were pow­er­ful tools for trolling and self-pro­mo­tion. For a fee, crowd­fund­ing sites such as GoFundMe of­fered the pos­si­bil­ity for ris­ing stars in the move­ment to con­vert their new­found so­cial cap­i­tal into ac­tual fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal.

But as the far-right’s in­flu­ence grew, many of those com­pa­nies cracked down af­ter lib­er­als and left­ists ac­cused them of spon­sor­ing hate speech.

“I don’t want to pa­tron­ize any­one that pa­tron­izes them,” said Daryle La­mont Jenk­ins, an anti-fas­cist ac­tivist who has pres­sured com­pa­nies that do busi­ness with far-right fig­ures. “They make it clear that they want to un­der­mine so­ci­ety, that they want to break up so­ci­ety as we know it, that they want to be a boot on ev­ery­one’s neck. Why should we ig­nore that?”

The shut­down of fi­nan­cial ser­vices has cramped Anglin, who has said the Daily Stormer might shut down if he loses his law­suit against the South­ern Poverty Law Cen­ter.

Anglin ac­cused his ad­ver­saries of “try­ing to si­lence pro­tected speech, and they are able to shut down my ac­cess to PayPal, credit card pro­ces­sors, Pa­treon, ad­ver­tis­ers, even Web hosts, with threats to de­fame th­ese com­pa­nies in the me­dia,” Anglin told The Times in an email ear­lier this year.

As for Spencer, one of the alt-right’s other most promi­nent fig­ures, he still has a Twit­ter ac­count, but he has been banned from the au­dio host­ing site SoundCloud. He said three banks have ter­mi­nated the ac­counts of his white na­tion­al­ist non­profit, the Na­tional Pol­icy In­sti­tute, but the group still does busi­ness with on­line pay­ment-pro­cess­ing ser­vices such as PayPal.

Ev­ery now and then, an­other com­pany forces him out and leaves him with fewer op­tions for how to ad­vance his agenda, which in­cludes trav­el­ing around the coun­try to spread his be­liefs.

Spencer said he re­cently dis­cov­ered that he had been banned from Airbnb — pre­sum­ably be­cause of his view­points, which in­clude call­ing for a sep­a­rate na­tion for white peo­ple.

“I just went to my ac­count, and it was gone,” Spencer said. He sounded puz­zled, given how his past hosts had rated him pos­i­tively as a cus­tomer. “I had all th­ese nice re­views.”

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