I watched the growing chaos in the nearby city of Charlottesville, Va. with horror on Aug. 12. During my time as news director of the television station there, I grew to know the city and its residents well and I knew that the hatred and violence that I saw did not originate from there. But I knew immediately where to look.
When I was researching my book “Politics on the Nets,” one of the things that I found was that fringe political groups were gravitating to the internet as a place where they could communicate and organize.
That trend has only grown stronger over the years and now any group, no matter how far outside the norm they may be, can find a home there. For those groups, the internet also forms a powerful organizing tool.
This is what happened when a group of right-wing organizers decided to hold their rally in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The effort to remove what some saw as a symbol of slavery and others saw as a symbol of a time they wanted to remember became a flashpoint probably because this city was seen by some as a bastion of liberalism and by some as a relatively easy target because of its size.
Shortly after the violent clashes that accompanied the rally subsided, an alleged Nazi sympathizer aimed his car down a narrow street running into a group of counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing one. Later, the Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, published a description of the victim that was so objectionable that GoDaddy announced that it was yanking its domain registration. A few hours later, Google announced the same after the publishers attempted to move their registration there.
Meanwhile, over at Twitter, there’s a new effort by a Twitter user with the handle @yesyoureracist that’s coordinating an effort to find as many photos of participants in the Charlottesville rally as possible, publish them and then crowdsource their names. Several participants have been identified online, and at least one has been fired by his employer.
The reaction to the activities of the hate groups continues to spread across the internet. While this column was being prepared, Daily Stormer suddenly dropped offline. You can still search for the site, but attempts to browse to it result in an error message.
At this point it’s too early to tell whether the demise of Daily Stormer was at the hands of the domain registrars who cancelled the registration, or of Cloudflare, which was the hosting provider.
But what is clear is that the forces that oppose those hate groups are mounting a campaign against the ISPs used by those groups. Cloudflare has been under increasing pressure to drop Daily Stormer as a client and may have done so. Or it could be an effort by a hacker group to use a DDoS attack to take down the website.
What is clear is that the internet is extracting its revenge on the activities of the hate groups involved in the Charlottesville attacks. In a sense, what’s happening is not unlike what happens in any society when someone does something so objectionable that it violates the limits of its norms. In the past, those people would be shunned, or they’d be tarred and feathered or face some other kind of social shaming.
Now the internet is the voice of an important part of society and that means that retribution comes with great speed. But that also means that society’s reactions are uneven, uncertain and in some cases unjust.
The problem with ad hoc actions such as public shaming is that while can be very effective in marshaling public opinion against a particular person, group or idea, they can also be used for group bullying. And we have seen many examples of people who are bullied on the internet because they are different, hold conflicting opinions or don't conform to the social or physical standards of one set of Web users or another.
The actions of GoDaddy and Google are more targeted. When they see actions they don’t like or that they feel hurt the corporation's reputation, then they react. This is entirely within their rights because these are private organizations and they can terminate any customer that violates their terms of service. In the case of Daily Stormer, both organizations felt that the site was inciting violence, which isn’t allowed.
This is an important distinction because it shows that a business's right to protect itself doesn't disappear just because it uses the internet for communication. If some group is using your facilities for a purpose you find objectionable, you can stop it.
In addition, it also makes clear that in most cases you don’t need to tolerate your employees engaging in activities that reflect badly on your business. While there are limits to what you can do in regards to government employees and to employees covered by a contract of employment, you don’t have to employ those who conduct themselves in ways you find objectionable, especially if their conduct involves things participation in hate group activities.
But it’s also important to remember that the internet works both ways. If your organization does something that some segment of internet society finds objectionable, it can extract vengeance on you as well.