White nationalists were courting publicity when they organized their Unite the Right gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, last weekend. Perhaps predictably, the attention is now cutting both ways.
Groups that had mostly existed on the fringes of society moved fully into the foreground, emboldened by a president they perceive as sympathetic. After President Donald Trump reacted to the violence on Saturday, neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer analyzed his remarks this way: "He didn't attack us . . . He implied the antifa are haters . . . He said he loves us all."
Late Tuesday, Trump reaffirmed this false equivalency by blaming "both sides" for the violent death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
As Trump two-steps his way around his unleaderlike remarks, tech companies are decoupling themselves from association with the alt-right, and the chief executives of some of country's largest companies are distancing themselves from the president.
Wouldn't it be ironic, and heartening, if the people Unite the Right managed to bring together are the rest of us in this country who stand against racism and ethnic hatred?
GoDaddy, a domain registrar, and then Google stopped hosting The Daily Stormer, a popular neo-Nazi website and a vital platform for promoting the Charlottesville rally. GoDaddy acted after the site published a sexist and derogatory rant about Heyer. A spokeswoman said The Daily Stormer had crossed the line into promoting violence, violating GoDaddy's policy.
Several other websites frequented by the far right, such as Vanguard America, also were forced into silence. The crowdfunding website GoFundMe removed campaigns to raise money for the driver charged with speeding into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heyer. And Airbnb banned Unite the Right participants from renting properties in Charlottesville.
Yesterday, faced with a slew of defections from his major business advisory councils over his comments on the Charlottesville violence, Trump disbanded his Manufacturing Council and Strategy & Policy Forum.
But pushing these fringe white nationalist groups back to the margins is not without risk, of course. Eric Stern, a professor specializing in crisis and emergency management at the University at Albany, cautions that cutting off such groups can run afoul of other important values like freedom of expression, freedom of association and the ability to monitor their online activities. "We're dealing with a lot of value complexity here," he said yesterday.
My concern is less noble: that these groups will use their outsider status to reinforce their sense of victimization, to crow about their free speech rights, and to recruit members to the cause that is never very far from their minds - inciting a race war in America. Dylann Roof, who embraced the symbols of neo-Nazism and white supremacy, hoped to ignite such a war when he killed nine African-Americans at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
But social media companies aren't elected officials or public agencies, and the First Amendment exists to restrict government's power, not that of corporations. The companies are gingerly citing carefully written policies, such as GoDaddy's against promoting violence, or Airbnb's requirement that members of its community accept people regardless of race, age and other personal attributes.
These are difficult lines to draw. But the country must if it's to marginalize white supremacists and their racist vitriol.