It’s not just a rebranding of white supremacy. It’s digital cross-burning: the first rung on the ladder of terrorism.
And it should be treated as such. Twitter, Facebook, and Google cannot let themselves be a playground for these tactics. The alt right would never exist without the internet, and of course I realize that there’s no way to drive these cockroaches off the internet entirely. But there absolutely are steps that these companies can and should be taking to avoid being used as megaphones for hate and harassment.
I’ve been in a small series of skirmishes with the alt-right myself. They have tried to take over a community I care about, and I have helped fight back, using the weapons I know best: math and democracy. And so far, we’ve won, and I’ve been a small enough target on their radar that I can still laugh about the few potshots they’ve taken at me.
Math and democracy are powerful tools, but the nature of democracy is to be neutral. The tools I’ve helped craft work to prevent any minority from taking over, not just this specific one. But the kind of steps that I’m suggesting that places like Twitter should be taking… those would have to be more targeted. They can and should find a way to statistically characterize mere attack accounts, and then provide all users tools to simply block those accounts. Gmail does it with spam, and though it’s not perfect, it keeps the problem manageable; Twitter can do it with trolls.
Of course, if somebody wanted to turn off the filters, they could. But the filters should kick in automatically for an account that becomes a target, until and unless the user decides to opt out.
I’m putting this out under my real name. I know that it could make me a bigger target and of course I’m afraid of that, I’d be a fool not to be. But I also know that I’m lucky enough to be in a relatively secure position, and frankly any energy they spend attacking me is energy they’re not spending attacking somebody who’d have a harder time dealing with it.
And the good thing about putting it out under my real name is that I can also say to Twitter: I know what I’m talking about in terms of the statistics and programming sides of things, and I’d be happy to help if you’re interested. It’s not what I’d planned to do for my PhD thesis, but I could do a lot worse. So here I am.
Meanwhile, to Ella: stay strong. These fools are on the wrong side of history, and that’s what has them scared and lashing out. Keep being a hero.