Far-right conservatives are escalating their campaign against Silicon Valley with a new series of volleys against the social media gatekeepers that control the flow of information in the digital age.
Last week, former Google engineer James Damore, who was embraced by conservatives after he was fired last year for distributing a memo that questioned whether women were biologically suited to technical roles, filed a lawsuit claiming the Internet giant discriminates against white men and conservatives. That same day, right-wing journalist-turned-entrepreneur Charles C. “Chuck” Johnson sued Twitter, alleging the company violated his right to free speech when it permanently suspended his account in 2015.
Then Project Veritas, a conservative advocacy organization that purports to expose media bias, released undercover videos of current and former Twitter employees condemning President Trump and discussing tactics the company uses to make it tougher to find the tweets of controversial users.
Johnson, whose lawsuit against Twitter is being underwritten by bitcoin investments and a crowdfunding campaign, says he and others are committed to putting the spotlight on the alleged censoring of conservative views by Silicon Valley companies. Twitter declined to comment on the lawsuit.
“I see myself as fighting for the civil rights of people on the Internet,” said Johnson, a polarizing figure who was banned from Twitter in 2015 after he asked for donations to “take out” civil rights activist DeRay McKesson and whose crowdfunding service WeSearchr has raised money for neo-Nazis. Johnson said the McKesson tweet was not intended as a threat.
“My basic view is that people have a right to use these platforms and they have right to use them in ways that are perfectly legal, if controversial, and the platforms need to respect those rights,” he said.
Johnson’s lawsuit is considered a legal long shot. And so far he has raised less than $7,000 of his $100,000 goal on FreeStartr, another crowdfunding service he runs.
But Johnson may already be accomplishing his main goal: Raising questions about the level of power that Silicon Valley companies now have in deciding what gets said in the most populated parts of the Internet.
After a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville underscored the crucial role mainstream online platforms play as organizational tools for hate groups, tech companies began cracking down on users who peddle hate speech and fuel online vitriol — a significant blow to the “alt-right,” which depends on these platforms to spread their message, recruit and rally supporters and organize events.
PayPal, which prohibits donations to promote hate, violence and intolerance, singled out organizations that advocate racist views, such as the KKK, white supremacist groups or Nazi groups. GoDaddy booted neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer from its web hosting service.
White nationalists and supremacists began to lose their verified status as Twitter changed who’s entitled to the blue checkmark in November. A month later, Twitter began to purge a number of accounts including the American Nazi Party. After Charlottesville, Facebook took down pages belonging to white supremacist groups including White Nationalists United, Right Wing Death Squad and Vanguard America.
An effort by the alt-right to create an alternative ecosystem of Internet companies has met with limited success, says George Hawley, a University of Alabama professor and author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right.
“Tech companies that deny the alt-right access to their services can cause the movement serious harm,” Hawley said.