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Unlikely Allies Join Fight To Protect Free Speech On The Internet

White nationalist Richard Spencer's free speech fight against Google, Facebook and other tech companies has some unlikely support from the left.
Tasos Katopodis
Getty Images
White nationalist Richard Spencer's free speech fight against Google, Facebook and other tech companies has some unlikely support from the left.

Following the violence in Charlottesville, Va., Silicon Valley tech firms removed far-right groups from search results, cut off their websites and choked their ability to raise money online.

The moves have leaders on the far-right calling for the government to step in and regulate these companies. They have some strange bedfellows in this — many liberals also are calling for more regulation of the same companies.

On the far-right is Richard Spencer. He is a white supremacist.

"I would ultimately support a homeland for white people," Spencer says. "I think that ethnically or racially defined political orders are legitimate."

After Donald Trump was elected president, Spencer got some press about a speech during which he shouted: "Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail Victory!" and members of the audience gave him a Nazi salute.

But, it is the First Amendment that now inspires Spencer, who was a speaker at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

In the wake of the violence that occurred there, the Daily Stormer — an online neo-Nazi publication — was blocked by a series of major tech companies. Its domain name was taken away by GoDaddy. Google stopped linking to it. Facebook took down links to any article it published. And it can't use PayPal anymore.

"Getting kicked off Facebook or YouTube or PayPal or whatever, this is effectively losing the ability to speak," Spencer says. "It is actually a more powerful form of censorship" than it would be if a government were to censor.

Companies like Google and Facebook are not covered by the First Amendment, which applies only to the federal government. But Spencer feels these companies are so large that the government needs to step in — just as it did with broadcasting. Spencer says that otherwise, there won't be freedom of speech.

"These are the free speech platforms in the 21st century," he says. "So if we're going to regulate all of these 20th century ways of expressing ourselves, then why are we so loath to regulate the 21st century ones, which are much more relevant and much more vital?"

Spencer has some unlikely allies on this.

Robert McChesney, a communications professor at the University of Illinois, describes himself as a Democratic socialist and has written books about the threat of fascism.

"I think Richard Spencer and I wouldn't agree on hardly anything," he says. "But on the issues of whether these companies should be able to control what I can and can't hear, I think in principle we have to be together on that. All Americans should, across the political spectrum."

Right now, Google has more than 80 percent of the online search market, according to Net Market Share. Google and Facebook combined have 77 percent of the online ad market, and 79 percent of Americans on the Internet have a Facebook account, according toPew Research.

"The research shows that if Facebook or Google changes the algorithm just slightly and puts a different type of story in there, it affects the way people think about the world," McChesney says. "Their internal research demonstrates this."

Because these are private companies, they don't have to reveal their algorithms or what changes they make to them.

Currently, many Americans may agree with the choice to censor the Richard Spencers of the world, but McChesney says it might not always affect groups people don't like.

"What's to stop them from turning around and saying, 'Well, we don't like these people who are advocating gay rights. We don't like these people who are advocating workers' rights'?" he says.

That is the question leading both white nationalist Spencer and left-leaning professor McChesney to call for the government to step in.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.