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Democrats Running For President Say Social Media Companies Have A White Nationalist Problem. Some Think Regulation Should Be The Answer.

A swath of 2020 presidential candidates told BuzzFeed News that social media companies like Facebook have some responsibility for the rise of white nationalism.

Posted on May 21, 2019, at 6:04 p.m. ET

Nicolas Asfouri / AFP / Getty Images

Many of the Democrats running for president blame the major social media platforms for aiding the rise of white nationalism in the US, their campaigns told BuzzFeed News, and some candidates are in favor of regulating the companies to curb extremist violence.

The policy debate in the Democratic 2020 primary has so far lacked a conversation on what exactly candidates would do to address the rising threat of white nationalism. BuzzFeed News reached out to the campaigns of each of the 23 candidates running for the Democratic nomination to ask about their views on growing white nationalist sentiment in the country; if they believe the Department of Justice and social media companies have done enough to combat it; and if the candidates would support regulating the social platforms to curb its spread.

“It’s clear that none of our institutions are doing enough to combat the spread of white nationalism,” a spokesperson for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign told BuzzFeed News, a sentiment common among the 14 other campaigns that responded.

“Bernie believes we should not depend on a handful of large corporations to stop the spread of hate in America. We must regulate these platforms to ensure the safety and security of the American people,” his campaign spokesperson added.

Joe Biden’s campaign, which launched with a nearly four-minute video primarily focused on deriding the rise of white nationalist violence after the deadly rally in Charlottesville, did not respond for comment.

A 2018 briefing from Center for Strategic and International Studies reported that since 2007, the number of domestic terrorist attacks associated with right-wing extremists in the United States rose from five or fewer per year to 31 instances in 2017. A 2016 study from George Washington University’s Program on Extremism showed that white nationalist groups outperformed ISIS in growing their following and volume of tweets.

Many of the 2020 candidates lobbed criticism at social media platforms for the rise of hate speech and the recruitment of white nationalists, and said they don’t trust that those companies are putting in enough effort to prevent it.

"White supremacists pose a threat to the United States like any other terrorist group,” Warren, who has already called for breaking up the big tech companies, told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “The growing influence of these groups demonstrates how powerful Big Tech has become and how harmful it can be in the wrong hands. The time has come to break up giants like Facebook — more competition will help drive some accountability into their profit models.”

Sen. Kamala Harris recently promised a crowd at an NAACP event in Detroit that she’d hold social media companies accountable for the “hate” spreading across their platforms and that the companies have a “responsibility to help lead the fight” against the “threat to our democracy.”

“If you profit off hate, if you act as a megaphone for misinformation or cyberwarfare, if you don’t police your platforms, we are going to hold you accountable as a community,” she said. Harris’s campaign did not specify what holding social media companies accountable would look like.

Other countries have regulated social media companies on hate speech appearing on their platforms — regulations regarding hate speech went into effect in Germany in 2018. The regulations enforce what kind of content appears on social media platforms to comply with Germany’s hate speech regulations and require sites to remove hate speech within 24 hours of a complaint or face fines of up to 50 million euros.

Terrorist attacks associated with white nationalism have captured the attention of the US since the 2012 shooting at a Sikh temple and the 2015 attack on a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and they have inspired more attacks as white nationalists have gamed social media platforms to their advantage. White nationalists have spread their message across platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube and have idolized those who have attacked counterprotesters at white nationalist marches and opened fire at synagogues and mosques across the country.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg's campaign, in response to questions about what he would do to address white nationalism, pointed to a talk he gave in March where he told a crowd that he’s in favor of applying the same strategies used to combat “foreign radicalism” to address domestic white nationalism. “I never thought I’d be thinking about this in a domestic context,” Buttigieg told the crowd in Iowa.

Sen. Cory Booker told BuzzFeed News that part of the problem with dealing with these issues is getting the social media platforms to even acknowledge that they have a problem on their hands. He said that he’s asked Facebook to conduct an audit on “how its platforms foster surveillance, harassment, and discrimination against African Americans, Muslims, women, and other communities.” The company, he said, had agreed to the audit during a Senate hearing last year, but “the intervening months have raised serious questions about their commitment to following through.”

A spokesperson for Booker did not clarify if he’d specifically support regulating social media companies to curb white nationalism.

“We’ve largely let these companies be completely unregulated. They’ve been unregulated with respect to our privacy, they’ve been unregulated with respect to the filters they create. They’ve largely been able to get away with any kind of acquisition they want and create avoidably integrated monopolies,” former representative John Delaney told BuzzFeed News. “So there’s a huge number of issues there that affect the society in lots of ways, and that’s clearly one of the ways how hate is being spread online.”

“The companies should shut down hate speech that incites violence. I support regulation of the platforms so they are not used to perpetrate violence on blacks, Jews, the media, or others,” Marianne Williamson told BuzzFeed News.

Other candidates applauded Facebook for recently taking action by banning white nationalist and white supremacist content from being posted on its platform after the company was criticized for its role in the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting, in which a white nationalist livestreamed 17 minutes of his attack that killed 49 people in a mosque. But they say that action isn’t enough and more oversight is needed.

“Social media companies must take the lead in developing the rules and processes necessary to combat white nationalism online,” Rep. Seth Moulton said. ”Most have chosen to move in this direction already, and the federal government should aid them in their effort by cooperating and coordinating with them as much as possible.”

A spokesperson for Moulton’s campaign added that he would be in favor of regulating social media companies in unprotected speech categories and that the federal government would need to work alongside social media companies to develop tools for other areas.

“[There’s] little question that it is within the capability of Facebook, Twitter, and other prominent social media platforms to at least mitigate white nationalist sentiment and identify efforts by white nationalists to radical and organize others,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told BuzzFeed News. “I applaud Facebook for its recent decision to ban praise and support for white nationalist ideals, but this is a beginning to a solution and not an end.”

“This is one crucial element of holding these companies accountable to their responsibility to their customers and the general public on data privacy and myriad other issues,” Inslee added.

“Under pressure from civil rights groups, Facebook and Instagram recently decided to ban white nationalist content from their platforms,” former housing secretary Julián Castro told BuzzFeed News. “This is a start, but they're playing catchup and need to do better at extinguishing hate speech quickly.

A spokesperson for Andrew Yang’s campaign told BuzzFeed News that he appreciates Facebook’s move after the Christchurch shooting but that the social platforms are not in the best position to figure out what changes are needed to curb white nationalist violence.

“Their job is to optimize their platforms, not deal with issues that hit on the intersection between freely expressing ideas, white supremacy, and domestic terrorism. The leaders of these organizations have themselves asked for the federal government to help them deal with these issues,” Yang’s spokesperson said. “This is a difficult area. There are First Amendment considerations, and anyone looking for a quick fix is going to be disappointed.”

“Like it or not, it should be up to us, not the social media companies,” the spokesperson added, telling BuzzFeed News that combating white nationalism and hate online is a generational problem that should be solved by “convening experts at panels” and through “open and public” discussions.

None of the campaigns specifically mentioned platforms like YouTube, Gab, 4chan, or 8chan, which have played significant roles in spreading violent white nationalist propaganda.

Candidates whose campaigns did not responded to any of BuzzFeed News’ questions regarding the candidate’s views and plans on white nationalism were: Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Michael Bennet, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Rep. Tim Ryan, Gov. Steve Bullock, and Mayor Wayne Messam.

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