The Alt-Right Finds a New Enemy in Silicon Valley

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The tensions escalated this spring, when PayPal restricted the accounts of several prominent far-right figures, including Hunter Wallace, a white nationalist blogger, and Kyle Chapman, an alt-right personality known as Based Stickman. In a statement, PayPal said that its policy was “not to allow our services to be used for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance.”

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Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative writer, last year in Orlando, Fla. He has offered support for the fired Google engineer James Damore.

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A similar fight occurred in July when Patreon and GoFundMe, two crowdfunding sites, banned several accounts associated with the alt-right. One of them was used by Lauren Southern, a Canadian activist and journalist who made a name for herself with inflammatory stunts like disrupting a refugee rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. Patreon banned Ms. Southern’s account after deciding that her activities were “likely to cause loss of life,” but emphasized that it was the nature of Ms. Southern’s work, not the political views behind it, that had violated its terms.

“The decision to remove a creator page has nothing to do with politics and ideology,” Jack Conte, Patreon’s chief executive, said in a YouTube video about the incident.

Some company decisions are more explicitly political. At Airbnb last week, the company discovered that several writers and activists affiliated with The Daily Stormer, a white supremacy website, had used its website to book lodging for a right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Va., and were planning to use rented houses as after-party venues. Airbnb officials canceled the bookings and deleted the users’ accounts, saying that the gatherings violated the company’s “community commitment.”

YouTube, which hosts a thriving community of right-wing personalities — and, not coincidentally, is owned by Google — has come under particularly aggressive criticism from conservative activists, who have accused the site of placing them in a “ghetto” by suppressing their videos.

This month, YouTube announced a new slate of content policies that subjected “controversial religious or supremacist content” to additional restrictions, including hiding those videos from user recommendations. The policies did not explicitly mention any political ideology, but conspiracists at sites like Infowars and Breitbart cried foul, claiming that YouTube’s true intent was to stop the spread of right-wing views. One far-right journalist, Mike Cernovich, announced on Twitter that he was planning a protest outside Google’s offices.

“We’re just doing what the left has done for a while,” Mr. Cernovich told me. “You use activist tactics to apply pressure to corporations, and the corporations respond.”

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Cody Wilson in Austin, Tex., in 2014. Mr. Wilson recently opened Hatreon, which calls itself a free-speech alternative to the crowdfunding site Patreon.

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Ilana Panich-Linsman for The New York Times

It’s a tech company’s right, of course, to bar whomever it wishes. The First Amendment, often cited by right-wing activists as a bulwark against censorship, does not apply to the activities of companies, and tech companies almost always have terms in the fine print that give them the right to cut off access to users for any reason.

But the latest wave of right-wing activism has still forced the hands of large Silicon Valley companies, many of which have tried to avoid the appearance of partisanship even as they promote progressive values.

The alt-right isn’t necessarily wrong when it claims, as its followers often do, that Silicon Valley is steeped in social liberalism. These are companies that emerged out of Bay Area counterculture, that sponsor annual floats in gay pride parades and hang “Black Lives Matter” signs on the walls of their offices. Silicon Valley’s policy preferences aren’t always liberal, but tech executives routinely side with progressives on hot-button social issues like immigration, the Paris climate accords, and President Trump’s recent decision to bar transgender people from military service. In today’s political climate, these are partisan positions, and it’s no big shock that they have drawn suspicion from the other side.

There is a certain poetic justice in the alt-right, largely an internet-based political movement, turning against the companies that enabled it in the first place. Like most modern political movements, the alt-right relies on tech platforms like YouTube and Twitter to rally supporters, collect donations and organize gatherings. In that sense, Silicon Valley progressivism isn’t just an ideological offense to the alt-right — it’s an operational threat.

In an attempt to build a buffer against censorship, some alt-right activists have begun creating their own services. Cody Wilson, who describes himself as a “techno-anarchist,” recently opened Hatreon, a crowdfunding site that bills itself as a free-speech alternative to Patreon. Gab, a Twitter clone, was started last year after Twitter barred several conservative users. RootBocks, a right-wing Kickstarter knockoff, bills itself as “a crowdfunding site that won’t shut you down because of your beliefs.”

These companies are still tiny by Silicon Valley standards, but their supporters say that one day they could serve as the foundation for a kind of parallel right-wing internet where all speech is allowed, no matter how noxious or incendiary.

It’s unlikely that any alt-right protest will make a dent in the bottom lines of multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley behemoths. But by forcing these companies to take sides in an emerging culture war, these activists have already achieved a kind of perverse goal. They have found a new punching bag, and they have proved that in the hyper-polarized Trump era, there is no such thing as neutrality.

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