Tech companies must do more to stop online harassment and online radicalization

Women have warned about the dangers of online radicalization for years

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Buzzfeed News’ Joseph Bernstein wrote a chilling profile of Lane Davis, a far-right conspiracy theorist known for his online videos and writing, who fatally stabbed his own father last year. Davis was a fixture in the world of radicalized online communities; he wrote and researched for Nazi-sympathizer and troll Milo Yiannopoulos and was a prolific writer for Ralph Retort, an online conspiracy theory and misinformation website. He was also a source for Bernstein on more than one occasion.

Bernstein’s profile lays out Davis’ online activities pretty thoroughly. While Davis’ content garnered him internet fame and influence within the world of the alt-right, he never managed to make much money from all of his labor. He lived full time with his parents, unwilling or unable to support himself. According to Bernstein, Yiannopoulos really wanted Lane to join Breitbart and recommended him to the co-editor of Breitbart Tech. But Lane’s use of an explicit racial slur on a livestream was too extreme for even Breitbart, a publication with a record of coordinating content with white nationalists.

Davis had a long history of internet conspiracy theory mongering. It was the misogynistic crusade known as Gamergate, a campaign of online harassment that led to death and rape threats against women gamers and female journalists covering the gaming industry, that put him on the map and opened up a whole new world for him and his content. Lane put “hundreds of hours” into conspiracy theory videos as he built his online profile. From the article:

Like so many others, [Lane] had joined the late-Obama-era culture wars through Gamergate, the often radical online campaign that claimed to be concerned with ethics in gaming journalism. And he was there from the start, actively participating in a chatroom called Burgers and Fries, members of which more or less astroturfed the start of the movement through well-placed hashtags and well-timed confrontations. Here, Lane would have learned how a small group of dedicated people could compel an enormous, participatory audience by wielding an ever-expanding conspiracy theory about liberal influence.

A lot has been written about how Gamergate was a precursor to the “alt-right” and other extremist anti-feminist movements currently dominating online communities. As reported by The Guardian, Gamergate was the launchpad for many current far-right celebrities, most notably Yiannopoulos and opportunistic troll Mike Cernovich. As Sarah Jeong wrote in The Washington Post:

Many of the microcelebrities of the “alt-right” on the Internet built their brands during Gamergate. Mike Cernovich went from being relatively unknown to a voice for the alt-right. ... Milo Yiannopoulos, despite having never played a video game in his life, glommed onto the Gamergate phenomenon and rode it out to his benefit, using his platform at Breitbart to write long rambling “exposés” of various Gamergate targets, regardless of whether they were public figures.

More broadly, the weaponized online harassment that unleashed during Gamergate has been adopted by far-right movements across the globe. “Pizzagate” -- a conspiracy theory born online during the 2016 presidential that claimed powerful celebrities and Democratic politicians had links to a child trafficking ring being operated out of a Washington, D.C. pizza parlor -- continues to attract believers long after gunman Edgar Welch was jailed for opening fire and terrorizing staff and patrons at the restaurant where he had gone to “self-investigate.”

Women and people of color have been complaining to tech companies about online harassment for years, and for the most part their complaints have been ignored. Reading about Lane Davis, I couldn’t stop thinking about the platforms, especially YouTube and Reddit, that enabled his radicalization and extremism for years. Davis’ videos, which as of this writing are still live, spread lies and conspiracy theories that caused real harm to people.

Conspiracy theories, Lane’s favorite topic to pontificate about online, dehumanize the people who they target. Real people’s biographies get rewritten online. In the blink of an eye the owner of a local pizza place is recast as the leader of a child sex trafficking ring, a teenage shooting survivor becomes an FBI plant, an activist murdered by neo-Nazis is claimed to have actually died of a heart attack. The creators of these theories, the amplifiers, the sharers, and the believers don’t care about the harm they’re causing. The people involved are no longer human to them, just characters in a story. These victims are subjected to online harassment, doxxing, swatting, and in some instances, like in the case of Welch, violence.

The executives at tech companies either still don’t understand the consequences of hosting content linked to extremism on their platforms or they’re deliberately choosing to ignore reality. Just two days ago, Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher, spoke about Holocaust deniers who spread their views on Facebook and said that while he personally found those views “deeply offensive,” he didn’t believe Facebook should remove them. Zuckerberg’s comments suggested that Holocaust denial was a simple misunderstanding: “I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.” After public outcry, Zuckerberg was forced to clarify his remarks, explaining he wasn’t defending Holocaust deniers, and that yes, people who believe the Holocaust didn’t happen likely don’t have good intentions. But his statement failed to address Facebook’s policy of inaction regarding that brand of hateful content.

The tragedy brought on by Lane Davis’ radicalism is just one of the many reasons tech companies have to face this issue head-on. From Gamergate to “Pizzagate,” Davis exploited social media’s lax policies regarding extremist conspiracy theories to build his platform and perhaps aid in the radicalization of others with no consequences. Davis isn’t the first online extremist to get violent offline and he won’t be the last. He joins a growing list of young men who were radicalized online and whose “activism” became terrorism offline. That list includes the white supremacist who committed the mass shooting in Charleston, SC, the racist and misogynistic vlogger who killed six people and injured 14 more in the college town of Isla Vista, CA, and the alleged incel terrorist who killed 10 in Toronto. Tech companies have a moral obligation to protect their users from extremists and to do everything in their power to stop the spread of radicalization that creates them in the first place. They can no longer feign ignorance about the potential of online radical content leading to violence. It’s time to finally listen to their users who’ve been harmed by weaponized online harassment and stop giving men like Lane Davis a platform to spread hate and disinformation.