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Mary McNamara: Kicking racists off social media doesn't threaten free speech. It protects it

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

For years, people have claimed that the taming of the internet was nigh. Whether cause for lamentation or celebration, the Wild West of content that stretched, unhampered by natural boundaries of river, mountain or sea, would be increasingly carved up and tied down by capitalism, privacy concerns, and technological reality.

Soon the gold rush of freedom, of instant fame and fortune, would be over -- co-opted by corporations, governmental regulation and way too many cosmetic lines.

But not until recently did we consider the basic metaphorical issue. In the last few months, indeed the last few days, the internet has been forced to acknowledge what that "Wild West" label really means: a mythology of individualism, iconoclasm and opportunity that almost always veils -- and often encourages -- racism, bigotry, chicanery and abuse.

For many who lived through it, there was nothing romantic about the "taming" of the American West, with its obliteration and "relocation" of Native Americans, its spread of white Christian authority, its reliance on immigrants, including Black Southerners, fleeing oppression only to be met with similar bigotry. The Civil War was fought, in part, to keep Western states from becoming slave states; even so the beauty and possibilities of the "new" land were regularly blighted by the same systems that marred the old.

And so it has been with the internet, as a flurry of corrective actions have shown.

In the last week alone:

 

The Google-owned platform YouTube finally banned six white supremacist channels, including those belonging to former KKK leader David Duke and Richard Spencer, and demonetized longtime platform star Shane Dawson after he acknowledged that he had often used blackface, racist humor and inappropriate commentary. Reddit, which is owned by Conde Nast's parent company, Advance Publications, banned thousands of communities that violated the company's hate speech policies, including "The Donald," a subreddit devoted to boosting support for President Trump through a panoply of racism, sexism, manipulated news and conspiracy theories. More than 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Hershey, Adidas, Clorox and Ford, pulled their advertising from Facebook and Instagram as part of the Stop Hate for Profit initiative, demanding that the platforms tighten restrictions on misinformation and bigotry.Individually, each action could be construed as an inevitable, and even in some cases conservative, response to the Black Lives Matter movement which, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, sent millions protesting across every state of the union and around the world.

Indeed, the most shocking part of the announcement that professional racists like Duke and Spencer were being kicked off YouTube was the revelation that they were still on YouTube -- the platform had vowed to ban white supremacists and practitioners of hate speech last June.

But taken as a pattern, it seems the barons of the internet are finally acknowledging that they do not exist in an alternate universe, outside standard rules and regulations.

In many ways, Dawson's censure may turn out to be the biggest news, with a much broader impact on the YouTube and influencer communities and their young audiences. As Dawson said in his apology, his racism was even more toxic because it was not couched in white supremacy but in humor and drama aimed at young people looking for an alternative to legacy media.

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