What does a white supremacist group need in order to exist? Willing members and charismatic promoters, to state the obvious. But it also, like any other organization these days, needs a website and a way to raise money online.
It’s easy for anyone, from a mayoral candidate to a college-age artist advertising her portfolio, to book some online real estate and set up a simple system for receiving payment. One would think that it would be more difficult for a white supremacist group to find a big company that’s willing to do the same for them.
But that hasn’t necessarily been true. Last week’s lethal Unite the Right rally, which saw neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups band together to march in Charlottesville, Virginia, has drawn attention to the numerous companies—from payment processors to music-streaming services—that, one way or another, have aided white supremacist groups’ efforts. While the groups that gathered at the Charlottesville rally have been characterized as a small, fringe group of extremists, many of the website hosts, payment systems, and social-media platforms that they’ve used to help promote their message and spread their ideology aren’t.
In response to public outrage around the Charlottesville rally, several companies have been forced to decide between maintaining the neutral, customer-agnostic position they have taken for so long and appeasing their customers (and employees), who have made clear their distaste for services that have anything to do with white supremacy groups. Weighing this, many companies have severed ties with and denounced white supremacist groups in recent days, citing a need to uphold the values and policies of their brands. But despite these stated ideals, it seems like some companies have been slow to act.
This week, Cloudflare, an internet-security firm, decided to boot The Daily Stormer, a self-proclaimed neo-Nazi website, from its services. (GoDaddy, which hosts websites, did the same.) Matthew Price, the CEO of Cloudflare, has been transparent about how he has thought about acting on the information that his company did business with a neo-Nazi website. In an an interview, Price called his decision take The Daily Stormer off its network a potentially “dangerous precedent”—he said he has tried to remain apolitical regarding what types of organizations are allowed to use Cloudflare’s services. He said, however, that the website gave him plenty of reasons to make the decision. Price said that Cloudflare had been keeping a close eye on the site after a ProPublica article alerted his company to the fact that The Daily Stormer had been using information from Cloudflare to find, target, and threaten those who reported it for abuse. That, along with the fact that The Daily Stormer had been attempting to characterize Price as sympathetic to its cause, led him to remove them from the network.
That’s a choice that some payment processors, which many white supremacist groups rely on to accept donations and fund marches like the one in Charlottesville, are also making. But progress in disabling these groups from raising money via mainstream companies’ services hasn’t always been swift. During 2014 and 2015, fewer than 20 organizations identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) raised more than $20 million, according to a recent report from Color of Change, an activist organization focused on racial justice. According to Color of Change, major brands including MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and American Express, among others, have been listed as accepted payment methods on the sites of white supremacist groups. That means that not only have these companies likely enabled people to donate to these organizations, but many of the companies have probably profited from them as well, as they collect transaction fees for every payment or donation made using their service. (None of the representatives for these companies—save for American Express, which didn't respond to a request for comment—denied the possibility that their platforms, at one time or another, may have been utilized by white supremacist groups.)
It’s often hard to tell how directly involved a brand actually is with white supremacist groups. Precisely how money has been raised via large vendors like the ones named in the report isn’t able to be determined based on publicly available data, a fact noted by Color of Change. And there’s also the question of whether all groups that list an affiliation with a big brand actually have one: A few attempts to test out the donation options on sites that the SPLC designates as hate groups produced mixed results. Though many sites list several well-known payment options, it wasn’t uncommon to hit a wall when trying to input details for a credit card or a PayPal account—which suggests that though a white-supremacist group may hint at a relationship with a payments company, the company might have already stopped doing business with them.
Still, even when one card or account didn’t work, there were often many other well-known options that did. Representatives from PayPal, Visa, and MasterCard all said in interviews that they are eager to have any ties to potentially dangerous groups brought to their attention, so that those groups can be reviewed for potential terms-of-use violations, which include inciting violence.
What’s tricky—as Cloudflare’s CEO noted—is that the choice to cut ties with an organization requires categorizing that organization, and in a nation whose guiding document enshrines free speech, one person’s hate group could be another’s political organization. But as I’ve written before, many see the marginalization of white supremacists from the mainstream—whether through the denial of jobs or web-hosting services—as a justified consequence of actions and speech that society has deemed too grotesque to be tolerated. Which leaves firms that could serve as major choke points to white supremacist groups’ marketing and funding with a difficult choice to make about how proactive a private company should be in limiting the dissemination of noxious ideology.