This article is a collaboration between The Atlantic and ProPublica.
“Give me, a white man, a reason to live,” a user posted to the anonymous message board 4chan in the summer of 2017. “Should I get a hobby. What interests can I pursue to save myself from total despair. How do you go on living.”
A fellow user had a suggestion: “Please write a concise book of only factual indisputable information exposing the Jews,” focusing on “their selling of our high tech secrets to China/Russia” and “their long track record of pedophilia and perversion etc.”
The man seeking advice was intrigued. “And who would publish it and who would put it in their bookstores that would make it worth the trouble,” he asked.
The answer came a few minutes later. “Self-publish to Amazon,” his interlocutor replied.
“Kindle will publish anything,” a third user chimed in.
They were basically right. It takes just a couple of minutes to upload one’s work to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon’s self-publishing arm; the ebook then shows up in the world’s largest bookstore within half a day, typically with minimal oversight. Since its founding more than a decade ago, KDP has democratized the publishing industry and earned praise for giving authors shut out of traditional channels the chance to reach an audience that would have been previously unimaginable.
It has also afforded the same opportunity to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, an investigation by ProPublica and The Atlantic has found. Releases include Anschluss: The Politics of Vesica Piscis, a polemic that praises the “grossly underappreciated” massacre of 77 people by the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik in 2011, and The White Rabbit Handbook, a manifesto linked to an Illinois-based militia group facing federal hate-crime charges for firebombing a mosque. (Amazon removed the latter last week following questions from ProPublica). About 200 of the 1,500 books recommended by the Colchester Collection, an online reading room run by and for white nationalists, were self-published through Amazon. And new KDP acolytes are born every day: Members of fringe groups on 4chan, Discord, and Telegram regularly tout the platform’s convenience, according to our analysis of thousands of conversations on those message boards. There are “literally zero hoops,” one user in 4chan’s /pol/ forum told another in 2015. “Just sign up for Kindle Direct Publishing and publish away. It’s shocking how simple it is, actually.” Even Breivik, at the start of the 1,500-page manifesto that accompanied his terrorist attack, suggested that his followers use KDP’s paperback service, among others, to publicize his message.
That these books are widely available on Amazon does not seem to be an accident, but the inevitable consequence of the company’s business strategy. Interviews with more than two dozen former Amazon employees suggest that the company’s drive for market share and philosophical aversion to gatekeepers have incubated an anything-goes approach to content: Virtually no idea is too inflammatory, and no author is off-limits. As major social networks and other publishing platforms have worked to slowly ban extremists, Amazon has emerged as their safe space, a haven from which they can spread their message into mainstream American culture with little more than a few clicks.
“There is a lot of extremist content on Amazon,” says J. M. Berger, who studies such works as a fellow with the European Union–funded VOX-Pol research network. “The platform has gone largely overlooked because, understandably, we think of books differently than other content. But these products are for sale and they’re being algorithmically pushed.” We tested the recommendations for many far-right texts and discovered several that could lead users down a hate-filled rabbit hole, where the suggested books reinforce a white-nationalist worldview. For ebooks that retail from $2.99 and $9.99, authors keep 70 percent of the profits and Amazon takes the rest. (Amazon doesn’t break out revenue for book sales or its self-publishing arm).
“As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “That includes books that some may find objectionable, though we have policies governing which books can be listed for sale. We invest significant time and resources to ensure our guidelines are followed, and remove products that do not adhere to our guidelines. We also promptly investigate any book when a concern is raised.”
The growing influence of social networks on political life has prompted a national debate about what should stay up on these platforms, what should come down, who’s to blame, and who decides. Following the deadly far-right violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and PayPal cracked down on the activities of white supremacists and hate groups on their platforms. In recent years, Amazon has barred several high-profile white-supremacist authors, including the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, from its bookstore. It does occasionally pull extremist books from KDP, sometimes months or years after publication, and often in secret, without providing any explanation to authors or readers. But these removals appear to be the exception. KDP’s terse policies do not address hate speech, racism, or incitements to violence, though Amazon reserves the right to remove any items from its store, including “content that disappoints our customers” or fails to “provide an enjoyable reading experience.” By and large, Amazon, which in the United States controls about half of the market for all books and close to 90 percent for ebooks, has become a gateway for white supremacists to reach the American reading public.
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Billy Roper “the uncensored voice of violent neo-Nazism”; Roper calls himself “the most widely read living fiction author in the white-nationalist movement.” For several decades, he has led some of the white-nationalist movement’s most hard-core factions, and today he runs the Shield Wall Network, a group attempting to build a whites-only ethno-state in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, where he lives. (The group made headlines last year for organizing a protest of a Holocaust-remembrance event, at which they shouted the slogan “6 million more.”)
Roper is also a prolific author. Since 2014, he has uploaded 17 books of fiction and nonfiction to Amazon’s self-publishing platform. His best-known work is the Hasten the Day trilogy, which takes place in the years after the United States has balkanized into multiple warring ethno-states—an outcome Roper considers inevitable. “I was trying to find a fictional way of expressing my political ideas,” Roper told us, “because a lot of people find fiction more palatable than nonfiction when it comes to accepting an idea that they’re not otherwise comfortable with.” For those who fail to grasp the trilogy’s political message, racist quotations from Thomas Jefferson and David Duke are interspersed throughout the text. In The Balk, an essay collection self-published in 2015, Roper asks readers to imagine themselves in the world he depicts in his fiction. “If your cousin showed up with his Mexican girlfriend and their half-Mexican kids in the middle of a race war and wanted refuge, that could put you automatically on a whole different side,” he writes, advising that “the best way to accomplish discrimination is through prejudice, beforehand. Be prejudiced, and discriminate.”
In a phone interview in February, Roper said he has had his accounts suspended on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and VK, a Russian alternative to Facebook—but not Amazon. Having his books on the platform, he said, grants him legitimacy and attracts new audiences. “My existence there has been beneficial in reaching people with my message and growing my organization,” he said. “People can go to Amazon—which is mainstream and acceptable; there’s nothing radical about that—order a book, and in the privacy of their own home they can read the book without ever having to visit a white-nationalist website.”
Roper is also active on Goodreads, the Amazon-owned social network for readers, where he frequently posts about giveaways, pitches his novels to book clubs, and tries to spark discussion of “pro-white” books—a popular recruiting tactic, according to Berger, the VOX-Pol researcher. Among the topics discussed in Roper’s “European American Reading Group” is whether it’s useful to read books by “jews and the opposition.”
Before the internet, Roper’s reach would have likely been limited by bookstores’ shelf space and curatorial judgement. But in today’s world of digital abundance, far-right authors have enjoyed a newfound visibility. Gary Lauck, the leader of NSDAP/AO, an American neo-Nazi party, used to rely on snail mail to smuggle neo-Nazi propaganda into Germany and other European countries where it’s been banned. Today, several works published by his organization’s press are available to anyone in the U.S. and Europe on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited, a program that offers books to readers for a subscription fee. KDP has also revived an older white-nationalist canon. Many works by historical Nazis and anti-Semites, no longer held by copyright and long out of print, have been reprinted through KDP. Members of far right chat rooms often link to them.
Though books now compete with viral videos, memes, and podcasts in the rapidly expanding universe of white-nationalist cultural production, they still play an important role. Roper himself was inspired by The Turner Diaries, which depicts in gruesome detail the genocide of nonwhite people across the world. It was published in 1978 under a pseudonym by William Pierce, the founder of the National Alliance, then regarded as the most dangerous neo-Nazi group in the U.S. As of early April, it still ranked among the top 65,000 books sold on Amazon.
Jeff Bezos founded Amazon with the dream of selling people whatever they wanted, when they wanted it. This wasn’t yet possible in 1994. So he started out with books, according to Brad Stone’s 2013 history of Amazon, The Everything Store. Bezos is an avid reader, especially of science fiction, but his decision was driven less by literary passion than by business acumen. Books were easy to ship yet endlessly variable. “If [Bezos] couldn’t build a true everything store right away,” Stone wrote, “he could capture its essence—unlimited selection—in at least one important product category.”
From the start, Bezos was determined that nothing should interfere with the company’s relentless quest for scale. He instilled in employees an almost dogmatic rejection of gatekeepers—those intrusive editors and critics who stand between authors and readers, deciding what the public should or shouldn’t consume. “We want to make every book available—the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Bezos explained in a 1998 speech. “And when you’re doing that, you actually have an obligation—if you’re going to make the shopping environment actually conducive to shopping—to sort of let truth loose.”
Even in those early days, though, he encountered pushback. In the late ’90s, a former Amazon employee told us, a rabbi wrote in to complain about the company selling The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early-20th-century anti-Semitic text alleging a Jewish plan for world domination. “Jeff said, ‘Who are we to decide? There’s a comments section and people will comment on the fact that this is beneath them,’” the employee recalled, noting that Bezos was disgusted by such content but concerned about acting as a censor. (Bezos did not respond to a request for comment.)
Ex-Amazonians who worked in the books and video divisions said that the same rationale guided the company’s decision to stock Mein Kampf and the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl. (Many former and current employees, citing nondisclosure agreements, spoke with us anonymously.) But this desire to avoid gatekeeping occasionally conflicted with another corporate goal: to keep the site family-friendly. “We were always told that Bezos never wanted a customer to open something on their computer screen that they’d be embarrassed by at work,” a former employee said. When the store’s video division launched, Bezos decided not to sell hard-core-porn titles—one of the company’s earliest efforts at moderation. If customers typed in a search term such as XXX, they would be redirected to soft-core productions from Playboy and Penthouse instead.
Amazon soon realized that it didn’t need to depend on publishers to control the supply of books; it could just as well print them itself. In 2005, the company purchased BookSurge, a pioneer of print-on-demand technology, for an undisclosed sum. Founded in 2000, BookSurge shared Amazon’s populist philosophy: Its mission was to help anyone tell a story, free from the friction and costs of intermediaries. “We published everything from children’s books to erotic novels to people with fringe political views and photo books that would include adult content as well,” says Rick Jones, who directed operations for BookSurge from its beginning and stayed on after the acquistion until 2014. “It wasn’t our job to judge whether something was right or wrong. Our whole goal was to let the market and the people decide what’s of value.” Content review was anathema to this mission. Nothing was rejected, the BookSurge co-founder Jeff Schwaner told us, except when a text file didn’t meet the formatting specifications.
After the purchase, Amazon renamed the company CreateSpace and ramped up its paperback output. It soon launched what’s now known as Kindle Direct Publishing to produce self-published ebooks for its new Kindle e-reader and burgeoning ebook store. (In 2018, Amazon merged CreateSpace into KDP, which now encompasses both the ebook and paperback self-publishing operations.) As the number of books expanded from a few thousand each year to tens of thousands to millions, so did Amazon’s legal risk. “It was just a mess of unregulated content, and no one was in charge of it,” one former Kindle employee remembers of this period. “It was a free-for-all. It was the Wild, Wild West.” To comb through the chaos, Amazon assembled teams to screen for copyright violations that might elicit lawsuits threatening its bottom line. According to former employees, the company’s priority—making as much content as possible available to its customers—meant that essentially everything legal was permitted.
That began to change in 2010, when The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure appeared in the Kindle store. An employee on the content-evaluation team, given only a few minutes to check the self-published book for blatant copyright violations, assumed that it was a bizarre joke. He did not have the time to read it, he told us in an interview. If he had, he would have noticed that it described how to approach children and included erotic stories about positive sexual experiences between children and adults. Unsurprisingly, a PR fracas ensued. Amazon removed the book in response to the outcry—then reinstated it, and then removed it again in response to further outcry. The company introduced additional guidelines for sexual content, yet the process was still largely ad hoc, according to the former content reviewer, with decisions made by “a lot of business folks and software engineers” lacking subject-matter expertise. One debate concerned dalliances between relatives in 19th-century novels.
As copyright review has become more and more automated, Amazon’s moderators have spent more time evaluating other criteria for “content appropriateness.” Still, several employees noted that the prepublication review process continues to focus more on illegal or indecent content than on hateful, derogatory, or defamatory speech. Authors uploading paperbacks are asked to self-report whether their content is “mature.” If the answer is yes, teams stationed in time zones across the globe quickly check the cover, title, and keywords for obscenities, sometimes evaluating up to 100 books an hour. “It’s a pretty destructive job,” said a former Amazonian who worked on Kindle’s policy team. “You’re seeing stuff you don’t want to see.”
Amazon describes KDP as a printing service, not a publisher or social network. But Amazon’s role is by no means passive. Its recommendation algorithm uses your purchasing, browsing, and reading histories to steer you to the books you are most likely to buy, as opposed to what critics have championed or what publishers think you should read. “It actually drives me crazy when I hear Amazon’s rhetoric about getting rid of the gatekeepers, because all they’ve done is replace 1,000 small gatekeepers with one big gatekeeper,” says Shel Kaphan, who helped found Amazon and later served as its chief technology officer until 1999. “They use different criteria, but it’s no more noble than other people’s criteria. In a lot of ways, I’d prefer editorial decisions over a strategy of ‘What makes me the most money today?’”
When we tested the recommendations for several of the books discussed in far-right chat rooms, we found that many of Amazon’s suggestions reinforced and amplified the given book’s political ideology. For instance, the first six recommendations for Fascism for the Million—and the subsequent associated recommendations —consist exclusively of defenses of fascism, even for users for whom Amazon has stored no browsing history. (The book, inspired by the remarks of Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, was published by a far-right press last year.) What’s more, we found that recommendations for far-right books often overlap with and refer back to one another, creating a sort of echo chamber. Curious readers can easily click through several different clusters of books espousing anti-Semitism, nativism, Nazism, and white nationalism without encountering a text from an opposing point of view. The search algorithm also groups radical texts together. If shoppers search for the white-nationalist cult classic Siege, by James Mason, the third and fourth results shown are for works by Julius Evola, the far-right Italian ideologue cited in a 2014 lecture by Steve Bannon.
Because of her research into far-right groups, Heidi Beirich, the co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, frequently encounters these polarized bubbles while browsing Amazon. “Amazon is pushing readers further down the road to a process of online radicalization, and it doesn’t need to do that,” she told us.
For certain books, Amazon showed us not only what customers also bought but what’s “frequently bought together”—although it appears to have recently disabled the feature.When we browsed a revisionist account of the Auschwitz concentration camp in February, for instance, Amazon suggested combining it with compilations from primary sources: Goebbels on the Jews and Hitler on the Jews. Even after users buy a book and log out, Amazon keeps pushing similar books by sending promotional emails. When we purchased The Balk, Roper’s book of political essays, Amazon followed up to suggest other works of his, along with a self-published pamphlet by another far-right author that describes “the conspiracy to flood Europe with aliens.”
Like other savvy authors, some white supremacists go beyond Amazon’s automated assistance to boost sales. One technique is to “category squat”—that is, classify one’s books in low-traffic or obscure categories such as “Ancient Greek History” to game their rankings. As a commentator on the 4chan /pol/ forum explained to someone interested in self-publishing on KDP, “If you pick a good niche and the book is good and you understand their search algorithm you can make a lot of money.” Jewish Privilege, by the anti-Semitic commentator E. Michael Jones, is ranked as the tenth most popular book in “LGBT Political Issues,” despite being about the alleged evils of Jewish people.
Other authors manipulate their ratings by making their self-published books temporarily free so that readers can “purchase” them and leave a positive review. “ALL of my books are available for FREE in e-book form this week in exchange for an honest review on Amazon later,” Roper posted in 2017 on the neo-Nazi message board Stormfront. As a result of this behind-the-scenes lobbying, Berger says, far-right texts often seem to have better reviews than other kinds of books, which may affect how frequently Amazon recommends them. The first installment of Roper’s trilogy has 70 reviews and a rating of four out of five stars. Roper even gave the book a five-star review on Goodreads: “I liked it so much that I’m currently working on the sequel!”
Amazon appears to take action against far-right texts primarily in response to high-profile complaints. Former Amazon employees have characterized the company’s moves as “reactive.” They say the company’s aversion to policing its bookstore is both philosophical (who are we to judge?) and pragmatic (no automated system could accurately screen the millions of texts uploaded each year at scale).
Nevertheless, Amazon has begun to make some of the hard decisions it had previously avoided. In recent years, it has taken down hundreds of works of Holocaust denial, including a large portion of the catalog of Castle Hill Publishers, a revisionist press. In 2019, it banned several books by Greg Johnson and his white-nationalist publishing house, Counter-Currents. It has also removed works by the alt-right influencer known as Roosh and the Islamophobic author Tommy Robinson, both of whom had self-published through KDP. And in March, following decades of campaigns by Jewish organizations, the retailer blocked editions of Mein Kampf sold by third-party merchants or reprinted through KDP; the book can still be purchased directly through Amazon.
When the retailer decides to drop a publisher or remove a book, it offers no explanation, no appeals process, and little to no warning. “Amazon will be as ambiguous as possible, and when they terminate or suspend accounts, they will essentially imply, You know what you did and shame on you,” says Dale L. Roberts, who hosts a popular YouTube channel about the self-publishing business. Its notice to authors is “very generic copy and paste.”
This opacity makes it difficult for authors and readers to know how and why these decisions are made. For instance, while books such as Johnson’s The White Nationalist Manifesto have been removed from the site, self-published manifestos such as The Declaration of White Independence and Foundations of the 21st Century: The Philosophy of White Nationalism remain for sale. We also came across nearly a dozen Holocaust-skeptic books still available on Amazon, including some for sale in Germany, where such texts can be illegal. In response to our questions, Amazon took three of them down. It declined to share information about the number of books it’s taken down, its internal policies, or how it enforces them.
Amazon’s ambiguous guidelines are not without reason. Given the company’s prominence in the marketplace, overly broad content restrictions might threaten literary expression as a whole. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for instance, was a fascist, an anti-Semite, and a Holocaust denier; he also wrote Journey to the End of the Night, which is among the most acclaimed works of French fiction. “Even if a book contains hate speech, it may be that it’s quoting other people’s hate speech or has other social, historical, or literary merit,” says Eric Goldman, a leading First Amendment and content-moderation expert. It would be misguided to apply to a book-length essay or novel the same policies that attempt to govern tweets and Facebook posts, he adds.
Hate speech is also notoriously difficult to define. “There’s still nothing like consensus about what extremism even is in general, let alone when you get down to what’s considered to be a controversial and difficult decision about the whole of a book,” Berger says. “Even I, who’ve studied elements of this, would be hesitant to say that there’s any easy recipe to decide what stays and what goes.”
Smaller self-publishing companies say they have taken a more proactive stance. Lulu, Smashwords, and Kobo all explicitly prohibit authors from self-publishing discriminatory or hateful content through their platforms. Representatives from each company spoke with us about navigating the tension between free expression and fomenting hate. “We don’t enjoy acting as a gatekeeper,” Mark Coker, the Smashwords founder and CEO, said. “We don’t enjoy serving as arbiter of what’s acceptable and what’s not. But it’s a responsibility we have to take on.”
Lulu and Smashwords have banned Roper from using their platforms in recent years. (Roper has not uploaded his works to Kobo.) When Smashwords terminated Roper’s account, a representative explained that it was because his work was “advocating hateful, discriminatory or racist views or actions toward others,” according to emails shared with us by Smashwords.
Even KDP has taken a second look at Roper’s work. Last year, it removed two of the 17 books he’s self-published on the platform, both compilations of nonfiction essays and blog posts, stating simply that the books were “in violation of our content guidelines.” To Roper, this choice seemed arbitrary and misguided, especially because one of the titles taken down, The Ethnostate, includes a full reprinting of his book The Balk, which is still available for purchase. As he sees it, the two prohibited books are the least provocative of his writings. “My novels describe war and violence and bloodshed and death, and even, in a couple of the books, genocide—literal racial genocide—in no uncertain terms,” Roper said. But based on its choices, he said, Amazon seems to find his essays more offensive “than me literally typing out 1,000 pages describing races torturing and murdering one another until one or the other become extinct.”
In the past two weeks, as more Americans have sheltered in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, Roper said he’s seen a spike in his Amazon sales. He wonders whether it’s because his vision of impending social collapse has begun to resonate with more readers. Or perhaps, he said, “people got bored with Netflix.”