Be careful what you wish for

Protesters topple Confederate soldier statue in Durham, NC

After years of not intervening because of their ‘neutral’ stance, all of a sudden tech companies are shutting down access to white supremacist online content. For example, GoFundMe has shut down attempted crowdfunding campaigns for the man accused of driving a car into protesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the weekend, Discord has banned servers that promote Nazi ideology, and GoDaddy (and then Google) washed their hands of hosting a white supremacist website.

I’m not a white supremacist, and as an historian find neo-Nazisism abhorrent. However, I can’t help thinking that knee-jerk reactions like these are unhelpful. By denying space on the web to ideologies with which we disagree, we’re applying technical ‘solutions’ to social ‘problems’ —  much as we’ve tried to to with Islamic terrorism. It doesn’t work. Or, at least, it doesn’t work by itself, but should instead be part of a wider, more nuanced approach.

In addition, I can’t help but think that it sets a dangerous precedent. After all, what happens when the tech giants decide that your way of thinking should be censored? These aren’t democratic processes; you can’t vote tech companies out after four years. To use a recent example, when things are going well and who you like is in charge of the country (Obama) and tech companies have your back (LGBT rights), everything looks great. A bit of ‘harmless’ state and corporate surveillance looks reasonable. But then what happens when someone else comes along (Trump) and we realise that we’ve built a surveillance state? All hell breaks loose. We tear down statues and call for everything we find abhorrent to be immediately banned.

So, I can’t help but think we should be careful about the tactics and approaches we normalise. We can and should respond to specific events, but we shouldn’t do it in the compressed timelines that social media demands. And I certainly don’t think it’s tech companies that should decide these things on our behalf. At the end of the day, I don’t want to end up a world that feels like Black Mirror. Perhaps we’d do well to heed what Audrey Watters has to say about teaching history as well as ‘love’, and Mike Caulfield writes about teaching facts and skills.