Susan Bro bravely shared these words at funeral services for her daughter, Heather Heyer, who was killed when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a crowd of protesters during the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The next year, the Center for American Progress, Color Of Change, Free Press, the Southern Poverty Law Center and more than 50 other human-rights, civil-rights and digital-rights groups formed the Change the Terms coalition, which calls on tech companies to find that “spark of accountability” and make their platforms safer for women, people of color, gender-nonconforming people and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.
The goal is for companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to take more responsibility for protecting their users’ safety. But how?
Holding Big Tech accountable
On Oct. 25, 2018, the Change the Terms coalition released a suite of recommended policies that would take away the online “microphone” hate groups use to recruit members, fundraise and organize violence.
Friday marked one year since the launch, and in that year, the coalition has helped reshape the national conversation around technology and extremism — particularly calling attention to tech platforms’ role in mass shootings and other forms of violence. The coalition has also underscored how online hate chills the free-speech rights of targeted communities.
Change the Terms advocates have traveled the world sharing research and context around the proliferation of hate online, addressing convenings including Rights Con in Tunisia, the Common Sense Truth About Tech Conference in Silicon Valley and our own launch event in Washington, D.C.
The coalition’s influence has been timely, as the last 12 months have seen a constant stream of headlines, protests and even congressional inquiries into the platforms’ role in the spread of violent extremism.
In response to Change the Terms’ advocacy, several Silicon Valley leaders have made promising changes that align with the coalition’s vision for a safer online world:
March 2019: Facebook banned prominent white supremacists, published a report on content removal and made changes to its Livestream feature while also accepting recommendations from Change the Terms on tracking URLs from extremist sites.
May 2019: Internet-infrastructure firm Cloudflare cut its services to 8chan, an infamous online forum. The move came nearly two days after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which the alleged gunman posted an anti-Latinx manifesto on 8chan 20 minutes before murdering 22 people.
June 2019: YouTube announced a broadened hate-speech policy, in which “content that alleges a group is superior in order to justify discrimination on characteristics like age, race, caste, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or veteran status” would be prohibited.
Sept. 2019: PayPal continued its policy of dropping identified white-supremacist accounts, suspending a Ku Klux Klan fundraising account after Sleeping Giants flagged it online.
These shifts have made the internet safer for millions of people — and helped stem the rising tide of real-world violence. But the work is far from finished.
What’s next in the fight
In August 2019, Susan Bro joined Charlottesville-area civil-rights leaders and the Change the Terms coalition in launching a petition calling on Twitter to ban white supremacists from its platform. Among Twitter’s current active users are former KKK grand wizard David Duke, neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer and thousands of other white-supremacist leaders who use the platform to encourage violence.
Twitter has yet to publicly respond to the call to ban these users.
But Twitter isn’t the only platform on advocates’ radar. In 2020, the Change the Terms coalition is urging a number of companies to make changes to curb racist and xenopobic violence:
Facebook must enforce all content policies equally for politicians and all other users. That means the company should drop its recent policy change that allows politicians to post deceitful content.
Twitter must ban white supremacists. In 2020, it should be a no-brainer that David Duke, Richard Spencer and their fellow white supremacists don’t deserve the privilege of Twitter amplification as they espouse genocidal ideology.
All online platforms must adopt policies for greater transparency in moderation and takedowns of content. These companies should stop banning Black activists and others who use social media to advocate for racial justice and human rights.
Online payment and currency companies must stop the flow of payments to white-supremacist groups, which often depend on fundraising to organize rallies, meetings and other activities that can devolve into violent riots and attacks.
All Silicon Valley companies should adopt the Change the Terms recommended policies — and it’s up to people of conscience among the companies’ leadership and staff to speak out, organize and push for sweeping change.
Fighting for the lives of platform users
“People in our communities are dying at the hands of white supremacy — the stakes are that high.”
These words were spoken by Free Press Vice President Jessica J. González, who co-founded Change the Terms, at a gathering of advocates and Facebook leaders. The #CivilRightsxTech town hall was a momentous event organized in September 2019 by coalition member Color Of Change, in which a number of Change the Terms members directly addressed Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and other company leaders during a day-long open forum in Atlanta.
During the town hall, Color Of Change Executive Director Rashad Robinson shared the stories of Aurielle Marie and other activists who have been silenced by racist abuse on Facebook — and attacked by their online harassers in real life.
Robinson joined advocates like Madiha Alhussein of Muslim Advocates, Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Maria Town of the American Association of People with Disabilities and many others in sharing names, stories and even their own personal illustrations of what’s at stake.
As the coalition enters its second year, Change the Terms advocates plan to continue speaking truth to power, calling out the ways that Silicon Valley is profiting from hateful activities and centering the millions of users who are fighting for their digital lives.
For their sake, let’s hope Big Tech will do more than listen.