It took only hours for 8chan—an anonymous, hate-filled message board linked to three mass shootings, including last weekend’s in Texas—to come back online after its security provider, CloudFlare, dropped it on the night of August 4. At the time of writing, the site was down again after its new hosting company, Epik, was cut off by one of its own service providers, but few doubt that it will eventually resurface.
So is “deplatforming” by companies like CloudFlare futile in the fight against online hate speech? The answer is no: first because research suggests that deplatforming does hurt online communities even if they pop back up afterwards, and second because the decision by CloudFlare, a key player in the website security market, has changed expectations about the moral obligations of technology companies.
After a group of tech companies kicked InfoWars founder Alex Jones off their platforms, initial interest in him spiked, but a year later, he had mostly disappeared. One 2017 study found that Reddit’s decision to ban communities like r/fatpeoplehate and r/CoonTown led to less hate speech on the site, says study coauthor Eshwar Chandrasekharan, a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech. The reason: extremely motivated users will follow a community or personality to a new place, but less-engaged members drop off completely.
Similarly, the neo-Nazi site Daily Stormer used to be a central organizing space for the far right. Since it was dropped by web-hosting company GoDaddy two years ago, its influence within the movement has significantly waned, says Becca Lewis, a researcher who studies online political subcultures. “If 8chan stays down, there’s reason to believe that that would have a big impact on what we see in terms of online organizing in the far-right movement,” she adds.
Critics of deplatforming point out that it could be a slippery slope toward censorship. Initially, CloudFlare said it would not ban 8chan because “we’re largely a neutral utility service.” As technology critic Zeynep Tufekci has pointed out, without due process, there’s little to prevent companies from, for instance, deplatforming politicians who advocate shutting tax loopholes for massive corporations.These problems are deep and complicated, and Tufekci suggests that lawmakers, platforms, and users work together to create a coherent system that includes the right for users to challenge a platform ban.
It’ll be a long time before we have this coherent system. In the meanwhile, shooters have continued to post their manifestos. Given this, Tarleton Gillespie, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and author of Custodians of the Internet, says that the CloudFlare decision itself may be a form of due process.
“If they had dropped [8chan] because they were cranky conservatives or radical liberals, then there’d be plenty of sites that would go, ‘That’s outrageous, come be with us,” Gillespie says. But the consensus that 8chan is beyond the pale seems pretty nearly universal, and it’s helping establish a new norm for what’s expected of a company like CloudFlare.
This may mark a shift comparable to the one that has affected social-media platforms like Facebook. There was a time when they insisted that they were neutral platforms and could not be responsible for policing hate speech in any way. That time is long gone; Facebook now employs 30,000 content moderators. But up until now there was a general agreement that hosting companies like CloudFlare, which did not publish content themselves, could remain neutral. Now that, too, can no longer be taken for granted.
Gillespie isn’t arguing that public opinion should take the place of actual guidelines, and there are plenty of other complications. But, he says, it may be necessary to lean on clumsy public discussions that grow into new expectations about what kinds of speech cannot be tolerated and what companies should do. (It’s worth noting that these discussions need to be very careful. As research by Data & Society has shown, certain types of reporting can amplify and play into the wishes of the far right.)
Technology is of course only one small piece of the problem of mass shootings. Lax gun laws, and the lack of political will in the United States to change them, are a much bigger problem. But CloudFlare’s decision has changed the calculus for a new class of technology companies. A hosting firm or security company that continues to serve a site like 8chan will be making a political decision. “Neutrality” is no longer neutral.