This article was reported in collaboration with ThinkProgress. It also appears on ThinkProgress.
A year ago, Americans watched on in horror as the extremism and hate of the so-called “alt-right”, which had long been festering online, materialized in a very real and terrifying form on the streets of Charlottesville.
In response to the violence, which left counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer dead and dozens of others injured, tech companies belatedly woke up to the fact that they were effectively providing safe spaces for far-right hate. These companies made promises to the public that they would take action, and soon cracked down on some of the far-right’s most prominent figures and organizations.
Far-right figures were booted off Twitter, domain-hosting companies shut down neo-Nazi forums like Stormfront, and Richard B. Spencer, one of the most immediately recognizable figures in the latest rebirth of the racist white identitarian movement that branded itself an alternative to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Confederate groups, has been repeatedly kicked from fundraising platforms.
But one year later, many of the most well-documented hate groups and conveners of extremism online are still operating on the backs of some of the largest tech industry giants. The tech companies are aware of this problem, but they seem to have chosen indifference.
One of the most flagrant offenders is Stripe, an online payment processing company that works with some of the biggest names in tech, including Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Salesforce. But such while major content providers Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and YouTube have taken half-measures to give the appearance that they’re cracking down on hate, payment processing systems, and especially Stripe, haven’t even done that much, continuing to allow its purveyors to collect profits via their services.
What makes the inaction of the payment processing companies so infuriating is that they are still readily working with such groups and websites — even those who can’t be bothered to hide their racism and anti-Semitism behind layers of “irony” and “humor,” as do many in the ranks of the 2.0 form of white identitarianism — despite repeated promises that they would do just that.
Stripe, for instance, is servicing payments for the League of the South, Occidental Quarterly, and Counter–Currents Publishing. The League of the South is an openly white supremacist, neo-Confederate group that advocates Secession and the creation of a southern theocracy. Its leaders say that immigration “will eventually weaken and destroy our civilization.” (Intriguingly, a whole section of the group’s website is devoted to “Russian Outreach.”)
Counter–Currents Publishing and Occidental Quarterly, meanwhile, have been part of the “intellectual vanguard” of the far-right for decades, flogging books such as “Truth, Justice, & a Nice White Country.” One of the most important figures in this white nationalist “intellectual” sphere is Jared Taylor, who sits on the board for Occidental Quarterly. Taylor has been a prominent figure on the white supremacist scene for more than 25 years, and frequently appears at far-right conferences, including those convened by Spencer.
Former Counter–Currents contributor Jason Jorjani was filmed last September by the anti-racism group Hope not Hate saying that the far-right’s plans will end “with concentration camps and expulsions and war — at the cost of a few hundred million people.”
The site Gab.ai, a “free speech” social media platform that quickly became a haven for white supremacists banned from more conventional sites like Twitter, also runs its premium account payments through Stripe. Members of Gab Pro can use Stripe processing to profit via the website by offering subscriptions to paywalled content. As indicated by the blue checkmarks next to their handles on the site, Gab Pro members include neo-Nazis Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormer, failed Senate candidate Patrick Little and “Crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, just to name a few. Last week, Gab was forced to remove two posts from Little that contained violent anti-Semitic threats.
As a payment processor, there are two ways for Stripe to facilitate financial transactions between its clients and the banking system: via plug-ins and payment gateways. In the case of payment gateways, Stripe is an active part of allowing the money to move from the client to the banks. For example, when a person decides to donate to League of the South, Stripe will take his credit card information and check it against the banking system. If the information matches, Stripe allows the user’s donation to pass through its “gateway” and into the banking system.
Plug-ins are a bit more complicated. They can be described as a tool that Stripe gives away so that a website can better control its own financing. When Stripe gives away the plugin, however, someone has to sign over bank account details to the website owner or administrator. That, plus the information on the site, gives Stripe a record of who it is working with and on what site the plug-in will appear.
To its credit, Stripe has already removed its service from some sites popular with extremists, including BitChute, FreeStartr, and GoMakerSupport. But the problem appears to be systemic, and when we asked the company about its servicing for other extreme hate groups, we didn’t receive an answer.
In Stripe’s user agreement, under “Prohibited Businesses,” it says it will not service “any business or organization that a. engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence or physical harm to persons or property, or engages in, encourages, promotes or celebrates unlawful violence toward any group based on race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or any other immutable characteristic.”
A tech employee familiar with financial processing, who asked us to keep their identity anonymous for fear they may lose their job for speaking with us, told us that Stripe “almost certainly” knows it provides its services to extremists.
“A company like Stripe is going to have employees dedicated to monitoring their brand,” the tech worker told us. “They’re not dumb. They read Twitter. They read the news. If a racist website is breaking their terms of service, it’ll get flagged eventually. The system works slowly … but it’s up to major tech companies like Stripe to enforce their own terms of service.”
Sources close to Stripe say that company has had major internal discussions over how best to handle sites like League of the South, a debate echoed on a wider scale throughout Silicon Valley — seen most recently with the drawn-out drama of Alex Jones getting deplatformed.
On one hand, the sources noted, Stripe is aware that it can no longer advocate complete neutrality. But the company also can’t arbitrarily decide who it refuses to work with, especially considering that on the other side of the coin, Stripe would like to work with some websites — such as websites that publish erotic art and operate in the marijuana business — but can’t because of its current terms and conditions. The sources added that, in their opinions, Stripe had done a good job of booting the organizers of the original Unite the Right from their system, and making sure that they didn’t sneak back in.
As a Business to Business (B2B) company, Stripe prefers to operate quietly, and is more responsive to its more immediately image conscious financial partners. This is where banking regulations come in.
A crucial part of Stripe’s terms and conditions is its Financial Service Terms section, which notes that Stripe partners with Wells Fargo for access to the financial system. Under the 2001 Patriot Act, Wells Fargo signed on to a Know Your Customer regulation, which requires banks and the payment processors they work with to collect information on their users to prevent money laundering and terrorist financing.
But according to Dennis Lormel, a former head of financial crimes at the FBI, although banks may be obligated to note who they do business with, it is still up to them to decide on an individual basis if the reputational risk of kicking groups or individuals off their platforms is worth it. Because groups like League of the South operate in a legal gray area — endorsing violence but not explicitly spreading it — banks often determine that kicking them off is not worth their time. This is particularly true, Lormel said, as these type of groups have been known to readily sue banks.
I’ve been axed from Patreon, without explanation, warning or notice — no doubt as part of the ongoing efforts of the Left to deny all platforms to those who reject its agenda. To those who supported me there, thank you, and I’m sorry we couldn’t follow through on plans. pic.twitter.com/rJ8kaUNqYI
— Robert Spencer (@jihadwatchRS) August 14, 2018
Other financial processing companies have declared anti-hate policies on their transaction systems, including Patreon, which unrolled policies that forbid those who engage in hate speech, doxing, illegal activities, and bullying and harassment from using its crowdfunding site to enrich themselves. As a result, some far-right extremists, such as Faith Goldy, have been denied access to their platforms.
However, Patreon continues to allow extremist James Allsup, an advocate of white identitarianism, to continue to use Patreon to enrich himself. Allsup this year joined the white extremist group, Identity Evropa, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and in 2017 marched with extremist groups at the Unite the Right convergence in Charlottesville. He also spoke that year at a rally in Washington, D.C., convened by Spencer.
For his own part, Richard Spencer told us he’s been unable to reach a human contact at Stripe to talk about the status of his account. He called it “ridiculous” that he has been, as he believes, “singled out as a bad actor” to serve as a public martyr for display to signal that companies like Stripe are combating hate on their platforms.
Spencer says he was cut off from the platform shortly after the Unite the Right converging of far-right groups in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017. The night before the streets of Charlottesville turned deadly, Spencer led a torchlit march to the campus of University of Virginia, steering a column of far-right activists who chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” Some of the marchers attacked a small band of UVA students who mounted a counter-protest.
Spencer told us that he had used Stripe for about five years prior to the ban imposed on him and the National Policy Institute, the innocuously named far-right extremist organization he helms. He said he used the platform to process hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of financial tractions — which he said he conservatively estimates to total at least a $250,000, but speculated it could have been as much a $1 million — for conference registrations, donations and book sales, all without a hitch.
“There are groups that seem quite similar to my operation, and indeed places I’ve written for in my career, that are apparently able to use these payment systems,” Spencer told us, saying he felt it was “unfair” he was “singled out.” He later added, “I have become the poster boy for this,” and compared himself to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has been given the boot from many online services. It should be noted that those extremists who still have access to big-tech payment systems could be viewed as Spencer’s competitors.
Kicking white nationalists like Spencer from platforms can have serious implications for their ability to recruit and organize. Spencer said that his operation has experienced large setbacks since he lost access to simple payment processing online.
“I, in a way, have not recovered from the deplatforming since Charlottesville, and everything it entails,” Spencer said. “The payment processing — that is more devastating than the social media. I mean, I would give up my Twitter account if we could maintain something like payment processing that is made so easy through Stripe.”
Spencer told us he had “made some headway in cracking the nut” of payment processing for his group, but when we asked for more details he laughed and said, “I’m not going to tell you.”