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Trump's social media summit and me

Today, President Trump is hosting a social media summit at the White House. Rather than inviting actual social media platforms and experts to have a substantive conversation about the real problems inherent to the medium and how we might fix them, he has chosen to gather a collection of extremists. Among them is a site called Minds - in fact the only social networking platform invited to the summit.

One of the dangers of building an open source networking platform is that anyone can use it for anything. Elgg, an open source social networking platform made by my first startup, was used for all kinds of things: we knew it was going to be a success when non-profits in Colombia began to use it to share between themselves. It's named after the small village in Switzerland that my dad's family comes from - the Werdmuller von Elggs - and I poured my heart and soul into it. Generally, I have been very proud of the things it has been used for: when learned that Oxfam was using it to train aid workers, my heart swelled.

A few years ago, Bill Ottman reached out to me because he was using it as the basis of his new social network, Minds. By that time, Elgg was long in the tooth, and a lot of changes need to be made. (It wouldn't surprise me if, today, most of the Elgg code was gone. And honestly, that would make me feel a little better.) Nonetheless, it helped them get off the ground. Last year, Minds raised a $6M Series A round from one investor, the venture arm of Overstock.com.

Yesterday, Vice reported this:

A previous Motherboard investigation found that miliant neo-Nazi groups connected to Atomwaffen Division—a violent American hate group connected to several murders—was using Minds as a platform for recruiting and spreading propaganda.

To be clear, I don't believe that Bill is a white supremacist. But it's also clear that deliberately lax moderation allows neo-Nazis to thrive on the platform and use it for recruitment. Minds describes itself as a platform for free speech: in other words, within the bounds of US law, anything goes.

Today there are concentration camps on the border. Children are dying. In the midst of this, Trump's approval ratings are at the highest point of his Presidency. This is a dangerous point in history - although, of course, not one without precedent, as groups like Never Again Action are right to point out. "The Jews will not replace us" is a common chant at right-wing marches, based on the idea that immigration is a Jewish conspiracy to replace white people.

My great grandfather fled Ukraine to avoid the White Army, which was burning Jewish villages and enacting mass killings in the region. My grandfather was captured by the Nazis. My dad and his entire immediate family were held in Japanese concentration camps, and my grandmother wailed through her nightmares every single night until the day she died.

This isn't principle; it's personal. It's personal for me, and for my friends who have been doxxed and received death threats for being feminists. It's personal for my friends who have been subject to the rapid increase in hate crimes. It's personal for my trans friends.

There's a word for people who aid Nazis: collaborators. There is nothing virtuous about standing up for the free speech of people who wish to see entire demographics of people murdered. To argue that it's "just speech" is disingenuous: words and stories have enormous power to persuade and to lead. To argue that the best way to defeat speech with more speech is similarly so: it inherently gives both sides a level platform, elevating extremism and giving it more integrity than it deserves. Scratch the surface even briefly and the subtext emerges: if inclusion and equal rights are really so great, the argument goes, surely it can defeat the opposition in debate?

These people, my argument goes, can go fuck themselves.

Recently, the white supremacist social network Gab decided to fork Mastodon, forcing that platform to release a strong statement decrying their values. I believe this was the right move. If Known or Unlock were used for hate, I would do the same. Even though it's a full ten years since I left the Elgg project, I'm finding myself writing this blog post.

I am deeply ashamed to have even a mild association with Minds. I think the free speech argument it uses is deeply flawed. I am also thinking hard about another set of principles: namely, the free software ideals that allowed Gab and Minds to adopt existing platforms in the first place.

In the same way that Minds shrugging its shoulders at the presence of hate on its platform is woefully inadequate, an open source social network shrugging its shoulders at its use by extremists is worthy of disdain. It is not enough, to say the least. If we're talking about abstract principles, the principles of human life, inclusion, and equality obviously override the principle of being able to share and freely distribute source code. Code is never more important than life. Genocide is always a bigger problem than software distribution licenses. Hopefully this is obvious.

While I accept that it runs counter to the stated principles of the free software movement, I believe we need a new set of licenses that explicitly forbid using software to facilitate hate or hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center defines a hate group as "an organization that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics", which is in line with the FBI's definition.

I don't want software I write to be used by these groups. Ever. For any reason. I don't want to help them even accidentally, ever again. And I think that principle - the principle of never causing harm or facilitating hate - significantly outweighs every other one.

The saddest thing to me is that this is probably a controversial idea. But I would much rather be a part of the anti-fascist software community than the libertarian free market community if the latter absolves itself of its culpability in the spread of white supremacy.

 

Update: I fixed Bill's name. It's Bill Ottman. Apologies for the earlier error.