Silicon Valley's accidental war with the far right

WASHINGTON • Silicon Valley is finding itself entrenched in battle with the far right over ground rules for the digital world, a conflict that mirrors the polarisation of American politics in recent years.

The recent firing of a Google engineer for questioning the Internet giant's diversity efforts, which ignited a backlash from the "alt-right" and fuelled charges of hypocrisy, is just one example.

Facebook has been accused of suppressing conservative voices and skewing information presented in its news feed.

Twitter has banned accounts from far-right activists for violating its terms on "hate" speech.

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Paypal refused to transmit donations to a group in Europe seeking to turn back refugees, claiming it does not support activities that promote "hate" or "violence." And even Airbnb cancelled accounts ahead of a white nationalist rally for promoting discrimination in violation of the terms of the home-sharing platform.

Activists on the extreme right have responded with an outcry against the tech giants and have begun migrating to alternatives for social networking and money transfers.

The conflict has caught Silicon Valley off-guard, amid a political onslaught from critics as online platforms grow in importance.

In Silicon Valley, "you've got a bunch of people who are interested in technology who would prefer to be apolitical", said Mr Bob O'Donnell, consultant for Technalysis Research. "They are being dragged into these decisions and being put into a difficult spot."

Mr Alan Rosenblatt, a digital strategist for left-leaning groups, said alt-right activists are frustrated because they have been unable to exploit online platforms as much as they would like.

"It traces back to the whole 'fake news' issue" starting in the 2016 election campaign, Mr Rosenblatt said. US President Donald Trump "is the greatest enabler of the alt- right. He gives political coverage to their attacks on diversity and workplace fairness".

Tensions have flared at Google over the firing of engineer James Damore, who published a "manifesto" which claimed "biological differences" were a key factor in the low percentage of women in technology jobs.

Political science professor Thomas Main, of the City University of New York, said the latest developments reflect a realisation that the Internet may not be the utopia for political discourse that some had imagined.

Extremist trolls, Prof Main said, "are polluting the environment and you need some gatekeeping function". But the gatekeeping function "is a big problem" because "we don't want government going in" and it's not clear if the digital companies are positioned to handle this.

Mr O'Donnell said social networks and other digital companies may end up splintering along political lines in the same manner as the media industry. "We may see over time an evolution where one social network is more left-leaning and another is right-leaning. It has become so challenging to remain in the middle."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Silicon Valley's accidental war with the far right'. Print Edition | Subscribe