advertisement
advertisement

Disqus Grapples With Hosting Toxic Comments On Breitbart And Extreme-Right Sites

The dominant online community software provider sets a high threshold for dropping sites—even extreme ones—for offensive comments.

Disqus Grapples With Hosting Toxic Comments On Breitbart And Extreme-Right Sites
Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Breitbart News, the conservative site whose former executive chairman, Steve Bannon, is now President Trump’s chief strategist, has become a bull’s-eye for activists on the left. The same fervor behind the Ivanka Trump boycott is also directed against Breitbart, which Bannon has proudly called a “platform for the alt-right,” with campaigns to shut down its advertising and e-commerce revenue.

advertisement

Now that rage is turning against Disqus, the major provider of discussion group software across the web, which powers the comments sections on Breitbart and many other sites far more to the right—including at least one that actually identifies as fascist.

One effort, dubbed Sleeping Giants, calls out companies that advertise on Breitbart and has persuaded over 1,400 (and counting) to pull out. “We’re all for free speech, and we’ll defend it fiercely. Hate speech is a different thing,” says Sleeping Giants’ spokesman, who remains anonymous for fear of causing friction with his digital marketing clients.

A petition by the group SumOfUs is trying to persuade Shopify, which powers Breitbart’s online store, to drop the site. Both groups also criticize Disqus, which, like Shopify, bills itself as a neutral service provider. It’s a real dilemma for these two companies—whatever action they take, whether to maintain or end their business relationship with Breitbart, they will be seen as taking a side.

Disqus flagged for review this Swastika-brandishing user—after I brought them to the company’s attention.

Shopify’s CEO Tobias Lütke sounds torn, criticizing Breitbart in an essay on Medium while defending its right to free speech. Disqus CEO Daniel Ha is resolute about staying neutral. “We go out there and tell our users, our customers, that we want to be a trusted solution in order to allow online discussion to happen, whether it’s unpopular things or not,” says Ha. “We are not going to impute our opinions.” Disqus provides the platform, he says, and leaves responsibility for content up to the sites’ moderators.

To a point, at least. “When it comes to hate speech and things that incite violence, we’re active against that,” says Ha. “We have people who report that, and we actively take down…what we would deem harassment or hate, crime inciting.” In its terms of service, Disqus says that it can terminate accounts for 10 types of prohibited content, including blackmail or extortion, intimidation of users, spam, and unlawful activities.

advertisement
Disqus also serves plenty of center and left-leaning sites, like The Atlantic and Rolling Stone.

The words “hate speech” don’t appear anywhere in the document, but in February Disqus published a blog post denouncing such speech and touting current and future tools to help readers and moderators flag and remove it. The post spurred an angry debate in the comments section of the Disqus blog, ranging from critics of Breitbart to critics of left-wing “social justice warriors.” The word “Nazi” appears a dozen times.

How Nasty Does It Get?

Breitbart is fueled by anger and passion. Aside from pieces consistently praising President Trump, its articles tend to be provocative, often claiming to reveal the left’s hypocrisy or moral decline. That’s true not only in the “Big Government” and “National Security” sections, but also in the “Tech” and “Big Hollywood” sections and, to an extent, even in “Sports.”

A February report by the Southern Poverty Law Center tracked the evolution of language on Breitbart since early 2014 and found an apparent trend toward more extremist rhetoric, for instance in political or negative connotations associated with the word “Jewish.”

Graph: courtesy of Southern Poverty Law Center

Breitbart’s reporting is often standard blog style, but headlines are invitations to argue or expound, such as, “Former NBA Star Has Serious Issue With Idea of Playing With a Gay Teammate.” In the comments, such a provocative headline did not elicit outrage about homophobia, but rather tirades of literally Biblical proportions linking homosexuality to Satan, followed by a detour through the topic of slavery. An article about the movie Moonlight winning the Best Picture Oscar descends quickly into bashing of gays, blacks, transvestites, and Muslims, plus a joke combining all of them and sex with a goat.

This same commenter also criticized blacks as no longer being “useful” after slavery.

It would be hard not to call that offensive, but it’s not illegal. That’s the bar Shopify sets for dropping customers, and illegal activities make up the majority of what Disqus prohibits. Harassment is forbidden, but how do you decide what crosses the line on a site where everyone fights and name-calls? Disqus says that intimidation, which it bans, includes “extreme discrimination“. “When it comes to contentious comments or things that people say that are not agreeable…that’s where it becomes really complex,” says Ha.

He notes that Disqus and Breitbart are working to clean things up. “After we put out the hate speech statement, [Breitbart] reached out to us, and they said, we really appreciate the sentiment, and they don’t want it on their site, and they want to work with us to figure out ways to minimize this,” he says. (Breitbart didn’t respond to our requests for comment.) Nothing seems to have changed yet, and Ha admits that they have a long way to go.

advertisement

Disqus’s current technology is based on searching for keywords, not sentiment. It’s easy to flag the N-word. But it’s just as easy for commenters to talk around verboten slurs and viciously insult ethnic or other groups. “What we have so far has been tailored to combating spam and abuse [like illegal activities],” says Ha. We’re not specifically experts on hate speech, and that’s what we want to get better at.” The company is looking into various technologies to flag hate speech, like a new AI-driven platform that Google announced in late February.

Breitbart editors don’t seem too keen on policing comments.

It’s been interesting working with additional partners on this,” says Ha. “I think we’re getting closer to releasing new tools on this front.” Critics, however, have lost patience with Disqus.

“As much as they say they’ll be watching for hate speech, it continues unabated. Not even hate speech, but violent threats,” says the Sleeping Giants spokesman. “It’s bad. If they can’t police it, they need to stop serving these comment sections, in our opinion.”

Breitbart discussions have recently included the unsubstantiated claim, advanced by conservative talk radio host Mark Levin, that the Obama administration had bugged Trump Tower. One comment reads, “If Obama has started a coup…Then this IS Treason. Obama must be KILLED ON SITE!”

San Francisco-based Disqus makes money from advertising that runs on its platform, and that could be a vulnerability. Sleeping Giants has been effective at pulling advertisers away from its targets. “For sure, absolutely they will be targeted,” says the spokesman about Disqus. “If they’re going to advertise, and not police the content effectively, then they’ve got a big problem.”

Disqus also faces a petition by SumOfUs, which is currently rallying Shopify clients to protest its Breitbart ties. It’s not so clear that a boycott would work: Asking websites to ditch their community software provider would be quite an ask. Disqus is second only to Facebook in market share for commenting platforms, and it dwarfs other competitors. Disqus has many large mainstream clients, such as The Atlantic and Rolling Stone.

advertisement
Disqus funder Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures.

But bad press can have an impact, especially with progressive-leaning investors who favor diversity and inclusion. Disqus is a 2007 graduate of the Y Combinator startup fund, whose president, Sam Altman, has said of Trump, “He is irresponsible in the way dictators are.” A major investor is Union Square Ventures, whose managing partner, Fred Wilson, came out strongly against Trump’s executive order restricting entry into the U.S. from seven countries, saying, “Trump is institutionalizing hatred, bigotry, and racism with these orders.” Neither responded to Fast Company‘s requests to comment, nor did NorthBridge, another major Disqus investor.

It Goes Way Beyond Breitbart

Breitbart is a natural target: It’s pugnacious, has influence at the very top of government, and has enjoyed a huge growth spurt since the election. (It’s ranked within the 40 most popular sites in the U.S., according to Alexa.) “Sometimes people use [Breitbart] as a shortcut to mean a lot of things,” says Daniel Ha. “And I think in this world, where there’s so many nuances, using shortcuts is irresponsible…to represent all, whatever you want to call it, harassment, white nationalism.”

No words appear to be verboten on sites like DownTrend.

It gets much worse in the discussion groups on other sites, such as DownTrend, in which an article about the possibility of Oprah Winfrey running for president kicks off a discussion about her weight and race, peppered with the N-word. Or there’s the site Return of Kings, featuring an article called “Why Are Men Paying ‘New Car’ Prices For Used Women?,” which derisively compares seeking a partner to shopping for a car. The readers chime in with crude comments.

Though harsher than Breitbart, these sites have something in common with it: They also use Disqus to power their comments sections. So does Noose, which dubs itself “The Online Fascist Zine,” features a lynching noose as its logo, and is part of the Iron March fascist social network. A recent post on Noose entitled “Violence,” celebrates the accomplishment of Anders Breivik, who shot dead 69 participants of a Workers’ Youth League summer camp in Norway in 2011. “…now nationalists are torching refugee centers, thwarting their construction with organized mass riots–further proving that violence works, and righteously knifing elected officials throughout Europe, with Jo Cox and Henriette Riker being two of many to come,” reads the article.

The list of inflammatory sites goes on. John Ellis, an entrepreneur in Massachusetts, maintains a Google spreadsheet of sites using Disqus that feature what he has judged to be hate speech. It currently has over 40 entries, from Accuracy in Media to Weasel Zippers.

Noose takes a cheeky approach to fascism, but advances its hardcore racist and violent messages.

I showed Ha many of these sites and posts, like an article in Occidental Dissent about white nationalist Richard Spencer being disinvited from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The first commenter derided Breitbart London’s editor-in-chief Raheem Kassam as a “Paki Brit” from “Kikebart.” (In these circles, Breitbart is considered way too mainstream.) A commenter further down said that he would prefer an alt-right leader who wears a leather trench coat and “threatens to shut the insolent jews’ lying mouths.” I asked if such comments would be outside the bounds of what Disqus tolerates, and he sent me a follow-up email saying that Occidental Dissent, as well as Noose, are being reviewed by staff. “From what I quickly saw it looks like they’re both in violation,” he wrote. He sounded shocked when I told him that, in the case of Noose, a genuine fascist site is using his service.

advertisement
Disqus has dropped some blatantly racist and anti-Semitic sites.

For Ha, Disqus’s role is to provide tools for the moderators. “I come from a place where a content publisher would not want spam on their site, and they would use our software to prevent that,” he says. “I’m coming from a similar place where a content publisher wouldn’t want harassment, and it’s our job to combat that as well.” But what if the content publisher doesn’t care?

Disqus has broken off ties with sites over hate speech or harassment. “We’ve dropped hundreds,” says Ha. Examples include Infostormer, dedicated to “Destroying the Jewish Tyranny,” and the swastika-laden The Daily Stormer. A post by the latter’s publisher, Andrew Anglin, about being dropped from Disqus actually makes a similar argument to that of critics on the left: “I conflict with their values. Me specifically, mind you. Not any of the tens of thousands of other politically incorrect websites using their service.”

Free Speech And Free Commerce

Daniel Ha draws a bright line between personal views and business. “What’s common across our industry is that we really care, and we believe there’s a burden of responsibility among internet services to not take a [position],” says Ha. This is different from the prerogative of an advertiser, which can “disassociate” from a TV show or network or site it doesn’t want the brand associated with, he says. (Disqus does not advertise on Breitbart.) But it’s different for a service provider to reject customers, according to Ha. “I’m talking to a lot of internet services, and no one wants to do that. No one wants to dissociate,” he says.

Disqus is based in a very liberal city, and Ha is a Bay Area native. The staff is somewhat diverse—definitely not one that that would fit in at a white nationalist gathering. Even with its relatively laissez-faire approach, Disqus does have guidelines and a process to review offending sites and users—though it’s very slow.

“I understand the movement,” says Ha of campaigns like Sleeping Giants. In fact, he and the group are in contact. “That’s what’s been interesting at least about touching base with Daniel, you know, we can have a discussion about it,” says Sleeping Giants’ spokesman. That hasn’t brought the two sides any closer together, however.

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

More