“Fascist” is often an epithet used to demean an opponent, but for alt-right organization Vanguard America, it’s a badge of honor. As of last night, the group lacks a website where it can proclaim that message. Going to its URL bloodandsoil.org leads to a message from site host WordPress that reads, “This blog has been archived or suspended in accordance with our Terms of Service.”
That’s somewhat surprising. A few months ago, I asked WordPress about its hosting of Vanguard America, United Dixie White Knights of the KKK, and several other far-right organizations for a story about hate sites and their tech providers. The stock answer was that WordPress and its parent company Automatic do not censor, period.
For WordPress, the about-face was likely prompted by Vanguard America’s participation in last weekend’s Unite the Right rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a car drove into a crowd, killing one person, Heather Heyer, and injuring 19. The driver, James Alex Fields, who has been charged with murdering Heyer, has claimed allegiance to Vanguard America. The group denies that Fields was a member, but membership is an amorphous thing in the alt-right movement, in which people affiliate loosely with causes, sometimes just by visiting websites and joining discussion groups.
WordPress hasn’t explained the shift in its approach to the group’s website: the company’s user agreement and terms of service have not changed since Charlottesville. Similarly, Facebook, Google, and other platforms that have recently sought to block similar content have done so even as their policies have remained the same.
The website’s content—including posters, articles, and a manifesto—may fall into the “directly threatening material” forbidden by the WordPress user agreement. But the agreement also notes, “These are just guidelines—interpretations are solely up to us.” WordPress has not yet responded to a request for comment.
(The group still has a Twitter account that was switched to private this afternoon and a YouTube channel; its Instagram channel is no longer available. A cached version of bloodandsoil.org—based on an old Nazi slogan—is still available via Google.)
— (((Sean Captain))) (@seancaptain) August 15, 2017
A New Approach?
For WordPress to drop a site, even a fascist site, is a very big deal; the same is true of GoDaddy and Google’s decisions to drop their registration of neo-Nazi site the Daily Stormer (another site that GoDaddy previously said would be permitted on free speech grounds). Many tech platforms have long stood by strict neutrality and freedom of expression. That may now be changing.
At least when the public can see what’s happening. A free Whois lookup of its domain name reveals a site’s registrar, which is why activists were able to pounce on Google so quickly when the Daily Stormer tried to switch registrars. But Vanguard America was unusual among far-right sites in that its host, WordPress, was plain to see. Many sites—including organizations worried about hackers, like Nasdaq and OKCupid, as well as affiliates of ISIS and the KKK—use security provider Cloudflare to protect against attacks and hide their true host. Over objections from some activists, Cloudflare has been steadfast in not dropping any clients, other than in cases of serious criminal activity.