After the white nationalist rally for hate groups protesting the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee turned violent in Charlottesville this month, one might have wondered where the groups got their riot shields, batons, and automatic weapons (not to mention their tickets to Virginia). Sadly, these hate groups are often extremely well-funded by online donations.
All four major card companies and PayPal appear to have facilitated transactions with the majority of 100 hate groups identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center. That’s the conclusion of “Blood Money,” an online tracker from the nonprofit group Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, that charts what payment processing companies allow funding to hate groups.
Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, notes that for white power hate groups the impact of militant actions like the one in Charlottesville is twofold: First, they get to publicly share their agenda and terrorize those who disagree with it. Second, that publicity helps encourage others who are equally radical to give more, often through the semi-anonymous process of online donations.
“Each time they do something like they did in Charlotte, they are seeing a lot of publicity, a lot of visibility, and they’ve got a direct line to people who might be sympathetic or supportive to move resources to them,” Robinson says about that access to everyday payment processors. Credit card companies and payment platforms also make money off the process, taking an estimated 1.4% to 3.5% per transaction.
It’s a process that major credit card companies and online payment platforms have historically enabled, allowing backers to funnel cash through online donations or by purchasing their own promotional materials and clothing. Many lesser-known groups solicit directly over Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Others like National Alliance, Crew 38, and the Hammerskins might already be on corporate watch lists, so they sell racist music or apparel through slightly veiled online stores, which pass along the profit. Some merchandise has also appeared on Amazon.
The money goes toward staff salaries, creating more radicalized content, and travel to militant events. In fact, a recent Color of Change audit showed that the top 20 widely recognized hate groups received over $20 million in contributions, sales, and grants in 2014 and 2015. That was before those groups became more emboldened by before the election of President Trump, who, rather than condemn the alt-right attacks in Charlottesville, has made statements that appear to equivocate or perhaps endorse them.
Color of Change’s site shows the name of each offender alongside a grid that illustrates with a red dollar sign which of the transaction services may still be helping keep it in business: “These companies direct funds to the groups responsible for numerous hate crimes, murders, and the radicalization of terrorists like Dylann Roof, Timothy McVeigh, Wade Michael Page, and Anders Behring Breivik,” the site notes.
ApplePay and Amazon have sporadic ties to some. However, since being notified, PayPal and ApplePay immediately began suspending service to offenders, an action that’s marked by a green checkmark. As the tracker went live on August 16, Discover claimed that was taking similar action, Robinson says, so its status on the list should change Color of Change verifies things.
“We’re really pushing Master Card, Visa, and American Express to step up to the plate,” Robinson added on last Thursday morning after the tracker had been live for one day. By Friday afternoon, the nonprofit noted that all three were taking action to remove services.
Visitors to the site are still encouraged to sign a petition (it’s also been circulating on social media), which makes clear just how much the public disagrees with these alliances. So far, it has drawn 90,000 signatures, a signal that whoever doesn’t continue to ride herd on what’s happening may ultimately lose customers. “What we’re saying is the major credit card companies that continue to allow this to happen are not bystanders, they are complicit,” Robinson says. “They are involved and they will be held responsible.”
In a way, the fight has echoes of Silicon Valley’s neutral platform argument, where companies like Twitter and Facebook have allowed misinformation and bullying to spread under the pretense that their job is to a realm for more social interaction, but not to police those opinions. As Fast Company has reported, that’s becoming an increasingly dubious stance.
The difference is that payment processors have already taken steps to stop money from flowing to other nefarious organizations, like international terrorist organizations or mug shot ransom companies. “Credit card companies have the power to cut off institutions that they view in violation of their terms, services, and values,” adds Robinson. “And the challenge has been for them to treat white terrorist organizations at terrorist organizations.”
Color of Change had been trying to change that since February when it first reached out to offenders in a letter that asked them to meet about revising current practices. Many responded tepidly, so the nonprofit began its petition. It reached back out after Richard Collins III was killed by a member of the Alt-Reich in May, and previewed the site tracker for everyone more than a month ago to try to encourage action.
After Charlottesville, the nonprofit decided to switch tactics and put everyone on notice that it would be going public with the depth of their ties on Blood Money. The site will remain up so that customers can track progress. If it slows, Color of Change is prepared to ask petitioners to take collective actions, like calling top executives, sharing a new social media campaign, or funding billboards to increase public awareness.
The activist group has worked to encourage practice changes at other companies, including Airbnb, which has had issues with renter discrimination in the past, but denied service to white nationalist members heading to Charlottesville on the grounds background checks revealed their actions violated a community commitment policy. It also helped SoundCloud identify over a dozen bigoted podcasts that were taken down this August.
As with all things Internet, Robinson stresses that companies can’t just remove one-time threats but must be vigilantly monitoring how they may reappear on the platform. “We know companies can shift to make more proactive stances, but you’ve got to work and push to change the culture and force them to see it as part of what they value,” he says.