Tech platforms continue to let U.S.-based hate groups use them to make payments

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Technology platforms including PayPal, Stripe, Facebook and Amazon are accepting payments to hate groups in the United States, even though some have explicit policies preventing their use to facilitate hate or violence.

According to an analysis by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an anti-extremism think tank, and the Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit research group, seen exclusively by NBC News, 73 U.S.-based hate groups have had access to at least 54 online funding mechanisms. The access includes crowdfunding, e-commerce, online payment tools and cryptocurrencies through Oct. 3. Thirty-two of the hate groups have nonprofit status, which allows them to raise money through charity fundraising platforms.

Twenty-one of the groups used PayPal to raise money. Nineteen were able to raise funds through Facebook’s donation tools, and 13 used Stripe’s technology on their websites to receive payments. Thirteen groups were selling merchandise or literature, including e-book anthologies of articles by the white nationalist group VDARE through Amazon.com.

The researchers called on tech platforms to adopt and enforce policies limiting their use by hate groups and to encourage congressional debate about whether the IRS should grant nonprofit status to groups that discriminate against “immutable” characteristics — especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the election.

“We’ve seen offline and online mobilization of hate throughout 2020, both relating to the pandemic and to the election campaign,” said Jacob Davey, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and author of the research, titled “Bankrolling Bigotry: An Overview of the Online Funding Strategies of American Hate Groups.” “Many groups have mobilized real-world violence over the course of this year, and the election itself remains a vulnerable moment for potential hostility.”

Numerous analyses over the last few years have examined the funding mechanisms of hate groups, including reports by the Anti-Defamation League, the Center for Media and Democracy, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Color of Change.

Hate speech and extremism experts are finding that treating the companies like neutral providers of infrastructure is an “excuse that is no longer tolerated socially,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She said that while civil society groups and journalists can apply pressure from the outside, tech workers at the companies have the power to effect change from within.

“You can’t maintain a business when the people who work for you don’t want to work for you,” Donovan said. “The broad umbrella of ‘tech won’t build it’ will over time start to make an impact. What’s unfortunate, of course, is we shouldn’t have to wait.”

The latest research on hate groups focused on groups with beliefs or practices that attack, malign, delegitimize or exclude a class of people based on immutable characteristics, like ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

The 73 groups were selected from existing datasets created by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, with additional vetting by the researchers. To be included in the analysis, a group needed to be active in 2020, have an identifiable membership base and carry out identifiable activity, such as the creation of literature or other content spreading hateful ideology or involvement in street-based hate mobilization.

Researchers divided the 73 groups into categories, including white supremacist, white nationalist, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and street protest/militia.

PayPal problems

Weeding out the groups has been a perennial problem at PayPal. The company’s acceptable use policy prohibits the use of its platform to process payments to promote “hate, violence, racial or other forms of intolerance that is discriminatory.” It has made repeated pledges to deny white supremacist and other hate groups access to its payment and donation tools after the Southern Poverty Law Center found that it was “integral” in raising money to organize the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, at which a counterprotester was hit by a car and killed.

But researchers found that the white nationalist group America First Students is using PayPal to solicit donations. “Militia” or street protest groups, including American Patriots USA and American Revolution 2.0, use PayPal to receive donations, and Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson used it to raise money for his legal defense fund. Gibson faces charges of inciting a riot in Portland, Oregon, in May 2019.

Some groups attempting to raise money through PayPal use alternative spellings or named entities, apparently in an effort to circumvent PayPal’s detection tools. For example, the American Patriots USA donation page links to an account in the name of a company called “Jack & Jill Home Solutions” but with a note stating that the purpose of the donation is “American Paatriots USA” (misspelling in the original).

PayPal spokeswoman Kim Eichorn said the company was reviewing the accounts referred to in the research. She said a PayPal team assesses each case individually and closes accounts that violate the company’s acceptable use policy.

“PayPal is dedicated to ensuring that our services are not used to accept payments or donations for activities that promote hate, violence or racial intolerance,” Eichorn said.

Broader problems

Researchers found that Facebook, Stripe and Amazon — all of which declined to comment — have faced similar challenges even though they have some policies to address the problem. Among the 19 hate groups with access to Facebook’s donation tools — including Facebook Fundraisers — is VDARE, an anti-immigration group that promotes white nationalist views, even though Facebook removed pages associated with the group in May.

Anti-LGBTQ+ groups such as the American College of Pediatricians, which links homosexuality to pedophilia and endorses so-called conversion therapy for gay young people, and the American Family Association, which opposes what its founder, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, described as the “homosexual agenda,” are also able to raise funds on Facebook.

The payments processor Stripe provides checkout services for 13 of the groups featured in the research, which allows them to sell merchandise. Among them are VDARE and the white nationalist groups Patriot Front and Nick Fuentes’ America First. Stripe also provides services for anti-Muslim groups, including ACT for America, whose founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has said practicing Muslims “cannot be loyal citizens of the United States.”

Thirteen groups, including the white supremacist group Shield Wall Network and the white nationalist groups League of the South and VDARE, sold items — mostly ideological literature — on Amazon.com.

Nonprofit privilege

Many of the organizations categorized by the research as hate groups have nonprofit tax status in the U.S. — a problem the report’s researchers said “potentially helps legitimize hate groups and provides them with avenues through which to raise money.”

Indeed, Facebook appears to allow donations to nonprofit organizations featured in the GuideStar database of organizations with 501(c)(3) status — totaling about 1.6 million groups — through a partnership with the fundraising platform Network for Good.

Similarly, a platform called Charity Navigator allows donations to 29 of the 73 groups identified in the research, also facilitated by Network for Good, although the organization’s chief relationship officer, Kevin Scally, said only nine of the listed groups had raised any money through the site.

Scally said that Charity Navigator does not have a policy that excludes nonprofits based on their mission but that “it’s not out of the question.”

Davey, of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said: “There is a need for congressional debate about whether such groups should qualify for nonprofit tax status in the first place. It clearly acts as a mechanism to help legitimize them and give the impression that they are acting in the public interest.”

Making changes

Experts echoed the report’s calls for technology platforms to adopt policies against doing business with hate groups or to better enforce the policies they have.

“These types of people have always existed in the sidelines of our society. But they have only been able to grow because they’ve had the help of mainstream social media and technology platforms,” said Nandini Jammi, a brand safety consultant who runs campaigns dedicated to making hate speech and disinformation unprofitable. “Without that support, they’d never be able to gain the prominence and growth they have enjoyed through the past decade.”



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