In 1999, the former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke predicted that the Internet would help give birth to a “coming white revolution”.
The news media did not give him friendly coverage, he wrote on his website, but on the internet, he could reach supporters directly, starting a “chain reaction of racial enlightenment”.
For the next 20 years, Duke, one of the most notorious hate group leaders in the US, was given free rein to spread his white supremacist message on one internet platform after another.
Now, after years of protests and a surge of white supremacist terror attacks around the globe, social media companies are belatedly limiting Duke’s reach. Twitter said on Friday that it had permanently suspended his account, citing “repeated violations of the Twitter Rules on hateful conduct”. YouTube banned his account in June. Facebook banned Duke in 2018, the company said, more than a year after he participated in the violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Duke came more than a decade after Duke created his account, in 2009, and more than eight years after he started posting regularly, in 2012. He has tweeted tens of thousands of times, often weighing in on national events and sharing white supremacist and antisemitic conspiracies. He had more than 50,000 followers at the time his account was permanently suspended.
Duke, who was a neo-Nazi in college, led a Ku Klux Klan group and later founded an organization called the “National Association for the Advancement of White People”. He was elected to the state legislature in Louisiana in 1989. Two years later, when he ran for governor of Louisiana, he won more than half of the white vote.
Advocacy groups and non-profits that monitor racist extremists have protested for years against Twitter’s decision to allow Duke and other hate group leaders to use their platform for advocacy.
“The muted efforts of giant social media companies to address racial violence and hate crimes perpetrated via their platforms have had terrible consequences,” Henry Fernandez, the senior fellow for anti-hate at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement, citing “white nationalist rhetoric being fueled on social media leading to real-world violence including mass killings in El Paso, Texas; Gilroy, California; and, Christchurch, New Zealand”.
Activists with Change the Terms, a coalition of dozens of civil rights groups and other non-profits, have spent the past two years trying to get tech companies to remove white nationalists from their platforms, including asking Twitter directly to remove Duke’s account, both in “private meetings with Twitter’s leaders” and in public protests, Fernandez said.
“These discussions were initially like banging our head against a brick wall,” he said, but “today is an important step”.
The final violation of Twitter rules by Duke’s account, the one that prompted his suspension from Twitter, was a “harmful link”, the company said. It would not provide more details on the content of the link but noted its policy on suspending accounts for sharing links to dangerous content had been updated in March.
Duke’s final tweet contained a link to an interview he had conducted with a Holocaust denier, BBC News reported.
“David Duke is just a start, but there are still many others,” Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement.
Richard Spencer, another white nationalist and one of the organizers of the Charlottesville rally in 2017, is still on Twitter, activists noted.