On early Monday morning, leaked audio attributed to white supremacist Richard Spencer was published on fellow alt-right figure Milo Yiannopolous’ YouTube channel. In the clip, which was allegedly recorded in the summer of 2017, Spencer is heard yelling racial and ethnic slurs with reference to the Unite the Right rally, the alt-right rally in Charlottesville where one protester was killed.
“We are coming back here a fucking hundred times,” the person who is allegedly Spencer says on the recording, an apparent reference to Charlottesville. “I am so mad. I am so fucking mad at these people.” The voice in the video later refers to the protesters at Charlottesville as “little fucking kikes” and “fucking octoroons,” ranting, “My ancestors enslaved those pieces of fucking shit.”
One of the key figures behind the alt-right, Spencer initially rose to prominence by endorsing white-nationalist principles such as racial purity and so-called peaceful ethnic cleansing. Yet he gained some degree of mainstream visibility thanks to his academic credentials and buttoned-up persona, which was markedly different than that of other white supremacists. As a result, many mainstream media outlets provided a platform for Spencer’s views by using him as a source, most notoriously CNN, which interviewed Spencer last summer.
On Twitter, where the audio widely circulated, the clip was primarily cited as evidence that Spencer’s image served as a front for his white-supremacist views, exposing him for who he really was. (Spencer has made no public comment regarding the authenticity of the recording, other than to tweet a recording of a speech by far-right commenter Jonathan Bowden with the title “Never Apologize.” Spencer did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone.) Researchers of the far right also pointed out that Yiannopolous’ leak of the audio did not necessarily reflect his condemnation of the sentiments contained therein, but was the byproduct of a growing rift between members of a Trump-supporting contingent of the alt-right and the more overtly extremist camp helmed by Spencer, who has argued that the alt-right should break with Trump in 2020, as delineated in a thread from the anarchist news platform It’s Going Down. The release of the audio doesn’t reflect Yiannopolous’ change of heart so much as it represents his middle finger to the latter camp, despite the fact that Spencer and Yiannopolous have a history of palling around, according to IGD editor James Anderson. But the audio also raises another question: In the midst of the growing conversation about platforms and what responsibility they may have to limit hate speech, why does Spencer, an avowed racist, still have an active Twitter account to begin with?
It’s a question that has been asked in various forms by journalists and left-wing activists for years. Indeed, according to a Wall Street Journal investigation, in 2016 Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey reportedly made the decision to override the platform’s initial decision to ban Spencer, as well as a number of other key far-right figures such as Alex Jones (who was eventually banned, along with Laura Loomer and Gavin MacInnes, in 2018). While Twitter denied this report, when questioned by Vox last year about why Spencer was still allowed on the platform, a Twitter spokesperson said that “we have not received reports of content that would result in [Spencer being] suspended” and that Spencer did not have any known affiliations to hate groups. (According to Twitter guidelines, anyone who is affiliated with a group either on- or offline that is found to “engage in and/or promote violence against civilians to advance a political, religious and/or social cause” is in violation of Twitter policy.) However, the claim is on its face incorrect, as Spencer is the president of the National Policy Institute, a white-supremacist organization that has been classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “I do not believe that he should still be on Twitter based on what Twitter says its policies [about hate speech] are,” says Howard Graves, a senior research analyst for the SPLC, who says the group has been reporting Spencer’s tweets since 2015.
Indeed, on Twitter, where Spencer has a comparatively modest yet substantial 77.7K following, he appears to be making a concerted effort to skirt the platform’s terms of service. Most of his posts are retweets (a strategy that appears to be borrowed from the unofficial “retweets aren’t endorsements” school of thought), and few of his own tweets employ slurs or any other indicators of hate speech under official Twitter guidelines, even as they promote far-right ideology. “He’s been playing it safe,” says Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor of communications at Syracuse University’s SI Newhouse School of Public Communications. “He doesn’t appear to have violated Twitter policy in a way that will get him booted.”
Such a strategy is certainly consistent with Spencer’s buttoned-up media presence, which has led to mainstream outlets deeming him a “dapper” representative of white supremacy and even esteemed publications like the Atlantic publishing lengthy profiles of him as a symbol for the far-right movement. “One of the things that was frustrating about the coverage was it completely obscured what is being discussed [in far-right circles] behind this banal portrayal of aesthetics,” Graves points out, even though “what lies at the heart of this discourse is exactly what the recording shows.”
Spencer also may very well have taken a cue from the fate that has befallen his former far-right compatriots who have been booted from Twitter for violating their terms of service. Yiannopolous in particular has publicly complained about how being subject to deplatforming has decimated his income, and has primarily posted on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Now that Yiannopolous’ “star has fallen” within the far-right movement, leaking the recording “is a shrewd play by a cynical individual to remain relevant,” says Graves.
It’s possible that, in addition to taking the alt-right infighting to the next level, Yiannopolous leaked the alleged Spencer audio as a way to underscore Twitter’s arbitrary censorship policy (and indeed, on the website FreeSpeech.tv, where he initially posted the audio, Yiannopolous does allude to this, pointing out that former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke also has a Twitter account). But while Yiannopolous’ own agenda indisputably informs this argument, he would not be the only person to make it. As the 2020 election looms closer and closer, there has been increasingly close scrutiny on social media platforms’ role in promoting misinformation and hate speech. Last month, Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress defending the platform’s decision to not fact-check political ads. Seemingly in response, Twitter unveiled its own policy banning political ads in all forms, which was hailed by many on the left as a step in the right direction toward curbing toxic discourse on the platform — though, as a select few pointed out, toxic ads are not really the issue on Twitter, so much as toxic users like Spencer himself.
In the midst of this ongoing discussion, platforms have been attempting to avoid allegations of anti-conservative bias (which have been promoted by none other than the president himself) by shrugging off the argument that they are obligated to regulate such content. “We’re very much in the time and space where we’re deciding what social media companies are in the media environment and regulatory space, and platforms are being very careful right now so they don’t lose safe harbor [under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act],” says Grygiel, referring to the piece of legislation that renders tech companies largely exempt from liability for content published on the platforms. While Twitter did not yet respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment regarding whether screaming about “kikes” and “octoroons” qualifies as evidence of a hate-group affiliation, it seems the company’s fears about being slapped with cries of anti-conservative bias means that Spencer’s Twitter account will likely live to see another day.