From Pro Publica:
“Give me, a white man, a reason to live,” a user posted to the anonymous message board 4chan in the summer of 2017. “Should I get a hobby. What interests can I pursue to save myself from total despair. How do you go on living.”
A fellow user had a suggestion: “Please write a concise book of only factual indisputable information exposing the Jews,” focusing on “their selling of our high tech secrets to China/Russia” and “their long track record of pedophilia and perversion etc.”
The man seeking advice was intrigued. “And who would publish it and who would put it in their bookstores that would make it worth the trouble,” he asked.
The answer came a few minutes later. “Self-publish to Amazon,” his interlocutor replied.
“Kindle will publish anything,” a third user chimed in.
They were basically right. It takes just a couple of minutes to upload one’s work to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon’s self-publishing arm; the e-book then shows up in the world’s largest bookstore within half a day, typically with minimal oversight. Since its founding more than a decade ago, KDP has democratized the publishing industry and earned praise for giving authors shut out of traditional channels the chance to reach an audience that would have been previously unimaginable.
It has also afforded the same opportunity to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, an investigation by ProPublica and The Atlantic has found. Releases include “Anschluss: The Politics of Vesica Piscis,” a polemic that praises the “grossly underappreciated” massacre of 77 people by the Norwegian neo-Nazi Anders Breivik in 2011, and “The White Rabbit Handbook,” a manifesto linked to an Illinois-based militia group facing federal hate-crime charges for firebombing a mosque. (Amazon removed the latter last week following questions from ProPublica.) About 200 of the 1,500 books recommended by the Colchester Collection, an online reading room run by and for white nationalists, were self-published through Amazon. And new KDP acolytes are born every day: Members of fringe groups on 4chan, Discord and Telegram regularly tout the platform’s convenience, according to our analysis of thousands of conversations on those message boards. There are “literally zero hoops,” one user in 4chan’s /pol/ forum told another in 2015. “Just sign up for Kindle Direct Publishing and publish away. It’s shocking how simple it is, actually.” Even Breivik, at the start of the 1,500-page manifesto that accompanied his terrorist attacks, suggested that his followers use KDP’s paperback service, among others, to publicize his message.
That these books are widely available on Amazon does not seem to be an accident but the inevitable consequence of the company’s business strategy. Interviews with more than two dozen former Amazon employees suggest that the company’s drive for market share and philosophical aversion to gatekeepers have incubated an anything-goes approach to content: Virtually no idea is too inflammatory, and no author is off-limits. As major social networks and other publishing platforms have worked to ban extremists, Amazon has emerged as their safe space, a haven from which they can spread their message into mainstream American culture with little more than a few clicks.
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“As a bookseller, we believe that providing access to the written word is important,” an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement. “That includes books that some may find objectionable, though we have policies governing which books can be listed for sale. We invest significant time and resources to ensure our guidelines are followed, and remove products that do not adhere to our guidelines. We also promptly investigate any book when a concern is raised.”
The growing influence of social networks on political life has prompted a national debate about what should stay up on these platforms, what should come down, who’s to blame and who decides. Following the deadly far-right violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and PayPal cracked down on the activities of white supremacists and hate groups on their platforms. In recent years, Amazon has barred several high-profile white supremacist authors, including former Klan leader David Duke, from its bookstore. It does occasionally pull extremist books from KDP, sometimes months or years after publication, and often in secret, without providing any explanation to authors or readers. But these removals appear to be the exception. KDP’s terse policies do not address hate speech, racism or incitements to violence, though Amazon reserves the right to remove any items from its store, including “content that disappoints our customers” or fails to “provide an enjoyable reading experience.” By and large, Amazon, which in the United States controls around half of the market for all books, and close to 90% for e-books, has become a gateway for white supremacists to reach the American reading public.
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Before the internet, Roper’s reach would have likely been limited by bookstores’ shelf space and curatorial judgement. But in today’s world of digital abundance, far-right authors have enjoyed a newfound visibility. Gary Lauck, the leader of NSDAP/AO, an American neo-Nazi party, used to rely on snail mail to smuggle neo-Nazi propaganda into Germany and other European countries where it’s been banned. Today, several works published by his organization’s press are available to anyone in the U.S. and Europe on Amazon and on Kindle Unlimited, a program that offers books to readers for a subscription fee. KDP has also revived an older white nationalist canon. Many works by historical Nazis and anti-Semites, no longer held by copyright and long out of print, have been reprinted through KDP. Members of far-right chatrooms often link to them.
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Like other savvy authors, some white supremacists go beyond Amazon’s automated assistance to boost sales. One technique is to “category squat” — that is, classify one’s books in low-traffic or obscure categories such as “Ancient Greek History” to game their rankings. As a commentator on the 4chan /pol/ forum explained to someone interested in self-publishing on KDP, “If you pick a good niche and the book is good and you understand their search algorithm you can make a lot of money.” “Jewish Privilege,” by the anti-Semitic commentator E. Michael Jones, is ranked as the 10th-most-popular book in “LGBT Political Issues,” despite being about the alleged evils of Jewish people.
Other authors manipulate their ratings by making their self-published books temporarily free so that readers can “purchase” them and leave a positive review. “ALL of my books are available for FREE in e-book form this week in exchange for an honest review on Amazon later,” Roper posted in 2017 on the neo-Nazi message board Stormfront. As a result of this behind-the-scenes lobbying, Berger said, far-right texts often seem to have better reviews than other kinds of books, which may affect how frequently Amazon recommends them. The first installment of Roper’s trilogy has 70 reviews and a rating of four out of five stars. Roper even gave the book a five-star review on Goodreads: “I liked it so much that I’m currently working on the sequel!”
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When the retailer decides to drop a publisher or remove a book, it offers no explanation, no appeals process and little to no warning. “Amazon will be as ambiguous as possible, and when they terminate or suspend accounts, they will essentially imply, You know what you did and shame on you,” said Dale L. Roberts, who hosts a popular YouTube channel about the self-publishing business. Its notice to authors is “very generic copy and paste.”
This opacity makes it difficult for authors and readers to know how and why these decisions are made. For instance, while books such as Johnson’s “The White Nationalist Manifesto” have been removed from the site, self-published manifestos such as “The Declaration of White Independence” and “Foundations of The 21st Century: The Philosophy of White Nationalism” remain for sale. We also came across nearly a dozen Holocaust-skeptic books still available on Amazon, including some for sale in Germany, where such texts can be illegal. In response to our questions, Amazon took three of them down. It declined to share information about the number of books it’s taken down, its internal policies or how it enforces them.
Amazon’s ambiguous guidelines are not without reason. Given the company’s prominence in the marketplace, overly broad content restrictions might threaten literary expression as a whole. Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for instance, was a fascist, an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier; he also wrote “Journey to the End of the Night,” which is among the most acclaimed works of French fiction. “Even if a book contains hate speech, it may be that it’s quoting other people’s hate speech or has other social, historical or literary merit,” said Eric Goldman, a leading First Amendment and content-moderation expert. It would be misguided to apply to a book-length essay or novel the same policies that attempt to govern tweets and Facebook posts, he adds.
Hate speech is also notoriously difficult to define. “There’s still nothing like consensus about what extremism even is in general, let alone when you get down to what’s considered to be a controversial and difficult decision about the whole of a book,” Berger said. “Even I, who’ve studied elements of this, would be hesitant to say that there’s any easy recipe to decide what stays and what goes.”
Smaller self-publishing companies say they have taken a more proactive stance. Lulu, Smashwords and Kobo all explicitly prohibit authors from self-publishing discriminatory or hateful content through their platforms. Representatives from each company spoke with us about navigating the tension between free expression and fomenting hate. “We don’t enjoy acting as a gatekeeper,” the Smashwords founder and CEO Mark Coker said. “We don’t enjoy serving as arbiter of what’s acceptable and what’s not. But it’s a responsibility we have to take on.”
Lulu and Smashwords have banned Roper from using their platforms in recent years. (Roper has not uploaded his works to Kobo.) When Smashwords terminated Roper’s account, a representative explained that it was because his work was “advocating hateful, discriminatory or racist views or actions toward others,” according to emails shared with us by Smashwords.
Link to the rest at Pro Publica