The evidence is inconclusive, but no one in this administration has earned the benefit of the doubt.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along party lines to repeal an Obama-era regulation to preserve net neutrality, defying Silicon Valley executives and consumer advocacy groups, not to mention the will of the people. A recent University of Maryland survey finds that more than 80 percent of registered voters oppose the FCC’s plans.
The move will fundamentally transform the internet as we know it, allowing corporate behemoths like Verizon and Comcast to manipulate loading speeds and charge customers a premium for access to individual websites and apps. Adding insult to democratic injury, circumstantial evidence suggests the man who cast the deciding vote, Ajit Pai, sympathizes with the so-called alt-right.
Back in November, the FCC chairman and Trump appointee unveiled his plans to junk the net neutrality rules established in 2015, arguing that websites and social media platforms, rather than internet service providers (ISPs), posed the greatest threat to an open internet. At the time, Pai singled out Twitter for blame.
“The company has a viewpoint and uses that viewpoint to discriminate,” he told the R Street Institute, a libertarian-minded think tank. “And to say the least, the company appears to have a double standard when it comes to suspending or deverifying conservative users’ accounts as opposed to those of liberal users. This conduct is many things, but it isn’t fighting for an open internet.”
It’s difficult to know exactly who Pai had in mind, but Slate’s April Glaser notes that Twitter recently deverified the accounts of several prominent white supremacists, including Laura Loomer and Jason Kessler. The former is a YouTube sensation on the alt-right who was recently banned from Uber and Lyft for her Islamophobic tweets, while the latter was one of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. In October, Kessler was indicted on a felony perjury charge after falsely accusing a man he’d assaulted of attacking him first.
“What’s weird about Pai’s comments is that while these are all figures on the right, conservatives don’t typically count them among their ranks,” Glaser writes. “And while conservatives do sometimes cast themselves as ideological victims of Silicon Valley’s overreach, there have been no recent deverifications of prominent right-wing figures, ‘conservative’ or otherwise, not known for promoting hate. In other words, according to Pai, the demotion of racists on a social network is a bigger deal than an action that could radically change the architecture of—and who succeeds on—the internet.”
Weirder still is the video Pai released Wednesday in conjunction with the Daily Caller assuring millennials that they can still “gram their food” and “post photos of cute animals” if net neutrality is scrapped. (In May, he made a separate appeal to America’s youth by reading aloud the meanest tweets about his proposals, a nod to the popular segment on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”) When he’s not wielding a fidget spinner and assuring viewers they can still binge-watch “Game of Thrones,” he can be seen doing the Harlem Shake next to a woman named Martina Markota, a far-right conspiracy theorist who has speculated that Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair ran a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington pizzeria.
Before joining the Daily Caller, Markota appeared in a video for the Proud Boys, a self-described “Western Chauvinist” men’s club with ties to the alt-right, where she claimed that the (thoroughly debunked) Pizzagate was real. “This is not something I’m making up because I’m trying to…put in my fantasy version of what’s going on and interject it into these email scandals,” she says at one point. “This is independent of the campaign. I know what cheese pizza is.”
Pai, the son of Indian immigrants, has been a subject of racist attacks himself in recent months, some of them bearing the hallmarks of the alt-right. “We all have the power to murder Ajit Pai and his family,” an FCC commenter wrote in May. “Jk jk.” No one stands to lose more from the repeal of net neutrality rules than the patrons of websites like 4chan and Reddit, which internet service providers will soon be able to slow to a crawl, so it’s difficult to imagine white nationalists embracing Pai as an ally, and vice versa.
And yet. After the FCC chairman pleaded his case that social media networks were suppressing free speech, he earned the effusive praise of far-right radio host Matt Forney and Andrew Torba of Gab, a platform where users “are generally free to be as racist or anti-Semitic as they’d like without fear of being reprimanded or censored,” according to Slate.
It’s possible, even probable, that Pai was unaware of Martina Markota’s history before he recorded his latest video for the Daily Caller. But the fact remains that Jason Kessler got his start as a contributor for the right-wing publication, and Pai had no reservations about lending it his imprimatur. With a White House that has excused and enabled white nationalists at every turn, no one in the Trump administration has earned the benefit of the doubt.
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