The dating app Bumble said it’s working to combat racially charged harassment online, after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Va., last month.
The Austin-based company, which was founded by women to empower them and make them feel safe when dating online, hasn’t been shy about saying its mission is feminist. And that, company officials say, made Bumble a target several weeks ago for a group of misogynists, white supremacists and far-right extremists.
“They were not very into the female-empowerment, feminist-dating app idea,” says Alex Williamson el-Effendi, Bumble’s head of brand. “And they trolled us for about 48 hours.”
El-Effendi says some staff members got harassing emails and messages from a hate group that organizes online. She said the experience was horrifying, but also eye-opening.
“So, immediately for us it wasn’t, you know, ‘Woe is us,’” el-Effendi says. “It was, ‘Wow, if people are talking to us like this, they are probably talking this way to users.’ If they’re not on Bumble, they are talking this way in society and how do we change that? What can we do as a company and a team to be active in creating a solution to problems like these?”
Shortly after Bumble’s staff got the harassing messages, members of similar hate groups got offline and descended on Charlottesville to protest plans to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. A woman was killed after a white supremacist allegedly rammed his car into counterprotesters.
In an email to users a few days later, Bumble announced that it was working with the Anti-Defamation League to identify hate symbols and hate speech used within the app.
It also urged users to “block and report” people who use hate speech.
El-Effendi says making users feel safe on Bumble was already part of the company’s DNA, so this decision was a no-brainer.
“This is about protecting people and promoting kindness and respect online,” she says. “And I think that it’s more about online accountability than anything else. And if there is something happening that’s compromising that, we are going to take a stand and we are going to protect people.”
Bumble’s not alone. After Charlottesville, several other online companies began looking at ways to prevent hate groups from using their platforms to harass or mobilize.
“Almost every tech company is dealing with this in one way or another,” said Renee Lafair, regional director of Austin’s chapter of the Anti-Defamation League.
The ADL has a lot of experience helping tech companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter look at their terms of service. It helps companies come up with a plan to identify and eliminate hate speech on their platforms. Lafair said hate speech is a problem companies have grappled with for a long time now.
“But over time it’s become a bigger and bigger issue for them when people use these mechanisms to either threaten other people or harass other people or troll other people,” she says. “Then there has to be some sort of mechanisms and an alternative to help counter that behavior.”
But there are concerns about limiting speech.
Oren Bracha, a law professor at UT Austin who focuses on free speech and digital technology, says he isn’t worried about smaller companies like Bumble, but when big platforms like Facebook and Google restrict speech it can be a problem.
“These days we all know basically much of our speech arena – our democratic speech arena – has migrated to the digital space,” he says.
Only government entities have to uphold the First Amendment’s right to free speech; private companies can place restrictions. Bracha points out that companies don’t even have to talk about how they decide what speech they want to restrict.
“So, there is no democratic process,” he says. “But moreover, there is nothing to enable any process because it’s all secret. It’s all done under the hood, behind a veil of secrecy that those companies closely guard, and indeed that secrecy is enabled by law.”
Bracha says that in effect, lawyers for Google and Facebook have more power over speech in our society than does the Supreme Court and that’s something worth talking about.
Lafair says it’s a complicated issue.
“Free speech is one of the cornerstones of our democracy,” she says. “And that’s something that you want to treat with utmost care. However, when it’s used for certain purposes, companies have to explore whether or not they are comfortable and which side of the line they are going to be on.”