Posted on April 8, 2019

Airbnb Doesn’t Want White Nationalists on Its Platform — But How Hard Is It Looking for Them?

Dhruv Mehrotra and Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo, April 6, 2019

Every spring, nearly 300 white nationalists convene in Burns, Tennessee for the American Renaissance Conference—and they always need a place to stay.

The conference—organized by Jared Taylor, who has been designated an extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — will be held at Montgomery Bell State Park, a scenic spot 40 miles from Nashville, in mid-May. The 120-room inn at the park is already fully booked. To accommodate the rest of the attendees, the conference recommends four local hotels in the area, but leaked internal communications from late 2018 and early 2019 obtained by activist media collective Unicorn Riot indicate that a number of the attendees, like many travelers these days, prefer the homes for offer on Airbnb.

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American Renaissance, or AmRen, is a magazine-turned-blog affiliated with the New Century Foundation, which is also on SPLC’s list, and its conference aspires to a country club atmosphere rather than a Klan rally, with ‘scholarly’ talks about the biological, sociological, and genetic differences between the races. “Is There a Superior Race?” was a talk at a conference in 1998. “Why We Are Winning” is a talk organizer Jared Taylor plans to give this year.

It’s a conference that regularly attracts controversy, protestors, and headlines but it did not seem to be on Airbnb’s radar until Gizmodo reached out to the company after seeing attendees’ leaked discussions of using the platform to book rooms during the event. Airbnb has previously said white nationalists are not welcome on its platform—when it canceled reservations of suspected attendees of the Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Airbnb said then in a statement to Gizmodo that it was committed to preemptively banning all users who violate the company’s Community Standards. But how much is the company keeping up with its commitment to keep members of hate groups out of its hosts’ beds?

A Gizmodo investigation found that 87 Airbnb listings in the immediate area around the Montgomery Bell Inn and Conference Center had been booked for the weekend of the hate group’s conference. Though it was impossible to know how many of those reservations were made by white nationalists attending AmRen, the possibility that Airbnb hosts were unknowingly inviting extremists in their homes is alarming.

After being notified about the event by Gizmodo, the company expressed alarm and immediately started an internal investigation into bookings in the area to see whether any of them were made by potential attendees. Airbnb ultimately canceled some of those reservations and banned an unknown number of users from its platform, including event speakers. Faith Goldy, who has been called a “white nationalist poster girl” and who had planned to give a “Canada First” talk at this year’s event, tweeted that she was banned Thursday.

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“Actions based in racism and hatred associated with Neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and white supremacists have no place in the Airbnb community,” Airbnb told Gizmodo in a statement. “When we see people on the platform pursuing behavior that would be antithetical to our Community Commitment, we take appropriate action. We previously acted in advance of the horrific event in Charlottesville, we’ve now acted in advance of this conference in Tennessee, and if we become aware of similar information we won’t hesitate to do so again.”

That’s a powerful stance not held by other hotels in the area. We tried to contact the state park and all the hotels recommended as lodging for attendees. Only Sheila, who picked up the phone at the Comfort Inn in Dickson, Tennessee, gave us comment on the event.

“We don’t discriminate, we just discriminate against people who want to party and do drugs. We don’t discriminate against any group or any type,” said Sheila. “We don’t ask people what their affiliation is or what they’re doing in town. Unless they have a corporate rate, we don’t ask why they’re here.”

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{snip} According to Airbnb’s website, every reservation is scored for risk using machine learning and predictive analytics, in addition to background checks when users first sign up. But those systems are designed to root out former felons and fraud, not neo-Nazis.

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The current focus of this debate is centered squarely on platforms for speech and web hosting; companies that facilitate the day-to-day operations of white supremacists have avoided scrutiny. But the question will certainly be asked more frequently of email providers, payment processors, and yes, hotels, as to whether they want to support these groups.

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Airbnb doesn’t seem to be monitoring proactively for extremists using its platform, but when it is made aware of hate group events—as in Charlottesville or with American Renaissance—it does act quickly and decisively. That’s more than many companies can say.

April 8, 2019 update: Jared Taylor, the organizer of the American Renaissance conference, sent this comment: “We are a peaceful group that meets annually to discuss the legitimate interests of white people. Is Airbnb really in the business of denying services to people whose politics it doesn’t like? Who’s next? Evangelicals? Trump supporters? This is the worst sort of closed-mindedness and there is a word for it: bigotry.”