Every summer nearly 300 white nationalists convene in Burns, Tennessee for the American Renaissance Conference — and they always need a place to stay.
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The conference — organised 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 64km 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 travellers these days, prefer the homes for offer on Airbnb.
In a Slack message sent on January 29th, Patrick Casey, CEO of the American Identity Movement (formerly known as Identity Evropa, another SPLC-designated hate group) recommended that members “should definitely register [for AmRen] ASAP, given that rooms often sell out early.” He added, “If there’s enough interest, we can rent an AirBnb.”
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 organiser 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 in a statement to Gizmodo at that time 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.
“My inbox was littered w reviews like, ‘Cleanest guest ever!’ ‘Prompt communication, highly recommend,’” Goldy tweeted. “This ban has nothing to do with my behaviour, it has everything to do w my politics.”
That is true, if by “politics” she means “views on humanity and equality.”
“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 behaviour 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.”
An LA hotel that kicked out Friends of the Israel Defence Forces a decade ago had to pay a $2 million penalty for it. It’s unclear whether a ban on white nationalists would tangle with those laws, but at least one hotel has taken a stance on the issue: Hyatt Hotels announced in October that hate groups aren’t welcome at its properties.
The fact that Airbnb did not seem aware of this well-documented annual conference until journalists brought it to the company’s attention raises serious questions about how much of an effort the company is actually making to keep extremists off its platform.
The conference has been held annually for eight years and is subject to extensive local coverage due to the state park’s controversial decision to host a gathering of white nationalists year after year.
According to its Trust and Safety team, “Airbnb is trying to build a world where people can belong anywhere and there are no strangers.” That mission is antithetical to the white nationalist project to close borders and silo races.
Airbnb committed to its anti-discrimination policy following allegations of racism that culminated in the 2016 hiring of former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Holder helped the company create its “Community Commitment,” a broad policy that mandates members must not discriminate against each other “based on race, colour, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or marital status.”
But how is that enforced? 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.
Airbnb wouldn’t let us talk to the team responsible for hunting down and banning extremists, and the company doesn’t disclose the “hundreds of signals” that help it investigate suspicious activity, because it would compromise platform security. The simplest thing the platform could do would be to create a calendar of hate events and monitor those locations at those times. The Southern Poverty Law Center maintains such a calendar internally, according to a spokesperson.
“We regularly review activity related to events that promote hate speech,” said Airbnb in response to a question about whether it monitors for hate events.
Airbnb has previously missed white nationalists using its platform, according to leaked messages from SPLC-designated hate group Identity Evropa that were obtained by Unicorn Riot. While planning for a January gathering in Celina, Tennessee, members shared Airbnb listings and solicited availability in reservations they had already booked. (We reached out via Airbnb’s messaging system to someone whose home appeared to have been booked by the group, but that person reported us to the Airbnb police for a message about something other than an Airbnb reservation.)
A leaked transcript from Identity Evropa’s Orientation for New Pledge Members from January 30, 2019, paints a picture of a group that frequently uses Airbnb for its events. In the document, CEO Patrick Casey mentions Airbnb six times in relation to events in Utah, Chicago, and Tennessee. At one point he suggests that an upcoming Identity Evropa event might even take place at an AirBnb.
“So the conference is being held in Appalachia. We are not giving the exact location,” he said, according to the transcript. “The AirBnB for that location is only in a server for people who are going.”
When asked by email about Airbnb’s removal of people connected to the American Renaissance, Casey called it “the latest example of a tech company punishing law-abiding citizens for engaging in peaceful political activity.”
“I, for one, view the prospect of a world in which companies and corporations deny service to people with the ‘wrong’ opinions as incredibly dystopian,” he wrote. “Imagine trying to exist without access to payment processors, social media, bank accounts, Uber, Airbnb, etc. — we’re basically there already.”
These revelations come on the heels of a national debate about what exactly corporate America’s responsibility is to squeeze out extremism from its platforms and services. Facebook and Instagram recently committed to banning content that explicitly endorses white nationalism or separatism.
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.
Perhaps the only positive effect of events like American Renaissance is that they force companies to meaningfully reckon with their brand identity beyond the virtue signalling of a well-rehearsed press release.
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.