To weary enthusiasm, Facebook announced last month it would ban white nationalists and white separatists from the social network, dissolving the company’s bizarre distinction between those ideologies and white supremacy. The policy change, first reported by Motherboard, felt like progress. But as with all things Facebook, here comes the inevitable disappointment.
A very basic data scrape, conducted by Gizmodo, revealed a number of white nationalist and white separatist hate groups that are tracked by the US-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) still maintain public pages on the platform.
We searched Facebook for approximately 170 groups from SPLC’s Hatewatch list. Around 35 of the organisations were still active on the platform, based on their name, description, and location. When we manually cross-referenced information such as group leaders and external websites, we positively identified a total of 16 hate groups with public Facebook pages. Half were still actively posting, and the majority have operated continuously for five or more years.
Our decision to rely on research from the SPLC—which specialises in tracking hate and anti-government groups—was based on Facebook’s own decisions as a company. Facebook’s head of global policy development, Monika Bickert, told the US House Judiciary Committee last July that the SPLC was among the 100+ organisations it received input from. “We’ve been working, not just with Facebook but with the broader network of Silicon Valley companies for more than four years,” Keegan Hankes, an SPLC senior research analyst, told Gizmodo in a phone interview.
Some of the identified groups are, as one might expect, vanishingly small. The Divine International Church of the Web—a fundamentalist religious sect headed by an “alleged neo-Nazi ventriloquist”—has just 212 followers; another, with a single member, states in its group description “Whites only, please.” More alarmingly, Arktos Media, whose former editor-in-chief once described the operation as “the most significant press in the ‘alt-right’,” has amassed a staggering 43,605 followers over the past eight years, any one of which can tap Facebook’s “Shop Now” button to purchase the works of Kremlin-linked fascist Aleksandr Dugin.
In total, the SPLC tracks just over 1,000 groups. (The number is so large because many are regional chapters of the same umbrella organisation.) With Facebook’s tools and the scale of data it tends to use to identify problematic content and users, it’s hard to understand how this contingent of hate groups eluded the company’s detection, particularly given that groups like SPLC have done the work of identifying them first.
A surface level search such as this did not, of course, uncover any of the inconspicuously named or hidden groups attached to white nationalist hate groups—tactics which Hankes said he’s seen employed by these groups to evade detection.
The process of confirming the authenticity of these groups did, however, unearth many dozens more groups with similar leanings, either through cross-posts between pages, or Facebook’s own recommendations. (We do not believe these recommendations were influenced by prior use of the platform as the confirmations were carried out via a brand new user account.) These included pages with names like “The South Will Rise Again,” “Revolutionary Fascism,” “Zyklon A” (a reference to the cyanide-based chemical used to by Nazi Germany to kill countless people during the Holocaust), “Right Wing Death Watch,” and a book page for something called The Myth of White Guilt—which despite recent crackdowns of this kind, is still available for purchase on Amazon.
“It’s very, very frustrating to hear over and over again that this is such a tough challenge to solve when you’re talking about a relatively small number of groups,” Hanke said. “And we’re not even talking about the more challenging problem, which is getting toxic content off your platform everywhere. We can’t even get them to take hate groups, organised hate groups that we list in our documentation, off the platform.”
“Facebook, and many other similar companies, have not been proactive at all, they’ve been only reactive. And it tends to be just press that makes them act,” Hankes said, “press or tragedy.”
On Monday Buzzfeed reported that Facebook opted to ban a number of Canadian reactionary figures which support white nationalist beliefs, namely Faith Goldy, the Canadian Nationalist front, Soldiers of Odin. Goldy—along with a number of other white nationalists—was banned from Airbnb last week after being alerted by Gizmodo to the platform’s harbouring of these controversial figures during the upcoming American Renaissance Conference.
After being contacted by Gizmodo about the hate groups still on the social network, a Facebook spokesperson stated said the platform would be investigating the pages we sent over and explained that “we began enforcement on the policy last week, and, right now, enforcement is based on user report, so it’s highly possible that much of this content/these Pages haven’t been flagged to us.” The spokesperson also noted that Facebook has “a longstanding prohibition against hateful organisations and figures, and that work is very much proactive.”
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