This piece is part of an ongoing Motherboard series on Facebook's content moderation strategies. You can read the rest of the coverage here.
Facebook told Motherboard it’s currently reviewing its policies on white supremacy, white nationalism, and white separatism after a series of meetings with civil rights leaders, reporting by Motherboard on these policies, and a forceful letter from a civil rights group formed under the direction of President John F. Kennedy.
Leaked internal documents show that Facebook’s content moderators are explicitly instructed to allow “white separatism” and “white nationalism” on the platform, but note that “white supremacy” is banned. Facebook makes this distinction because it argues in those documents that white nationalism “doesn't seem to be always associated with racism (at least not explicitly.)”
Now, following that reporting, multiple leading civil rights groups and Black history scholars are calling for Facebook to change its stance, saying that separatism and nationalism are a thinly-veiled mask for white supremacy.
“The idea that they are making a distinction that is basically buying into what the white nationalists are trying to sell is deeply troubling,” Becky Monroe, the director of the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Motherboard in a phone call.
The organization was formed in 1963 at the request of John F. Kennedy at the height of the civil rights movement. Monroe told Motherboard the committee met with Facebook over the summer to discuss the issue, and, in a letter the committee wrote to the company earlier this month obtained by Motherboard, it says Facebook’s stance is at odds with the central tenet of Brown v. Board of Education, the foundational Supreme Court ruling which found the doctrine of racial segregation is inherently unequal.
“By attempting to distinguish white supremacy from white nationalism and white separatism, Facebook ignores centuries of history, legal precedent, and expert scholarship that all establish that white nationalism and white separatism are white supremacy,” the letter states (emphasis theirs.) “Indeed, when we met with your company this summer, both our staff as well as the staff at Facebook, were unable to identify an example of white nationalism or white separatism that was not white supremacist.
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After Charlottesville, in which a white supremacist killed counter-protester Heather Heyer and assaulted DeAndre Harris and others in August 2017, Facebook sought to internally clarify its policies on white supremacy, according to leaked documents Motherboard previously obtained. Facebook reiterated which groups it bars from the site, and its hate speech policies specifically as they are to be enforced in America. Those include banning praise, support, and representation of white supremacy, but allowing the same sort of positions for white nationalism and separatism, according to the leaked documents.
But nationalism is a front for white supremacy, according to Monroe, Black history scholars, civil rights attorneys, and multiple other experts on far-right ideologies.
“What they’ve done is allowed white supremacists to rebrand themselves,” said Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project. “White nationalism is something that people like David Duke [former leader of the Klu Klux Klan] and others came up with to sound less bad.”
"Facebook’s policies will help either stomp out this hate speech and its growing popularity or help it spread like wildfire"
Others echoed this view to Motherboard.
“Anyone who distinguishes white nationalists from white supremacists does not have any understanding about the history of white supremacism and white nationalism, which is historically intertwined,” Ibram X. Kendi, who won a National Book Award in 2016 for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, told Motherboard. “White nationalists classify themselves as the protectors of white people and Facebook is again, agreeing with this idea, the rationale of white nationalists, while simultaneously saying they’re opposed to white supremacy.”
Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who represents Harris, victims of white supremacist violence, and victims of police brutality, told Motherboard that drawing lines between white nationalism and white supremacy is “a distinction without a difference.”
“Facebook’s policies are extremely important as social media has proven to be a powerful tool for organizing, spreading ideology, and even normalizing behavior,” he said. “Facebook’s policies will help either stomp out this hate speech and its growing popularity or help it spread like wildfire. They have to meaningfully protect against a hateful ideology that has resulted in countless acts of violence.”
Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color of Change, which has been pushing Facebook to perform a “civil rights audit,” told Motherboard via a spokesperson that her organization has had a similar conversation with Facebook, where Color of Change said that “this distinction is unacceptable,” and based on a “mere technicality.” “Facebook fails to recognize that advocacy for the United States to be a white state, or one that explicitly prioritizes the interests of white people, is neither new nor passive,” she added.
In interviews at Facebook headquarters, Motherboard previously asked Facebook why it allows white nationalism and separatism. The reasoning at the time was that Facebook believes it has to consider how a policy that bans all nationalist or separatist movements related to race or ethnic groups would impact people around the world; Facebook pointed to Black separatist groups, the Zionist movement, and the Basque movement.
“We don't just think about one particular group engaging in a certain speech, we think about, ‘What if different groups engaged in that same sort of speech?’ If they did, would we want to have a policy that prevented them from doing so?” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, told Motherboard earlier this year. “And so, where we've drawn the line right now is, where there is hate, where there is dismissing of other groups or saying that they are inferior, that sort of content, we would take down, and we would take it down from everybody.”
But the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is talking specifically about white nationalism and separatism, as do the training slides published by Motherboard, which, as the committee’s letter notes, hone in on “specific movements focused on the continued supremacy (politically, socially, and/or economically) of white people over other racial and ethnic groups.”
On Wednesday, Facebook told Motherboard it had received the committee’s letter, and it was reviewing the specific policy. In its letter, the committee pointed to a Facebook Page promoting white nationalism called “It’s okay to be white” which had over 13,000 followers; another called “American White History Month 2” that posts supremacist, nationalist, and separatist memes with over 254,000 followers; and “Nationalist Agenda,” a page focused on “Preserving [European] Racial and Cultural Heritage with over 8,000 followers. Facebook told Motherboard it has now taken action against the violating content and the individuals behind it.
Facebook does frequently update its training documents. Earlier this month Motherboard found a Facebook document fell for fake news, attributing an image to the recent violence in Myanmar when it in fact dated from an earthquake in another country years earlier. Facebook said it had removed the image from its slides.
Updating an enforcement approach to hate speech is more complex than removing an image, but the company does do it, constantly. One of the hate speech documents obtained by Motherboard includes a log showing changes made over weeks and months.
“It doesn’t require even any amendments to the fundamental policies,” David Brody, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Motherboard in a phone call.
“It’s a small lift but with a big impact,” Monroe said.