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Facebook is letting white nationalist hate groups operate in the open

Facebook says it takes online and offline actions into account when deciding whether to ban a hate group.

by Tess Owen
Apr 19 2018, 7:45pm

Leslie Xia

The VDare Foundation bills itself as “the premier outlet for patriotic immigration reform” and does a brisk business publishing stories like “Why can’t white men defend their women from black men?” and “Blacks may not be dog lovers, but they love pit bulls.”

Founded by British-born journalist Peter Brimelow in 2007, VDare advocates for white rights and against diversity. The Southern Poverty Law Center classifies the VDare Foundation as a hate group. VDare operates in the open on Facebook, where it has more than 10,000 followers and a “donate” button for anyone who wants to help fund the cause.

In his testimony on Capitol Hill last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave what sounded like an absolutist policy on hate. “We do not allow hate groups on Facebook, overall,” he said. “So if there’s a group that their primary purpose or a large part of what they do is spreading hate, we will ban them from the platform overall.”

But some of the most prominent organizations that activists say are dedicated to hate and bigotry still thrive openly on Facebook.

Last week, VICE News asked Facebook some questions about two pages linked to Richard Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who believes America should be a white nation. Following our inquiry, the pages were removed from the platform. VICE News has since found dozens of other groups on Facebook that appear to exist primarily to promote white nationalism and/or hate against Muslims and other minorities.

Read: White nationalist Richard Spencer’s pages just got kicked off Facebook

Facebook says it has its own system for determining what is and isn’t a hate group, and declined to go on the record with VICE News about how they make that determination. Facebook did say their policy on hate groups is distinct from their policy on hate speech, because it also takes into account a group or individual’s offline activity or activity on other platforms when making the decision.

Once Facebook labels an organization as a hate group, they remove it from the platform, the company says. Still, VICE News found many groups espousing hate, both online and offline, using Facebook to promote their ideas, cultivate followers, and raise money.

Hate on Facebook

Jason Kessler, who was instrumental in organizing last summer’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has a page on Facebook with nearly 3,000 followers. Last May, the right-wing Daily Caller suspended ties with Kessler due to his white nationalist views. Less than a week after the Unite the Right rally left one dead and scores injured, Kessler tweeted, “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.” (He later retracted the tweet, which referred to the young woman killed when a car plowed through a crowd of counterprotesters at the rally). On Facebook, he has referred to Vice Mayor of Charlottesville Wes Bellamy as an “idiot black supremacist.”

“Faith and Heritage,” with 1,700 followers on Facebook, is a white nationalist group that ascribes to “kinism,” a belief system that promotes racial segregation and the idea that white Christians are the only subsection of society worthy of salvation. A recent post about the upcoming royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle asked, “A foreign non-white feminist divorcée. What could go wrong?”

Read: This racist group just got banned from Charlottesville

Others include “The Soldiers of Odin," a far-right anti-immigrant vigilante group in Canada. A declassified report by the Canada Border Services Agency Intelligence Bulletin warned last summer that some members of the group “adhere to extreme right-wing ideology and are not afraid to use violence to achieve objectives.”

“Stop Islamization of the World” commands a nearly 100,000-strong following on Facebook. Most recently, the group posted an article from “Bare Naked Islam,” warning that “mass Muslim migration” had transformed Sweden into a “war zone” and that the number of “no-go zones” in the European country had soared in the last year. Such claims have been repeatedly debunked by fact checkers such as Snopes and Politifact.

All of these groups or individuals are considered hate groups by the SPLC , which closely monitors hate and extremism in the U.S. But while some are proud of that classification, others push back. “Our position is that the SPLC are just Cultural Marxist vigilantes and we’ve named them a Treason Group,” VDare’s Brimelow said in an email to VICE News. “You are too.”

Brimelow added that he believes his group has been “shadow-banned” from Facebook for years, a conspiracy theory popular among the far-right. “Facebook are now even more useless than ever in terms of traffic after the recent algorithm changes (which seem to have impacted non-political MSM sites too),” Brimelow wrote.

Censorship watch

Facebook appears to have actively kept hardcore neo-Nazi and Klu Klux Klan groups off their platform, including Vanguard America and the National Socialist Movement. But the issue gets murkier when it comes to groups espousing white nationalism or immigration policies that can directly or indirectly veer into racism.

“What we are seeing is a blurring of the lines with regard to bigoted discourse and mainstream sociopolitical expression,” said Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “When you attach bigotry to debates of significant public importance, it’s very difficult to disentangle. And that’s a challenge for Facebook.”

As a private business, Facebook has the authority to decide which content stays and goes on the service. The bigger danger, according to Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert at UCLA School of Law, is that Facebook would be tempted to over-censor and stymie critical public discourse.

“It’s a bad idea to interfere with serious, important debates that are going on right now among American voters”

“It’s a bad idea to interfere with serious, important debates that are going on right now among American voters,” said Volokh. “That is not something than an American corporation should be in the business of doing.”

Facebook said it relies on its relationships with organizations dedicated to the study of hate and extremism across the world to provide them with information. Last October, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg met with representatives from SPLC, Muslim Advocates, among other groups, to discuss the issue of hate groups using its platform.

“Are they really taking this seriously?”

After that meeting, Muslim Advocates sent Facebook a letter, undersigned by 17 other organizations including NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, The Leadership on Civil and Human Rights and SPLC, expressing concerns about what they described as the company’s “inadequate response to the hate speech and bigotry that flourishes on its platform.”

“There is an openness to hearing from us and hearing our concerns,” Madihha Ahussain, special counsel for anti-Muslim hate at Muslim Advocates, said. “But we’re seeing very little that’s being done. From our perspective it’s like, ‘are they really taking this seriously?’”

In December, Muslim Advocates sent Facebook a letter with the names of 26 anti-Muslim groups that were using its platform. Many of the groups on the list appeared on a separate database that SPLC sent to Facebook twice in 2016.

The database lists SPLC-labelled hate groups and their corresponding Facebook page, divided according to ideology. An examination of those groups by VICE News found that some in certain categories were more likely to still have a presence on Facebook than others. For example, Facebook pages linked to groups in the “neo-Nazi” or “Ku Klux Klan” categories were more likely to be defunct than those linked to groups in the “anti-Muslim,” “anti-LGBT,” and “anti-immigrant” categories.

Facebook holds that they don’t prioritize removing certain groups according to their ideology.

Some of the anti-Muslim groups identified by SPLC and Muslim Advocates include some that have increasingly crept into the mainstream — and the White House. That includes Act for America (which has 160,000 followers on Facebook). Last year, the leader of the organization's Portland, Maine chapter took to Facebook to describe Islam as “a supremacist, totalitarian political ideology masquerading as a religion.” A spokesperson for Act for America said that person is no longer with the organization. Former U.S. National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn sat on Act for America’s board, and CIA Director and Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo received an award from the group.

Jihad Watch, with nearly 80,000 followers on Facebook, is run by anti-Islam activist Robert Spencer, who was banned by the UK Home Office, along with his colleague Pamela Geller, from traveling to the UK in 2013 for three to five years, on account of “making statements that may foster hatred that might lead to inter-community violence.” The newly minted National Security Advisor John Bolton wrote the foreword to a book co-authored by Spencer, published in 2010.

“What has happened is that there are groups that have promoted vicious falsehoods about gays or immigrants, for example, that aren’t true, suggesting gays are more likely to be pedophiles, or that there are intellectual disparities between races and ethnic groups,” said Levin. “And at the same time, they’re appearing on Capitol Hill, and that’s a problem.”

Groups like SPLC and Muslim Advocates aren’t necessarily asking that Facebook take down every group that they flag. But what they are asking for is more transparency about the process.

“One of the things we’re asking for, which will be helpful, is a full civil rights and privacy audit, which we think would allow an independent party of experts to come in and do an assessment of their policies and practices that have both civil rights implications and privacy concerns,” said Ahussain of Muslim Advocates. “We think an audit is critical, because with that information we can have a better sense of how they’re addressing these concerns.”

This article has been updated to reflect that the leader of Act for America's Portland, Maine chapter is no longer with the organization.

Cover image: Leslie Xia