I’m not saying that Facebook has a racism problem, but Facebook has a racism problem. While there are almost certainly more racists infesting social media sites like Twitter and YouTube, the simple fact is that thanks to its history of prevaricating on the issue of white nationalism versus all-out white supremacy, pockets of virulent hate speech have cropped up on Mark Zuckerberg’s website. Facebook itself, to their credit, hasn’t so much denied they exist, they’ve mostly just pretended that taking stronger steps to wipe out their racist users would somehow unfairly infringe on the rest of us who use their platform, but aren’t horrifically racist.
After years of basically pretending there was nothing they could do about it, Facebook has decided, well, there’s something they can do about it after all. Facebook and Instagram next week will ban all white nationalism and white separatism from their sites. Since the 2016 presidential election, there has been increased scrutiny on social media companies in general, with pressure starting to come from both the left and the right to institute some regulations in the industry that has largely been left to operate independently and police its own.
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Facebook made the policy change via an announcement on their website that rather hilariously tried to excuse away their negligence on the rampant white nationalism on their site. Apparently, the company was afraid of doing too much about white nationalism because they were afraid it would interfere with people who feel and express “American pride” or “Basque separatism.” I’m not even kidding. Somehow Facebook thought they should conflate things like patriotism or independence and sovereignty with straight up racism and white supremacy.
“We didn’t originally apply the same rationale to expressions of white nationalism and separatism because we were thinking about broader concepts of nationalism and separatism – things like American pride and Basque separatism, which are an important part of people’s identity,” Facebook said. (Gizmodo)
This isn’t the first time Facebook has taken steps to try and “clean up” the kinds of content that is hosted on their servers. In the past, they’ve booted white nationalists, and even punted right-wing provocateur and general scumbag Alex Jones, who traffics in all kinds of white nationalist dog whistle rhetoric. So anyone surprised by this decision is probably mostly just surprised that it took Facebook so long to directly confront the problem. Facebook isn’t a government entity, and there are no First Amendment concerns in them de-platforming people who spread true hate and encourage violence upon those they despise.
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The problem has been that up to this point, Facebook has made baffling distinctions between white nationalism and white supremacy, ignoring that they’re ultimately striving for the same goal — an American white ethnostate. Facebook was looking for distinctions and subtle nuanced differences between white supremacy, nationalism, and separatism when they’re all fruit from the same poisonous tree.
Facebook has officially banned white supremacist content since at least last year, but the company deemed white nationalism and white separatism as perfectly acceptable. White nationalism is a belief that white people should be in charge of a given nation, while white separatism is a desire to establish a whites-only nation by banishing people of color and heavily restricting immigration.
To their credit, Facebook eventually woke up, and — WHAT A SURPRISE! — decided that they couldn’t really tell the difference either.
“We decided that the overlap between white nationalism, [white] separatism, and white supremacy is so extensive we really can’t make a meaningful distinction between them,” Brian Fishman, policy director of counterterrorism at Facebook, told Motherboard. “And that’s because the language and the rhetoric that is used and the ideology that it represents overlaps to a degree that it is not a meaningful distinction.”
Maybe Facebook should get some credit for at least attempting to have a somewhat open forum; a marketplace of ideas, if you will. Maybe it really is hard for a company to offer its services to literally everyone without letting in some really unsavory people. The problem I have is how long it took Facebook to realize that there are no good shaded of racism; that any flavor of white supremacy is vomit inducing. I also find it kind of sad that Facebook is still kind of missing the boat, even as they’re banning the white supremacists. Apparently, they’re leaving the ability to speak in racist code to one other. Maybe that’s a problem of the AI not being able to learn the code well enough to tell when it’s coded racism and when it’s not, but maybe, just maybe, stop using ONLY bots to police your stuff, Facebook?
According to Motherboard, Facebook will ban phrases like “I am a proud white nationalist” but “implicit and coded white nationalism and white separatism” will still be allowed. Facebook did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for clarification about what would specifically be banned.
In the “credit where credit is due” column, Facebook is taking some creative steps to combat white nationalism, namely, redirecting people who share that nonsense to services that offer help and deprogramming of hateful ideologies.
Anyone searching for white supremacist keywords will be encouraged to visit Life After Hate, a Chicago-based nonprofit that tries to show white supremacists that they don’t need to be involved in such hateful ideologies.
Facebook did give Gizmodo a list of some of the phrases that will be banned.
“Yes, I am a white nationalist. No, I am not a racist.”
“I am not anti-Muslim, I just think white people need their own separate nation.”
“Asians are taking all of our jobs. This is why white separatism is the only way we can survive.”
“What’s the answer to this immigration problem? White separatism.”
Will this move completely solve Facebook’s racism problem? Of course not. By their own admission, coded white supremacy will probably still be there. But that’s a bargain I think most of us should be willing to make. In a free society we cannot jail people for their thoughts and feelings; we have to be willing to let these social media companies police the content on their sites, but stop short of Minority Report-ing people. I don’t think this decision amounts to overreach, because again, these are servers they control, and they have right and reason to keep the digital equivalent of Stormfront newsletters off their site.
But any time that speech is limited, it should be noted. We should be cautious that genuine concern and good faith efforts to stomp out hate aren’t taken advantage of, and ultimately used to suppress valid speech as well. For now, it’s a good step that Facebook took to ban white nationalism and white separatism, because those ideologies are toxic, and have no place in civil society.
Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.