A Sea Change in the Facebook Fight

12 05 19

President Trump spent last weekend amplifying white supremacists on Twitter.

Trump was angry at Facebook for finally deplatforming a list of extremist figures that included Paul Nehlen, Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos and Louis Farrakhan from both Facebook and Instagram for content that incites hate and violence. (He was also angry at Twitter for suspending actor and far-right celebrity James Woods’ account.) Whereas most Republicans at least pretend their complaints about supposed conservative bias aren’t actually about protecting white supremacist voices, President Trump doesn’t bother. He retweeted some of these same far- right figures, exposing them to his massive audience.

Trump’s behavior generated a lot of attention on Twitter and in the press, and much of the coverage centered around the danger of Trump using his Twitter account to amplify extremists online. As my colleague told Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times:

“Having a stamp of approval from the most powerful man in the world normalizes these people,” said Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at the U.K.-based anti-racist group Hope Not Hate. For those trying to curb the influence of figures like Watson, said Mulhall, “one of the things that’s difficult is when people turn around and say, well, they can’t be that bad, because the president of the United States has said he’s O.K.”

But here’s where things get interesting, at least for me. Facebook knew that backlash from the right was inevitable if they removed the accounts of multiple extremists from their platforms. They had to realize that Trump tweets were also likely.

They did it anyway.

What that suggests to me is that the balance of power is finally shifting. Facebook is now more afraid of us than they are of President Trump and the far right. The pressure on them is starting to make an impact.

Facebook’s rollout of these takedowns wasn’t an accident. They included Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan alongside far-right extremist figures in the take down, making it difficult for the so-called conservative bias crowd to crow as loud as they usually do. Facebook also tipped off several media outlets in advance, before most of the accounts were actually taken down, a strategy they didn’t attempt to hide. The company gave itself a lot of cover for the inevitable backlash, including tweets from the American President.

Ours is a growing coalition. It includes activists, world leaders, government bodies, Civil Rights advocates, journalists, victims of disinformation and conspiracy mongering, one of Facebook’s first investors, one of Facebook’s co-founders, Facebook shareholders, and Facebook and Instagram users. It’s a coalition that grows bit by bit with every tragedy where social media played a role, every new data or privacy scandal, every time we learn that Facebook tried to cover something up from the public. We’re building power at a slow but steady pace.

Last week’s takedowns felt like a tipping point. Trump and the far-right’s influence is beginning to wane. It didn’t happen overnight and it won’t be the last time we have to pressure Facebook to do the right thing. But it’s a sea change. We haven’t won but I’m going to take the win and view it as a sign that we’re making progress.

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