September 22, 2020

Soldering Point

Tech Update

Facebook banned violent militia groups. We still found plenty of them on its platform.

Protesters belonging to a group that calls itself the Three Percenters attend an alt-right rally...

Protesters belonging to a group that calls itself the Three Percenters attend an alt-right rally on August 17, 2019 in Portland, Oregon. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

The company removed at least four of these groups and pages after Recode flagged them for posts about shooting BLM protesters.

Just last week, Facebook finally banned militia groups and pages that advocate for violence on its platform. But Recode’s quick Facebook search for “militia” groups and pages on Friday surfaced over a dozen results for national and local militia groups, most of them private, with many of them openly calling for violence against protesters.

Two of these groups that Recode accessed had a combined 25,000 members and included posts where members encouraged and celebrated shooting people involved in recent Black Lives Matter protests. Some groups did not contain “militia” in the title but still encouraged members to take up arms. One page, called the “The III% Organization,” contained overtly racist and violent posts, such as a meme comparing BLM protesters to dogs and joking about running them over with a car.

After Recode flagged seven of these groups and pages to Facebook, the company took down four of them for violating its policies, and said it independently took down another.

Militia groups that organize on Facebook are under particular scrutiny this week after 17-year-old Kyle Ritttenhouse, a self-identified militia member, was arrested on suspicion of killing two people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

In the aftermath of that shooting, Facebook has faced sharp criticism, including from its own employees, for initially failing to remove a Kenosha militia page despite prior complaints from at least two Facebook users about the group inciting violence. The company eventually took the page and an associated event down, but only after suspected shooter Rittenhouse allegedly killed two protesters and injured another on Tuesday night. Facebook said Rittenhouse was not a member of the Kenosha militia page in question.

Many civil rights groups leaders, employees, and politicians have long accused the company of not doing enough to stop the spread of violent rhetoric on its platform.

The social media giant’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a company meeting Thursday that the initial decision to not take down the Kenosha militia group’s page was a mistake, according to internal remarks first reported by BuzzFeed News, which the company later posted publicly. Zuckerberg said the company is working to take down any posts praising the alleged shooter, and that it’s all part of Facebook’s recently expanded policy against dangerous groups and threats.

While the militia groups Recode found on Friday represented a small fraction of Facebook’s some 2.7 billion users, their continued presence on the platform despite its new policies signals how big of a challenge it is for Facebook to stop people from using its platform to organize violence and amplify hate speech. While Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have adopted stricter guidelines over the years on violent speech, they’ve struggled to catch harmful content in real time, while balancing concerns about limiting free speech online with strict enforcement.

“The continued presence of these militia Facebook groups and the concerning content that they contain represent multiple layers of failure on the part of Facebook to adhere to its own policies that it repeatedly pushes in press releases and statements to media,” said Katie Paul, director of tech watchdog group Tech Transparency Project, which has been researching some of these militia groups.

A spokesperson for Facebook issued the following statement to Recode, in part: “The shootings in Kenosha have been painful for everyone, especially our black community. Mark addressed this at yesterday’s weekly company Q&A … We launched [the dangerous individuals and organizations] policy last week and we’re still scaling up our enforcement of it by a team of specialists on our Dangerous Organizations team.”

Under pressure, Facebook recently expanded its policies against violent individuals and organizations to restrict the influence of domestic militia groups and conspiracy groups like QAnon. While Facebook doesn’t have a blanket ban on militia groups which don’t overtly call for violence, it removed hundreds of them last week for advocating violence, and says it is continuing to take down groups and pages which do so.

The militia Facebook groups and pages Recode reviewed on Friday advocate for US citizens to take up arms to counter what they describe as worsening lawlessness in the country, with many members aggrieved by property damage that’s occurred during protests for racial justice in cities across the US.

While many of the protests across the United States in recent months have been peaceful, there has been significant damage to buildings in some areas, such as Minnesota, where insurance claims have been filed for tens of millions of dollars. The Kenosha protest shooting demonstrates how militia attempts to guard buildings from such damage can result in escalating conflict — and ultimately, lives lost.

One private Facebook group called “United States Militia” had over 12,000 members and was active on Facebook until Recode flagged it to Facebook on Friday afternoon. Its description stated, in part, “Citizens are the militia” and that “we the people” “prepare for the worst and rejoice on the best … with the blood of patriot’s and tyrants”. Recode reviewed comments from within the private group from screenshots provided by the Tech Transparency Project.

In response to one “United States Militia” member post about people setting fire to a car dealership during protests this week, one user responded that self-designated “patriots” should “shoot first and ask questions later.” Another posted in response, “Time for shoot to kill these asswipes!”

In another Facebook page called “Virginia Militia,” which had over 13,000 members until it disappeared from Facebook on Friday afternoon, over a hundred users commented in support of alleged shooter Rittenhouse, arguing his violence was justified. This was a clear violation of Facebook’s stance against any praise of the suspected shooter.

One commenter went so far as to advise other members to evade law enforcement if they are involved in a similar shooting. “I believe we should all take this as a sign,” wrote the user. “If you’re forced into a shootout, and you survive. Do not wait for police, do not turn yourself in. Grab your survival bag and go ghost. Get in contact with a trusted patriot and hide out.” Sixteen members of the group reacted with a thumbs up.

Recode also found several other groups and pages on Facebook that organize members for coordinated armed action, but that omit the word “militia” in their names or descriptions.

One such page was called the “The III% Organization” — a reference to the far-right “3 percenters” movement, which advocates for armed militia to promote gun ownership rights and resistance to the US federal government in local affairs. This page also disappeared after Recode flagged it to Facebook.

A user in the group posted a meme on Wednesday, the morning after two protesters were killed in Kenosha, showing a man standing next to his car, with his hand over his chest and looking visibly relieved, with the caption, 
“When you think you ran over a dog but it was just a few BLM & Antifa Rioters.”

These groups are organizing and spreading their calls to violence in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere. In recent days, major right-wing media figures like Ann Coulter and Fox News host Tucker Carlson have attempted to justify vigilante violence at protests.

Twitter took down a tweet from Coulter saying she wanted the suspected Kenosha shooter to be president after individuals and groups like civil rights groups Color of Change raised concerns about its glorification of a suspected killer.

At the same time, some conservative politicians have been sharply criticized for seemingly threatening state-sponsored violence against civil rights protesters since the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests began earlier this year.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has accused President Donald Trump of rooting for violence at recent protests around racial justice in the US. In May, Trump posted on social media that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” about protests in Minnesota against the police killing of George Floyd. In June, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) published a deeply controversial column in the New York Times that the paper eventually said “should not have been published;” it was titled “Send in The Troops” and advocated for bringing military forces to protests.

The proliferation of militia groups and violent, partisan rhetoric isn’t just happening on Facebook, and it’s not even necessarily originating there — it’s a complex problem that involves elected officials and right-wing media figures, too. But even if militia groups aren’t contained to Facebook, the platform is making it possible for members to amplify their views. The groups and pages that Facebook only took down after Recode flagged them are a signal that the company has a major challenge ahead if it intends to effectively enforce its new policies prohibiting the propagation of violent views on its platform.


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