Months after he was kicked off Twitter, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is off Facebook and Instagram, too. So are a host of other right-wing extremists and Louis Farrakhan, a Nation of Islam leader who has espoused anti-Semitic views.
Facebook on Thursday announced that it was banning Jones, Farrakhan, Paul Nehlen, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Infowars, which Jones runs, from both its platform and Instagram, which it owns. The company says the decision has been made under its policies against dangerous individuals and organizations.
This is a big move for Facebook, which (like many social media companies) has been criticized for lax oversight of individuals and groups that spread hateful messages and vitriol its platforms, but has thus far attempted to toe an awkward line on the matter. While civil rights groups and some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing them to clean up their platform, conservatives have been eager to pounce on the Menlo Park, California-based company with claims of bias each time they do so.
“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”
Nehlen is a white supremacist who ran an unsuccessful primary challenge for then-House Speaker Paul Ryan’s congressional seat in Wisconsin in 2016 and 2018. Yiannopoulos is a far-right provocateur. Watson is a far-right YouTube personality, and Loomer is an activist who is often considered to be part of the alt-right but rejects the characterization over anti-Semitism.
Being banned from social media isn’t a new development for some of these figures. Jones and Infowars, for example, were permanently banned from Twitter in September. Loomer was kicked off Twitter for her criticism of newly elected Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and her Muslim faith in November. She subsequently handcuffed herself to the front doors of Twitter’s New York office in protest of the decision.
None of the people listed will be allowed on Facebook or Instagram. Additionally, Facebook will remove any pages, groups, and accounts set up to represent them and Facebook events where they’re participating. Users will still be able to praise them on Facebook and Instagram and share content related to them.
As Taylor Lorenz at the Atlantic notes, Infowars has the strictest ban:
Any account that shares Infowars content will see it removed; unless the post is explicitly condemning Infowars. Facebook and Instagram will remove any content containing Infowars videos, radio segments, or articles, (unless the post is explicitly condemning the content) and Facebook will also remove any groups set up to share Infowars content and events promoting any of the banned extremist figures, according to a company spokesperson. (Twitter, YouTube, and Apple have also banned Jones and Infowars.)
This appears to be a sign that Facebook is becoming more aggressive about enforcing its policies on hate speech and messages that have the potential to incite violence. Its criteria includes individuals and organizations that proclaim violent or hateful missions, that are self-described or followers of hateful ideologies, or that carry out or call for acts of violence against people based on race, ethnicity, and nationality.
Kelly Weill at the Daily Beast points out Facebook has in the past been pretty squishy about this, including when it comes to some of the figures it’s banning now. Instagram in April admitted a video Loomer posted attacking Rep. Omar violated its policies but didn’t remove her from the platform. It has also acknowledged Yiannopoulos had glorified violence on its platform.
It’s not clear why Facebook is doing this now, but pressure for it to take action has been mounting for quite some time, and the decision is probably at least in part an effort to get some positive PR.
This is probably a good step for Facebook — and one that is likely to face blowback
Facebook’s decision is likely a positive development and a sign it’s taking the potential real-world consequences of the content it hosts seriously. But the social media giant still has a long way to go with reckoning with the ways it’s shaped the world we live in. Facebook and the platforms it owns, including Instagram and WhatsApp, are often weaponized as forums for spreading misinformation and hate and inciting violence all over the globe.
But Facebook will also have to deal with criticism from conservatives that they’re being unfairly targeted yet again, since most of the people banned on Thursday are part of the far right.
Conservatives have for quite some time complained that they’re being censored by social media, and Facebook has struggled to respond. Part of that stems from a 2016 Gizmodo story citing a former Facebook journalist who said workers at the company routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers. Since then, Republicans and Silicon Valley have engaged in a back-and-forth where conservatives accuse platforms of bias and companies bend over backward to show that’s not the case. After the Gizmodo story broke, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with conservative leaders to discuss how the social network handles conservative content.
President Donald Trump has seized on the narrative and in the past has even come to Jones’s defense. After Jones was temporarily banned on Twitter in 2018 (prior to the permanent ban), Trump tweeted that social media was “totally discriminating” against Republican and conservative voices. And just last month Trump complained about his Twitter followers and got the company’s CEO, Jack Dorsey, to go to the Oval Office to discuss it.
Each time Facebook and Twitter try to cater to the right, they face a blowback from more mainstream outlets and observers. Case in point: the controversy surrounding Facebook’s decision to partner in fact-checking with a website owned by conservative outlet the Daily Caller.
Facebook will likely field more complaints with this latest decision, even though it’s impossible to dispute that Jones, Loomer, Nehlen, and the others often do spout hateful rhetoric. This ban doesn’t mean they’ll disappear — they’ll just find other places to go on the internet. But it does mean their voices will be a little harder to find.
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