Art for A Most Violent Platform.
Andrei Lacatusu/The Baffler

A Most Violent Platform

Facebook’s extremism problem, at home and abroad

Andrei Lacatusu/The Baffler
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The day Kyle Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two of them, during anti-police-brutality protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a Facebook event page by a group calling itself Kenosha Guard urged people to come to the city with guns to protect property. A founder of the group called the announcement a “general call to arms.” Their page was touted by Infowars, and though multiple people reported it for promotion of violence, it wasn’t taken down until after the killings. Less than a week earlier, after years of reporting about Facebook’s extremism problem, the company had announced it would do more about violent militia content.

Facebook said it had no indication that Rittenhouse had seen the Kenosha Guard event page, but it speaks to what the site has become: a repository, if not a promoter, of violent dissension and extremism. Having shed its (never-quite-accurate) reputation as the land of stale boomer memes and your high school friend’s baby photos, Facebook is now a place where it’s as convenient to assemble a militia gathering as it is to share video of murders committed by one of the militia’s ideological fellow-travelers. And the company seems to have no coherent plan to change this.

Even after Rittenhouse’s arrest and indictment for double murder, Facebook is struggling to prevent its platform from being used to celebrate and promote his acts. The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong found that a fundraiser for Rittenhouse was shared more than 17,700 times, in violation of Facebook’s rules that prohibit praise or support of mass shooters. As Wong also reported, the social network is riven with pro-Rittenhouse memes, groups, and pages, with video stills of the shootings spreading widely. The same is true of Instagram, where there are hashtags and entire accounts in support of the accused killer. Memes celebrating the deaths of protesters were liked tens of thousands of times.

Facebook is now a place where it’s as convenient to assemble a militia gathering as it is to share video of murders committed by one of the militia’s ideological fellow-travelers.

Facebook and its various platforms are hardly alone in serving as vehicles to celebrate and amplify the Kenosha killings. To start, Kenosha police were filmed giving water to armed militiamen, thanking them for their presence, and later driving right past Rittenhouse, his arms up and murder weapon hanging by his side. It didn’t take long for a broader conservative defense of Rittenhouse to assemble, portraying him as a hero of law-and-order and a loyal disciple of law enforcement. (Rittenhouse’s now-deleted Facebook page featured the typical rantings of a Blue Lives Matter supporter.) Fox News’s Tucker Carlson said on-air that the seventeen-year-old acted to “maintain order when no one else would.” Donald Trump Jr. retweeted a post from a supporter of his father calling Rittenhouse “a good example of why I decided to vote for Trump.” And on Monday, President Trump himself defended Rittenhouse, saying that he was fighting for his life. (Regarding the still-unsolved killing of a Patriot Prayer member in Portland, Trump, naturally, adopted the right-wing narrative that the man was another innocent victim of Antifa.)

By now Facebook’s ability to catalyze violent behavior—and to help perpetrators of violence organize, find their targets, and broadcast their massacres—should be well known. In Myanmar, Facebook served essentially as the Rwandan radio of the Rohingya genocide. In India, it’s been used to foment pogroms, while frenzies of forwarded misinformation on WhatsApp lead to periodic lynchings of innocent travelers mistaken for child abductors. (The Q Anon-style fear of rampant child endangerment is a prominent feature of Facebook-borne misinformation.) In some predominantly Muslim countries, Facebook has been used to target religious and sexual minorities. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has used the platform to propagandize against and persecute his political enemies. In New Zealand, a white supremacist streamed his mass shooting of Muslim worshipers live on Facebook. In a few Middle Eastern war zones, arms dealers used private Facebook pages as a virtual bazaar.

And in putative democracies around the world, Facebook’s pay-for-play targeted advertising capabilities, its function as an all-seeing surveillance platform, and the presence of state-driven disinformation campaigns threaten to overwhelm the basic machinery of electoral politics. Rather than spread peace and democracy through connectivity, Facebook has consistently proven itself to be a tool of right-wing authoritarians and their violent proxies. In many cases—as when, for instance, Facebook helps Israeli authorities deactivate the accounts of Palestinian activists—the company shows itself willing to satisfy the demands of illiberal regimes. That this is all occurring during a period of global right-wing revanchism speaks to just how unsuccessful Facebook has been in its mission—along with, perhaps, the company’s complicity in the rise of these antidemocratic leaders.

These problems stem not just from Facebook’s uneasy political alliances; we should also blame the platform’s design. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, Facebook’s own recommendation algorithms tend to push users toward more extreme right-wing pages and topics, which produce heavy engagement. The company knows this but has consistently refused to police certain popular right-wing accounts and provocative subjects.

Rather than spread peace and democracy through connectivity, Facebook has consistently proven itself to be a tool of right-wing authoritarians and their violent proxies.

In the United States, conservative and extremist media—which, when they don’t mirror one another, tend to be mutually reinforcing—have flourished on Facebook. Kevin Roose, a reporter at the New York Times, tweets lists of the most popular posts on Facebook each day. Most of them are conservative outlets like Fox News and The Daily Wire, which, according to one report, was the most popular publisher on Facebook in July. As independent journalist Judd Legum has shown, The Daily Wire, until recently the home of Ben Shapiro, operates a network of coordinated pages that push the company’s material to vast audiences in contravention of Facebook rules. Facebook has done little stop them.

The problem isn’t just Facebook’s cowardice, the well-documented conservatism of its policy team, or Mark Zuckerberg’s own reported willingness to appease Donald Trump. It also lies with what modern conservatism has become. Spare your eulogies for the supposed party of ideas, a myth without foundation. Whatever the Republican Party is now, in its late debauched form, it’s clear that its rhetoric and beliefs mix comfortably with those of white supremacists and violent conspiracy theorists. Nowhere is this more obvious than on social media, where Republican politicians routinely share extremist material from their constituents. Long serving as a party of some of the country’s leading racists, the GOP has lately been welcoming candidates who openly support the violent, conspiratorial messianism of the Q Anon cult. Last week, a Republican National Convention speaker had her speech canceled because of her support for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Bestriding it all is Trump, poster-in-chief. His preferred platform may be Twitter, but he speaks in the argot of the Facebook extremist. Protected by his secret dinners and phone calls with Zuckerberg, and his campaign’s purchase of millions of dollars in targeted advertising, Trump’s frequent lies and violent rhetoric are mostly allowed to circulate unchallenged. When one of Trump’s supporters then murders two political opponents, Facebook is left, as always, scrambling to account for its role, while seemingly unprepared to deal with the problems that experts have been ringing the alarm on for years. For the dead in Kenosha, of course, it’s too late. We might say the same about fixing Facebook.

Jacob Silverman’s book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, is published by HarperCollins.

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