Weeks after a gunman broadcast live footage of his attack on a New Zealand mosque on Facebook, the social media giant says it’s banning all content praising, supporting and representing white nationalism and white separatism.
The policy change has been applauded by politicians and civil rights groups. Some, however, have questioned why it took Facebook so long to take this step.
Facebook has long restricted expressions of white supremacy on its platform but content related to white nationalism and white separatism had been allowed 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,” the company explained in a Wednesday statement.
Facebook said, however, that its thinking on this issue had fundamentally shifted following three months of conversations with civil society groups and experts on race relations. This dialogue, the company said, had “confirmed that white nationalism and white separatism cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups.” As such, they “have no place on our services,” Facebook said.
The company added that any Facebook user searching for terms associated with white supremacy will now be directed to Life After Hate, a Chicago-based organization founded by former extremists that provides support to people who leave hate groups.
It’s unclear how effective the policy change will be. People expressing white nationalist views often don’t use explicit language, Becca Lews, affiliate researcher at Data & Society, told Wired. It can be difficult for AI to detect hate speech like implied white nationalism, too.
Facebook said it was “deeply committed” to combatting hate on its platform and said it would continue to work to “improve our technologies, evolve our policies and work with experts who can bolster our own efforts” in this area.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was “pleased” by Facebook’s policy change, though she suggested more needed to be done.
“I’m pleased to see that they are including it, and that they have taken that step, but I still think that there is a conversation to be had with the international community about whether or not enough has been done,” she told reporters at a news conference, according to Reuters.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, said he was also heartened by Facebook’s announcement, though he criticized the company for not acting soon enough.
“This should have happened long ago. For too long, Facebook has allowed hate speech ― and the violence that it can inspire ― to propagate on its platform,” he told Reuters. “Since billions use its service, we must demand more from them.”
Kristen Clarke, president of the National Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, celebrated Facebook’s policy shift as an “important victory” against hate. The legal advocacy group had spent months lobbying Facebook on this issue.
“Today’s action by Facebook is an important victory in our fight against the rise in hateful activity and violent white supremacy that often are incited online,” Clarke said on Wednesday.
The American Civil Liberties Union struck a more cautious note, however.
Vera Eidelman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, told NPR that while Facebook is “well within its rights” to choose to remove “repugnant” white supremacist, nationalist and separatist content from its platform, people should be careful when encouraging private companies to silence speech.
“In its attempts to police the speech of over 2 billion people, Facebook runs the risk of censoring those that attack white nationalism, too,” Eidelman said. “Further, every time Facebook makes the choice to remove content, a single company is exercising an unchecked power to silence individuals and remove them from what has become an indispensable platform.”
“For the same reason that the Constitution prevents the government from exercising such power, we should be wary of encouraging its exercise by corporations that are answerable to their private shareholders rather than the broader public interest,” she added.