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Friday, Jul 23, 2021

Facebook is banning leftwing users - and it's going largely unnoticed

Facebook is banning leftwing users - and it's going largely unnoticed

Facebook placed a number of leftwing organizers on a restricted list during Biden’s inauguration. It’s part of a much bigger problem
In response to the fascist riot at the US Capitol, Facebook engaged in a flurry of dangerous and misguided corporate authoritarianism. I, along with a number of other leftwing organizers, was deemed a threat to the inauguration of Joe Biden and placed on a restricted list that limited my ability to communicate with others.

My account could no longer create Facebook groups or events, two tools that I’ve used over the last decade to coordinate protests and build entire organizations. I was also banned from commenting in Facebook groups, liking Facebook pages, and messaging Facebook pages. The restriction was to be removed the Saturday after the inauguration, but it only fully ceased apparently after public backlash.

This is part of a long history of Facebook treating leftwing activists as if they were far-right extremists, and a pattern of silencing those who speak out against racism and fascism.

Facebook’s latest sweep went relatively unnoticed by most media outlets and was simply framed as a restriction of events in and around Washington DC leading up to the inauguration. Gizmodo was one of the first publications to pick up the story but the majority of its article barely mentions the fact that leftwing users in the United States were targeted and effectively silenced.

Most of the relevant content of the article was pulled directly from a blogpost from Facebook itself. Gizmodo, like most other outlets that reported on the decision, seemed to imply that these bans were a net positive and, if anything, a little later than it would have preferred.

The lack of in-depth reporting on what was a massive new development in Facebook’s struggle to monitor itself is unfortunate. This sweep wasn’t as simple as restricting events around a certain location, which should be a troubling development on its own.

Facebook targeted users across the US, and while Facebook has publicly claimed it sought out users with past violations, many of the leftwing users targeted had no such violations, according to Facebook itself. Attempts to seek clarity or appeal the decisions have been shut down by Facebook, and the scope of the restrictions have not been made public.

Strictly speaking, this may not be a legal or constitutional infringement on free speech; Facebook, as a private company, sets its own policies about who can use its platform and what opinions they can express. But it sets a dangerous precedent, one made more alarming by Facebook’s history of suppressing Black viewpoints and its tendency to see far-left and far-right activists as the same.

In August 2020, Facebook expanded its “Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy”, aimed at removing the presence of far-right extremists from its website. It rid itself of many QAnon groups and far-right militias. But it is also struck at leftwing organizations, seeming to accept Trump’s post-Charlottesville “both sides” moral equivalency with little thought.

Facebook removed It’s Going Down, a platform that has long provided on-the-ground analysis of mass protests. It also removed CrimethInc, an anarchist publication that provided a teenage me with a new lens in which to view formative events like the invasion of Iraq and the 2008 economic crisis. While both these sites are keystones of the left, they were quickly disappeared from Facebook with little public attention or reaction.

Facebook has also targeted individuals for merely speaking out against racism or responding to hate crimes. Natasha Marin, a Black anti-racism consultant, was temporarily banned for sharing a screenshot of a racist message she received. In response to Liam Neeson’s confession that he once roamed the streets looking for Black men to harm, Carolyn Wysinger, an activist and high school teacher, posted that “White men are so fragile and the mere presence of a Black person challenges every single thing in them.” It was a reasonable response to Neeson’s remarks and the long history of white men murdering random Black men. Facebook responded by deleting the post and threatening Wysinger with a temporary ban. The list goes on.

While Facebook may place the blame on complicated algorithms that they are working to address, it is clear the problem is deeper than that. In 2018, Mark Luckie, a Black former Facebook employee, illustrated a racist culture at Facebook. He and other Black employees have made frequent complaints about being aggressively accosted by security, dissuaded from joining Black working groups, and being called aggressive or hostile for simply sharing their thoughts in meetings.

One employee shared a story in which they were asked to clean up after two white employees, despite being a program manager. In June 2020, Mark Zuckerberg declared that Black Lives Matter. A few months later, he restricted political posts in Facebook’s internal employee forum and banned the placement of text on profile pictures, preventing both employees who wanted to “Make America Great Again” or proclaim that “Black Lives Matter” from expressing themselves outside of specific, moderated groups – or through the use of pre-approved profile frames.

The conflation of the far-right with those speaking out and organizing against injustice continues to this day. On top of restricting my profile, and the profiles of others, Facebook has also moved to ban a new slate of leftwing organizations and individuals.

The Socialist Equality party and the International Youth and Students for Social Equality were banned earlier this month with no warning or reason. Facebook has recently reversed this decision, but only after inquiries from the Financial Times. And now, Facebook is considering removing posts that critique Zionism.

Facebook has significant power and influence, and decisions like this are a clear argument for the desperate need to regulate the tech behemoths that increasingly decide who and what is heard. While my restriction was temporary, what is stopping Facebook from instating such measures again in the future, particularly during a moment of mass upheaval?

The inauguration was such an event; Black radicals and others had every reason to protest the inauguration, but Facebook determined that any such protests were unacceptable. An organization which finds it so difficult to distinguish fascists from Black leftwing activists should not be trusted to make such decisions.

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