It is time for Facebook to stop coddling the far right

The powerful social media platform is willingly enabling hate groups, white nationalists and far-right extremists.

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Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies at a House Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington on October 23, 2019 [Erin Scott/Reuters]

The Daily Wire, a far-right news and opinion site, is using Facebook to spread disinformation ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, and the social media giant is allowing it to happen.

The Daily Wire is a “cesspool of bigotry and hatred” that spreads content laden with climate change denial, misogyny and homophobia. According to a recent investigation by Judd Legum’s Popular Information newsletter, the site is expanding its reach on Facebook using a “clandestine network” of pages that engage in “inauthentic coordinated behaviour” – something that violates the social media platform’s own rules.

Although the Daily Wire is clearly gaming the system to reach a large audience, Facebook’s founding CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who reportedly had a private meeting with its editor-in-chief Ben Shapiro earlier this year, has taken no action. 

Sadly, the Daily Wire is not the only far-right organisation that is allowed to spread dangerous propaganda on Facebook.

Facebook has a problem. The powerful and ubiquitous social media platform is willingly enabling hate groups, white nationalists and far-right extremists, and doing little-to-nothing about the online propagation of violent hate speech and deception.

Most recently, Facebook has formed a partnership with Breitbart, making the “alt-right” white nationalist site one of its featured “high quality” publishers in its newly created Facebook news tab, alongside such outlets as the Buzzfeed, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. Breitbart, cofounded by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, has been criticised for promoting conspiracy theories, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism and white supremacy, and has even featured a “black crime” section once. 

Further fuelling the sentiment that Zuckerberg is pandering to toxic far-right groups, earlier this year, Facebook sponsored the annual conference of the State Policy Network (SPN) – a Koch-funded network of right-wing think-tanks and advocacy groups, some of whom promote Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia and sexism.

Facebook provided branded travel mugs to attendees, and hosted whiskey and wine tastings. It needs to be noted that on this occasion Facebook was not the only tech company embracing the far right – Google was also one of the event’s sponsors and even held a session there on how the attendees could use Google and YouTube to spread their message.

Silencing black users while amplifying far-right voices

Facebook’s apparent embrace of the far right comes amid claims that it has failed to police racial threats and harassment on its platform while banning black users and removing their posts about racism.

The company allows the far right free reign on its platform while censoring black users’ posts about racism as hate speech, because it relies on algorithms that are biased against black users to identify “offensive” posts. But there is more to the tech company’s tendency to censor innocent posts by its black users while promoting hateful and damaging content by the likes of the Daily Wire than its use of “racist” AI models. 

Facebook, which has 2.38 billion users worldwide, is a white male-dominated organisation. According to its own 2019 diversity report, the company, globally, is 63.1 percent male and 36.9 percent female. In the United States, white employees make up 44.2 percent of its overall workforce, Asian employees are at 43.2 percent, while black and Latinx employees account for a mere 9 percent.

According to Mark Luckie, a black former Facebook manager, the company has “a black people problem”. In a note he made public just after his departure from the company in November 2018, Luckie underlined the lack of diversity in its offices, arguing that “there is often more diversity in Keynote presentations than the teams who present them” and that “in some buildings, there are more ‘Black Lives Matter’ posters than there are actual black people”.  

Luckie also claimed that the company is failing its few black employees by allowing the proliferation of hostile workplace culture, saying they face “widespread discrimination and exclusion”. One year later, a group of anonymous Facebook employees penned an open letter in which they argued that the racial discrimination problem within the company has only exacerbated.

Using free speech as an excuse to disseminate hate

The debate on Facebook’s role in the dissemination of misleading, offensive and at times dangerous and racially charged content reached new heights in September this year when the company announced that it is not willing to change its policy of not fact-checking political ads.

In response, hundreds of Facebook employees penned an open letter to company executives saying they “strongly object” to the policy, which they said “communicates that we are OK profiting from deliberate misinformation campaigns by those in or seeking positions of power”. Twitter, unlike Facebook, has banned political ads.

Zuckerberg defended unchecked political speech on Facebook in a recent speech he gave at Georgetown University, arguing that the platform he founded is a tool for democracy helping the “fifth estate” keep other branches in check. Giving examples from the civil rights movement in the US, the Facebook CEO said pulling back on free expression is never the answer and claimed even well-meaning restrictions on political speech often end up “hurting the minority views we seek to protect”. 

Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, disagreed. “I’d like to help Facebook better understand the challenges #MLK faced from disinformation campaigns launched by politicians,” Bernice King wrote on Twitter. “These campaigns created an atmosphere for his assassination.” 

British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen also criticised Zuckerberg. “If he owned a fancy restaurant and four neo-Nazis came goose-stepping into the dining room and were talking loudly about wanting to kill ‘Jewish scum’, would he serve them an elegant eight-course meal? Or would tell them to get the f**k out of his restaurant? It’s the same thing,” Cohen tweeted. “He has every legal right, indeed a moral duty, to tell them to get the f**k out of his restaurant.” 

Under the guise of protecting “free speech”, Facebook has allowed the viral dissemination of political propaganda on its platform through political ads. It has also repeatedly compromised the privacy and safety of its users. Some users have already left Facebook – the company’s abusive and troubling practices prompted an exodus and the establishment of alternatives such as WT Social, created by Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales.

Facebook cannot maintain the public trust if it continues to coddle extremists, turn a blind eye to hate and profit from disinformation. If Facebook refuses to police itself and act as a responsible and ethical corporate citizen, regulators must rein it in and force it to change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.