President Trump's embrace of white-supremacist groups is a love story that has unfolded on the pages of Facebook.
After instructing the Proud Boys to “stand by” during the last presidential debate, members of the violent right-wing group took to social media to praise the president and declare themselves ready for action.
And they're not alone. Despite Facebook’s frequent claims that it’s addressing calls to violence this election season, hate groups continue to use the world’s largest online platform to deploy their members against people in the United States who are exercising some of the most fundamental democratic rights: protesting injustice and casting a vote during elections.
Facebook routinely fails to address these threats in time, if at all. While it banned the Proud Boys group from its platform in 2018, individual members and supporters remain active across the network, which they used to mobilize turnout for a Proud Boys’ rally in Portland last month.
Through speeches and social-media posts, President Trump seems intent on encouraging the most virulent of these groups to deploy in November to “protect the vote” against a wild range of imaginary threats. Trump has posted to Facebook numerous calls for people to enlist in the “Army for Trump” as election poll watchers. During the last debate, he repeated this line to recruit supporters to “go into the polls and watch very carefully.”
It’s happened before. In the run-up to Election Day 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump told supporters that the election was going to be “rigged” and that they should monitor polling places for evidence of so-called fraud.
The militia group Oath Keepers took to social networks to call on its members to “help stop voter fraud” by congregating at polling stations to conduct “intelligence gathering and crime spotting.” Neo-Nazi groups, Ku Klux Klan offshoots and the white-nationalist American Freedom Party joined this call, asking their adherents to “watch the polls.” Some did, turning up armed outside voting places nationwide in an apparent attempt to root out alleged voter fraud and suppress the votes of Black Americans and other voters of color across the country.
In reality, voter fraud is extremely rare in the United States: Research by Dartmouth College and Trump’s own voter-integrity task force found that there was no evidence to support the fraud concerns the Trump campaign fomented in 2016.
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Trump’s aim in 2020 is not only to scare off certain voters and delegitimize the election. It’s also to weaponize this fear by mobilizing his most extreme followers to do whatever they can to disrupt the vote and potentially contest the results. He appears ready to sacrifice people of color as collateral damage in any violence should it come.
Facebook, in particular, has tools that gather ready audiences for voter disinformation and conspiracy theories, and it uses algorithms that seem designed intentionally to amplify and spread divisive messages, regardless of their accuracy.
Not only can members of these groups organize for action on the platform’s event pages — an issue that the advocacy group Muslim Advocates raised for Facebook executives way back in 2015, to no avail — they can also purchase weapons. Though Facebook claims it’s clamped down against gun sales over its platform, you can still buy a gun on Facebook Marketplace, where sellers dodge the ban by listing gun cases or ammunition for sale — and then use Facebook Messenger to directly sell guns to buyers.
Facebook has the power, and the responsibility, to stop violence from these armed groups before it starts. But too often it does the absolute bare minimum, and only after blood has been spilled.
In September, Mark Zuckerberg told an interviewer, “we need to be doing everything that we can to reduce the chances of violence or civil unrest in the wake of this election. We’re trying to be sure that we do our part to make sure that none of this is organized on Facebook.” The platform even changed some of its policies in an apparent attempt to protect the vote against violence, disinformation and disruption.
Zuckerberg’s words bear no relationship to the reality reflected today in Facebook events, groups and pages. If he’s serious about this — and he should be — here are five steps Facebook must take:
- build tools to systematically increase the proactive enforcement of Facebook rules, including the detection and deletion of event pages that promote violence or issue calls to arms;
- prevent white nationalists, hate groups and paramilitary groups from using the platforms altogether;
- stop all gun sales via its platforms by updating Facebook rules to ensure users cannot stealthily sell firearms on the Marketplace or share plans for 3-D printed weapons on its network;
- ensure all content moderators receive adequate training on paramilitary content and patterns, including the violent threat that hate groups pose to the general public and voters in particular;
- upgrade Facebook systems to improve the flagging and rapid removal of false voter information, especially disinformation that could threaten the health and welfare of people exercising their rights to vote in person.
By acting on these recommendations, Zuckerberg has the potential to save lives and improve the health of our democracy. The election season is upon us: It’s time for Zuckerberg to put his words into action.