Company previously allowed such material even though it has long banned white supremacists.

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Facebook says it concluded after ‘conversations’ with civil rights groups that white nationalism and separatism cannot be separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups. Photograph: Leah Millis/Reuters

Facebook will no longer allow content supporting white nationalism and white separatism, it said on Tuesday. The announcement comes nearly a year after the revelation that its policy against white supremacy and hate speech still let users call for the creation of white ethno-states or claim the US “should be a white-only nation”.

The policy change announced on Wednesday, which will go into effect next week, comes in the wake of a white supremacist terror attack on mosques in New Zealand that left 50 people dead, and as Facebook and other social media companies continue to grapple with the ways violent white supremacist groups are using their platforms for propaganda and recruitment.

The company suggested in a post announcing the change that it had originally seen white nationalism as an acceptable point of view, similar to American nationalism, or Basque separatism. Although Facebook’s policies have long prohibited certain hateful rhetoric against based on people’s race, ethnicity or religion, it had not believed that “white separatism” necessarily belonged in a prohibited category.

“We didn’t originally apply the same rationale to expressions of white nationalism and separatism 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 wrote in a post on Wednesday.

Facebook’s training documents for moderators, obtained last year by Vice News’ Motherboard, explained that content promoting organized hate groups and leaders were banned and should be removed, but that white nationalism and white separatism were explicitly permitted.

Phrases like “I am a proud white nationalist” and “The US should be a white-only nation” were cited as examples of acceptable viewpoints, even as “I am a white supremacist” was banned, Motherboard reported.

The documents argued that white nationalism “doesn’t seem to be always associated with racism (at least not explicitly)” and that white nationalists “carefully avoid the term supremacy because it has negative connotations”.

The slides repeatedly cited Wikipedia entries as sources for these conclusions.

After three months of consultation with academic experts in racist extremism, Facebook announced on Wednesday, it concluded that white nationalism “cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups.

“Going forward, while people will still be able to demonstrate pride in their ethnic heritage, we will not tolerate praise or support for white nationalism and separatism,” Facebook wrote.

Searches for certain keywords associated with white nationalism will also now direct users to Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave racist hate groups, Facebook said.

Advocacy groups, which had labeled Facebook’s previous policy “misguided, inconsistent, and dangerous”, praised the move but said it was “long overdue”.

“There is no defensible distinction that can be drawn between white supremacy, white nationalism or white separatism,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “By maintaining this distinction, Facebook ended up providing violent racists a platform that could be exploited to promote hate.”

Over the past few years, news organizations have routinely use the terms “white supremacist” and “white nationalist” interchangeably. Experts on extremism have long warned that white nationalists’ insistence that they are “not racist”, and that calling for a white ethno-state is not the same thing as “hating” people of color, is a propaganda tactic and should not be taken seriously.

Advocates warned that how aggressively Facebook chose to implement the policy would determine whether its platforms would continue to serve as a recruiting ground and propaganda tool for violent white supremacists.

Over the next week, Facebook groups that once explicitly called themselves “white nationalists” or “white separatists” would be likely to rebrand themselves under more acceptable terms, said Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard and an expert on how extremist groups manipulate the media. She questioned whether Facebook would allow these racist groups to continue operating in more muted terms, or whether it would use their past rhetoric to evaluate whether they should be allowed on the platform.

Other platforms and messaging services should also prepare for an influx of white nationalists coming from Facebook, and might need their own policies to ban these groups, Donovan said.

Madihha Ahussain, the Muslim Advocates’ special counsel for anti-Muslim bigotry, questioned whether Facebook’s definition of white nationalist content “will include expressions of anti-Muslim, anti-Black, anti-Jewish, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ sentiment – all underlying foundations of white nationalism”.

While Facebook will now ban phrases such as “I am a proud white nationalist”, other content that includes “implicit and coded” white nationalism may not be banned immediately, according to Vice News, which first reported the news of the policy change.

Facebook’s policy changes, which affect both Facebook and Instagram, come nearly four years after a racist attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015; nearly two years after a car attack on protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, by a young man who had marched with a white nationalist group; four months a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2018; and less than two weeks after an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left 50 worshippers dead.

The deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017, which ended in a car attack on counter-protesters that left one woman dead and dozens injured, was organized in part on Facebook. The company removed the Facebook page for the event just one day before it was scheduled to take place, Business Insider reported at the time.

Companies like Facebook “are implicated in the spread of white supremacist recruitment”, Donovan said. But, she said, “de-platforming works”.

 

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