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Facebook banned white nationalists months ago. But prominent groups are still on the platform

Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco
Photograph: Megan Jelinger/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On 7 November, Lana Lokteff, an American white nationalist, introduced a “thought criminal and political prisoner and friend” as a featured guest on her internet talk show, Red Ice TV.

For about 90 minutes, Lokteff and her guest – Greg Johnson, a prominent white nationalist and editor-in-chief of the white nationalist publisher Counter-Currents – discussed Johnson’s recent arrest in Norway amid authorities’ concerns about his past expression of “respect” for the far-right mass murderer Anders Breivik.In 2012, Johnson wrote that he was angered by Breivik’s crimes because he feared they would harm the cause of white nationalism but had discovered a “strange new respect” for him during his trial; Breivik’s murder of 77 people has been cited as an inspiration by the suspected Christchurch killer, the man who murdered the British MP Jo Cox, and a US coast guard officer accused of plotting a white nationalist terror attack.

Just a few weeks earlier, Red Ice TV had suffered a serious setback when it was permanently banned from YouTube for repeated violations of its policy against hate speech. But Red Ice TV still had a home on Facebook, allowing the channel’s 90,000 followers to stream the discussion on Facebook Watch – the platform Mark Zuckerberg launched as a place “to share an experience and bring people together who care about the same things”.

The conversation wasn’t a unique occurrence. Facebook promised to ban white nationalist content from its platform in March 2019, reversing a years-long policy to tolerate the ideology. But Red Ice TV is just one of several white nationalist outlets that remain active on the platform today.

A Guardian analysis found longstanding Facebook pages for VDare, a white nationalist website focused on opposition to immigration; the Affirmative Right, a rebranding of Richard Spencer’s blog Alternative Right, which helped launch the “alt-right” movement; and American Free Press, a newsletter founded by the white supremacist Willis Carto, in addition to multiple pages associated with Red Ice TV. Also operating openly on the platform are two Holocaust denial organizations, the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust and the Institute for Historical Review.

“There’s no question that every single one of these groups is a white nationalist group,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, after reviewing the Guardian’s findings. “It’s not even up for debate. There’s really no excuse for not removing this material.”

White nationalists support the establishment of whites-only nation states, both by excluding new non-white immigrants and, in some cases, by expelling or killing non-white citizens and residents. Many contemporary proponents of white nationalism fixate on conspiracy theories about demographic change and consider racial or ethnic diversity to be acts of “genocide” against the white race.

Facebook declined to take action against any of the pages identified by the Guardian. A company spokesperson said: “We are investigating to determine whether any of these groups violate our policies against organized hate. We regularly review organizations against our policy and any that violate will be banned permanently.”

Mark Zuckerberg has called for a ‘diversity’ of views. Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

The spokesperson also said that Facebook does not ban Holocaust denial, but does work to reduce the spread of such content by limiting the distribution of posts and preventing Holocaust-denying groups and pages from appearing in algorithmic recommendations. Such limitations are being applied to the two Holocaust denial groups identified by the Guardian, the spokesperson said.

The Guardian undertook a review of white nationalist outlets on Facebook amid a debate over the company’s decision to include Breitbart News in Facebook News, a new section of its mobile app dedicated to “high quality” journalism. Facebook has faced significant pressure to reduce the distribution of misinformation on its platform. Critics of Breitbart News object to its inclusion in what Zuckerberg has described as a “trusted source” of information on two fronts: its repeated publication of partisan misinformation and conspiracy theories – and its promotion of extreme right-wing views.

A growing body of evidence shows the influence of white nationalism on Breitbart’s politics. Breitbart’s former executive chairman Steve Bannon called the site “the platform for the alt-right” in 2016. In 2017, BuzzFeed News reported on emails and documents showing how a former Breitbart editor had worked directly with a white nationalist and a neo-Nazi to write and edit an article about the “alt-right” movement.

This month, the SPLC and numerous news organizations have reported on a cache of emails between the senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller and the former Breitbart writer Katie McHugh showing how Miller pushed for coverage and inclusion of white nationalist ideas in the publication. The emails show Miller directing McHugh to read links from VDare and another white nationalist publication, American Renaissance, among other sources. In one case, reported by NBC News, Breitbart ran an anti-immigration op-ed submitted by Miller under the byline “Breitbart News”.

Breitbart spokeswoman Elizabeth Moore said that the outlet “is not now nor has it ever been a platform for the alt-right”. Moore also said McHugh was “a troubled individual” who had been fired for a number of reasons “including lying”.

“Breitbart is the funnel through which VDare’s ideas get out to the public,” said Beirich. “It’s basically a conduit of conspiracy theory and racism into the conservative movement ... We don’t list them as a hate group, but to consider them a trusted news source is pandering at best.”

Drawing the line between politics and news

Facebook executives have responded defensively to criticism of Breitbart News’s inclusion in the Facebook News tab, arguing that the company should not pick ideological sides.

“Part of having this be a trusted source is that it needs to have a diversity of … views in there,” Zuckerberg said at an event in New York in response to a question about Breitbart’s inclusion. Campbell Brown, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, wrote in a lengthy Facebook post that she believed Facebook should “include content from ideological publishers on both the left and the right”. Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram and a longtime Facebook executive, questioned on Twitter whether the company’s critics “really want a platform of our scale to make decisions to exclude news organizations based on their ideology”. In response to a question from the Guardian, Mosseri acknowledged that Facebook does ban the ideology of white nationalism, then added: “The tricky bit is, and this is always the case, where exactly to draw the line.”

One of the challenges for Facebook is that white nationalist and white supremacist groups adopt the trappings of news outlets or publications to disseminate their views, said Joan Donovan, the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard and an expert on media manipulation.

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Red Ice TV is “a group that styles themselves as a news organization when they are primarily a political organization, and the politics are staunchly white supremacist”, Donovan said. “We have seen this happen in the past where organizations like the KKK have produced their own newspapers ... It doesn’t mean that it qualifies as news.”

Many people argue that Breitbart is more of a “political front” than a news operation, she added. “When Steve Bannon left Breitbart in order to work much more concretely with campaigns, you could see that Breitbart was a political organ before anything else. Really what they were trying to do was give white supremacist politics a veneer of objectivity.”

Donovan said she expects platform companies will reassess their treatment of Breitbart following the release of the Miller emails. She also called for Facebook to take a more “holistic” approach to combating US domestic terrorism, as it does with foreign terrorist groups.

A Facebook spokesperson noted that Facebook News is still in a test phase and that Facebook is not paying Breitbart News for its inclusion in the program. The spokesperson said the company would continue to listen to feedback from news publishers.

A history of tolerance for hate

Facebook has long asserted that “hate speech has no space on Facebook”, whether it comes from a news outlet or not.

But the $566bn company has consistently allowed a variety of hate groups to use its platform to spread their message, even when alerted to their presence by the media or advocacy groups. In July 2017, in response to queries from the Guardian, Facebook said that more than 160 pages and groups identified as hate groups by SPLC did not violate its community standards. Those groups included:

Three weeks later, following the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Facebook announced a crackdown on violent threats and removed pages associated with the the Traditionalist Worker party, Counter-Currents, and the neo-Nazi organization Gallows Tree Wotansvolk. Many of the rest remained.

The Facebook campus in Menlo Park, California. Photograph: Noah Berger / Reuters/Reuters

A year later, a Guardian review found that many of the groups and individuals involved in the Charlottesville event were back on Facebook, including the neo-Confederate League of the South, Patriot Front, and Jason Kessler, who organized Unite the Right. Facebook took those pages down following inquiries from the Guardian, but declined to take action against the page of David Duke, the notorious white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

In May 2018, Vice News’s Motherboard reported on internal Facebook training documents that showed the company was distinguishing between white supremacy and white nationalism – and explicitly allowing white nationalism.

In July 2018, Zuckerberg defended the motivations of people who engage in Holocaust denial during an interview, saying that he did not “think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong”. Following widespread criticism, he retracted his remarks.

It was not until March 2019 that Facebook acknowledged that white nationalism “cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups” and banned it.

Beirich expressed deep frustration with Facebook’s track record.

“We have consulted with Facebook many, many times,” Beirich added. “We have sent them our list of hate groups. It’s not like they’re not aware, and I always get the sense that there is good faith desire [to take action], and yet over and over again [hate groups] keep popping up. It’s just not possible for civil rights groups like SPLC to play the role of flagging this stuff for Facebook. It’s a company that makes $42bn a year and I have a staff of 45.”