On Thursday at around 2 pm ET, multiple news outlets simultaneously “broke” a story that six particularly toxic extremists and one conspiracy theorist organization had been banned from Facebook and Instagram. Only, they hadn’t.
Paris Martineau covers platforms, online influence, and social media manipulation for WIRED.
Stories by CNN, the Verge, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post lauded Facebook for scrubbing the accounts of inflammatory far-right online figureheads like Laura Loomer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Infowars’ Alex Jones and Paul Joseph Watson from both platforms. Yet those four still had control of their Instagram accounts for nearly an hour after the bans were announced. And Jones’ Facebook page, “Infowars Is Back,” was still online and live-streaming for nearly two hours after the ban was disclosed.
Loomer and Yiannopolous took advantage of the advance notice, posting photos to Instagram about being banned from the platform that included captions directing their fans to follow them elsewhere. The pages were eventually removed, but the time lag and strange media rollout turned what should have been Facebook’s most comprehensive crackdown on high-profile extremists into another example of the company’s struggles with content moderation.
None of the extremists banned Thursday are new to Facebook or Instagram. Each has used the platforms extensively to spread misinformation and inflame tensions. Jones and his allies were able to evade an earlier ban through a network of ostensibly unofficial pages sharing Infowars content. Facebook said on Thursday it would close that loophole, but that will require much greater effort by the company and may prove no more successful.
In addition to Jones, Yiannopoulos, Loomer, Joseph Watson, and Infowars, Facebook said it also banned white supremacist Paul Nehlen and radical Muslim preacher Louis Farrakhan from both Facebook and Instagram under its policies prohibiting dangerous individuals and organizations. The company says that all of their personal and professional accounts—or any accounts that appear to represent them or their organization—are no longer permitted on either platform.
In a statement to WIRED, a Facebook spokesperson said that the company has “always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology.” But the people and organization banned Thursday were just as extreme and peddled just as much misinformation a year ago. So why now?
Facebook says “the process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”
The WIRED Guide to Conspiracy Theories
In August 2018, YouTube and Apple banned Infowars. Facebook followed suit shortly after, removing Jones and his organization’s accounts, amid mounting pressure from critics to deplatform the conspiracy theorist. The company said its ban was unrelated to the actions of the other tech companies. And Jones and Infowars were effectively able to evade the ban thanks to a network of ostensibly unofficial pages and profiles dedicated to resharing Infowars content which popped up within days of the official accounts’ removal.
Facebook’s Thursday ban closes that loophole, by deploying a tool against Infowars usually reserved for terrorist organizations and self-proclaimed hate groups. The company says that users will be prohibited from sharing Infowars videos, radio clips, articles, and other content from the site unless they are explicitly condemning the material. Fan pages or groups that reshare Infowars content in a sincere or appreciative manner won’t be permitted.
By allowing users to share Infowars content for the purpose of criticizing it, Facebook has effectively restricted itself from using automated tools to enforce the ban—because those tools often cannot accurately determine context and tone. Instead, Facebook will have to rely on human content moderators to determine whether a post is sufficiently critical.
Asked about the “banned” accounts remaining active for an hour or more after the ban was disclosed, the Facebook spokesperson said it was the result of a plan gone awry. Facebook had originally intended for the six users and Infowars to be banned from the platform and told of the ban before they read about it in the press.
However, actually scrubbing all of the accounts from the platforms took much longer than Facebook had anticipated, the spokesperson said, leading to more than an hour of lag time in some cases.
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And so simultaneously the company mounted a huge effort, led by CTO Mike Schroepfer, to create artificial intelligence systems that can, at scale, identify the content that Facebook wants to zap from its platform, including spam, nudes, hate speech, ISIS propaganda, and videos of children being put in washing machines.