The Media Is Giving Facebook a Free Pass to Shut Down Activists Over Russia Fears

An anti-fascist coalition says its event page was unfairly targeted in the tech giant’s latest crackdown.

Sarah Lazare and Julianne Tveten

Facebook's latest crackdown appears to have targeted at least one anti-fascist coalition. (Screengrab / CBS Evening News)

Face­book announced July 31 that, in a bid to stave off Russ­ian influ­ence in U.S. elec­tions, the com­pa­ny had uni­lat­er­al­ly removed 32 Pages and accounts from Face­book and Insta­gram because they were involved in coor­di­nat­ed inau­then­tic behav­ior.” Yet at least one U.S.-based activist coali­tion says it was tar­get­ed, rais­ing ques­tions about the intent and exe­cu­tion of this new policy.

This is not the first time left organizations have been targeted—with little media scrutiny—by corporate efforts to weed out “illegitimate” actors.

But instead of inter­ro­gat­ing the lat­est move from the $170-bil­lion-dol­lar com­pa­ny — arguably the largest and most pow­er­ful media orga­ni­za­tion that has ever exist­ed — press out­lets duti­ful­ly ran with Facebook’s claims, churn­ing out head­lines warn­ing that U.S. vot­ers are being tar­get­ed and ampli­fy­ing the company’s insin­u­a­tion that Rus­sia is prob­a­bly” involved. As a result, Face­book is almost entire­ly able to con­trol the nar­ra­tive about its own self-reg­u­la­tion, as it con­tin­ues to dodge mean­ing­ful exter­nal over­sight and — most trou­bling­ly — pri­vate­ly deter­mine the para­me­ters of accept­able polit­i­cal speech.

A Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based anti-fas­cist coali­tion says it was col­lat­er­al dam­age of this new initiative.

Low stan­dard for fact checking

Face­book Iden­ti­fies an Active Polit­i­cal Influ­ence Cam­paign Using Fake Accounts,” reads a breath­less New York Times head­line pub­lished July 31. The arti­cle goes on to insin­u­ate, offer­ing no con­crete evi­dence, that Rus­sia is behind the attack:

The com­pa­ny did not defin­i­tive­ly link the cam­paign to Rus­sia. But Face­book offi­cials said some of the tools and tech­niques used by the accounts were sim­i­lar to those used by the Inter­net Research Agency, the Krem­lin-linked group that was at the cen­ter of an indict­ment this year alleg­ing inter­fer­ence in the 2016 pres­i­den­tial election.

The news­pa­per of record” was not alone. The Wash­ing­ton Post sto­ry that ran July 31 regur­gi­tat­ed the company’s fram­ing, with the head­line, Face­book says it has uncov­ered a coor­di­nat­ed dis­in­for­ma­tion oper­a­tion ahead of the 2018 midterm elec­tions.” And a July 31 Vox arti­cle leaves the read­er all but cer­tain of Russia’s involve­ment: Face­book isn’t sure if it’s Rus­sia, but it looks a lot like what Rus­sia did in 2016.”

Moth­er Jones took a sim­i­lar approach, warn­ing on July 31, With just over three months until the vital midterm elec­tions, com­pa­ny offi­cials sus­pect pos­si­ble Russ­ian involve­ment.” That arti­cle pro­vid­ed Nathaniel Gle­ich­er, Facebook’s head of cyber­se­cu­ri­ty pol­i­cy, an uncrit­i­cal plat­form to sug­gest that the com­pa­ny needs to pre­pare for war. We face deter­mined, well-fund­ed adver­saries who will nev­er give up and are con­stant­ly chang­ing tac­tics,” he is quot­ed as say­ing. It’s an arms race and we need to con­stant­ly improve too.”

Each of these arti­cles names groups alleged­ly under this ill-defined for­eign influ­ence — again, with­out pro­vid­ing evi­dence or specifics. The New York Times writes:

Face­book said it had dis­cov­ered coor­di­nat­ed activ­i­ty around issues like a sequel to last year’s dead­ly Unite the Right” white suprema­cist ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Va. Activ­i­ty was also detect­ed around #Abol­ishICE, a left-wing cam­paign on social media that seeks to end the Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment agency.

With­out even requir­ing the com­pa­ny to def­i­nite its own terms, includ­ing the oft-par­rot­ted coor­di­nat­ed inau­then­tic behav­ior,” the press is cre­at­ing a cloud of sus­pi­cion around the legit­i­mate move­ment to abol­ish ICE, just as it’s break­ing into the main­stream and influ­enc­ing the nation­al conversation.

Anti-fas­cist coali­tion targeted

Anti-fas­cist orga­niz­ers in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., say they were caught in the crosshairs. One event tar­get­ed by Facebook’s new pol­i­cy was No Unite the Right 2,” a protest against the suc­ces­sor to last year’s dead­ly white-suprema­cist brawl in Char­lottesville. Face­book acknowl­edged this removal stemmed from its tar­get­ing of the Resisters” Page, which the com­pa­ny claims also cre­at­ed a Face­book Event for a protest on August 10 to 12 and enlist­ed sup­port from real people.”

Accord­ing to Facebook:

The Event – No Unite the Right 2 – DC” – was sched­uled to protest an August Unite the Right” event in Wash­ing­ton. Inau­then­tic admins of the Resisters” Page con­nect­ed with admins from five legit­i­mate Pages to co-host the event. These legit­i­mate Pages unwit­ting­ly helped build inter­est in No Unite Right 2 – DC” and post­ed infor­ma­tion about trans­porta­tion, mate­ri­als, and loca­tions so peo­ple could get to the protests.

How­ev­er, the anti-fas­cist coali­tion Shut It Down DC argued in a state­ment it was unfair­ly tar­get­ed by this action:

We have been meet­ing for weeks. We took over the Face­book event cre­at­ed by out­side groups, in a desire to keep it account­able to local orga­niz­ers. At numer­ous points, nation­al groups have orga­nized events in DC, and often demand­ed the resources of local organizers.

The event was cre­at­ed by Resisters, but was used for legit­i­mate protest orga­niz­ing and pro­mo­tion. Specif­i­cal­ly, local orga­niz­ers put our own mes­sag­ing, graph­ics, and videos in it. We did not pro­mote anyone’s views except our own.

It’s an absurd moment, where we’re try­ing to fig­ure out how to make Face­book a safer envi­ron­ment, the first peo­ple they go after are anti-fas­cist pro­test­ers,” says Dylan Petro­hi­los, a for­mer J20 defen­dant and Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based anti-fas­cist organizer.

Petro­hi­los is par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned that the com­pa­ny claims one of its cri­te­ria for deem­ing accounts sus­pi­cious was their use of vir­tu­al pri­vate net­works (VPNs), which are com­mon­ly used by activists as alter­na­tives to pub­lic net­works to enhance online secu­ri­ty and dodge sur­veil­lance. I use a VPN every day on my cell phone and com­put­er, and that’s because in our polit­i­cal move­ments, we have mass sur­veil­lance and mass data know­ing every­thing about us,” he tells In These Times.

Petro­hi­los adds that Face­book did not con­sult with local activists before remov­ing the accounts.

The anti-fas­cist coali­tion says the shut­down is so dis­turb­ing pre­cise­ly because the specter of for­eign influ­ence was used to under­mine efforts tar­get­ing the home­grown prob­lem of white suprema­cy. The coali­tion states:

White nation­al­ism and suprema­cy is not a Russ­ian ploy, it’s a sys­temic prob­lem. Jason Kessler [who orga­nized the Unite the Right 2” ral­ly] is not a Russ­ian bot, he’s the foot sol­dier of the Trump agen­da. White suprema­cy did not start with the elec­tion of Trump, and it won’t end when Democ­rats are elect­ed to the U.S. Con­gress. It start­ed when Colum­bus arrived in 1492 and robbed, mur­dered, and raped First Nation peo­ples, it con­tin­ued with the chat­tel slave trade, Seg­re­ga­tion and Jim Crow, the Chi­nese Exclu­sion Act, Japan­ese intern­ment camps, and shack­led dead black bod­ies on stolen land.

Like­wise, Petro­hi­los notes that anti-fas­cist orga­niz­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. pre­dates the cur­rent polit­i­cal cli­mate, going back generations.”

This is not the first time left orga­ni­za­tions have been tar­get­ed — with lit­tle media scruti­ny — by cor­po­rate efforts to weed out ille­git­i­mate” actors. As part of a 2017 cru­sade against fake news” led by major tech com­pa­nies, Google mod­i­fied its algo­rithms, giv­ing pri­or­i­ty to such cen­trist pub­li­ca­tions as the Wash­ing­ton Post and New York Times while tank­ing the search traf­fic of such sites as Com­mon Dreams and Truthout.

Face­book claims that its deci­sions are secu­ri­ty mea­sures, designed to pre­vent abuse” in the wake of con­cerns over mis­in­for­ma­tion” influ­enc­ing the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. But what­ev­er one thinks about Russ­ian influ­ence in the elec­tion, press out­lets must not sur­ren­der all crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties sim­ply because a cor­po­rate spokesper­son insin­u­ates Rus­sia might be involved.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch.Julianne Tveten writes about the inter­sec­tion of the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try and socioe­co­nom­ic issues. Her work has appeared in Cur­rent Affairs, The Out­line, Moth­er­board, and Hazlitt, among others.
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