This week, Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram banned a number of far-right figures, including white supremacists and conspiracy theorists, in a somewhat clumsily executed effort to rid itself entirely of figures like failed congressional candidate and anti-Semite Paul Nehlen, Infowars founder Alex Jones and associated fringe personality Paul Joseph Watson, internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos, opportunistic hatemonger and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and annoying perennial provocateur Laura Loomer.
In response, and obviously as the product of a deviously calculated political strategy rather than a mind so unmoored from reality it couldn’t be towed back in with a harpoon cannon, the president has spent much of the last 24 hours growing increasingly furious over it.
Trump started off on Friday by claiming to be “monitoring and watching” the situation, which he stated was “censorship of AMERICAN CITIZENS on social media platforms.” The first victims, pro-Trump web personalities Diamond and Silk, aren’t directly involved in the bans but issued (more or less totally debunked) claims of censorship by Facebook last year.
Trump later tweeted out a link to Breitbart article with the caption, “So surprised to see Conservative thinkers like James Woods banned from Twitter, and Paul Watson banned from Facebook!”
James Woods, an actor turned far-right social media amplifier, was not banned, but reportedly locked out of his Twitter account until he deletes a tweet using the hashtag #HangThemAll in what CNBC described as “an apparent reference to special counsel Robert Mueller’s office.” Watson, the Infowars personality, is a loudmouth conspiracy theorist who specializes in frenzied misinformation, Islamophobic scapegoating, and hawking kooky brain pills.
Watson is British.
Trump then took a break to retweet a QAnon-promoting “Deep State Exposed” Twitter account that posted a bizarrely edited video purporting to prove the end goal of Islam is subjugating or murdering all non-believers, before retweeting Watson and a string of others griping about the bans.
One of those tweets hinted that Facebook could lose its Communications Decency Act section 230 protections, which shield it from liability from user-generated content, under the very dubious legal theory that it is selectively censoring conservatives and thus is acting as a publisher rather than a platform.
Trump also retweeted Lauren Southern, a far-right YouTube personality with ties to U.S. and European “alt-right” (i.e., white supremacist) movements. As GQ previously reported, in 2017 “the Italian Coast Guard detained Southern along with identitarian activists—who believe Europe should be for ‘Europeans’—after they threw flares at a Doctors Without Borders boat, which performs search-and-rescue missions for drowning refugees.”
Southern is Canadian.
Next in the retweet spree: Someone calling for Church of God bishop and NAACP activist Talbert Swan to be banned from Twitter for hate speech. (Swan lost access to his account in 2018 in a move that apparently occurred after he described black conservative activist Candace Owens as a “coon,” which Swan argued carried a much different connotation when used within the black community. But he later returned to the site.)
Trump then retweeted Watson again, ranting about whether “a handful of giant partisan corporations” should have “the power to decide who has free speech”:
That thought apparently didn’t stick long in the president’s head, because he then quickly called for the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC to receive bans because they are “FAKE NEWS!”
Later in the day, Trump returned to complaining about Woods—who on April 8 tweeted a meme featuring the perpetrator of a recent massacre at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, drawn as a clown—writing that “How can it be possible that James Woods (and many others), a strong but responsible Conservative voice, is banned from Twitter?”
Again, Woods is not banned but is being asked to delete a tweet with the hashtag #HangThemAll.
(Farrakhan apparently didn’t warrant a mention, which is unsurprising given that his removal does not fit neatly into Trump’s narrative. But neither did Loomer, despite a series of desperate stunts apparently designed to attract his attention.)
So, to recap, the president has directed most of his energy over the past day yelling incoherently in defense of or actively promoting conspiracy theorists and far-right mouthpieces. It’s not clear whether Trump knows who many of these people are beyond that they are mostly aligned in favor of his presidency, not that it matters.
There is also no sign that Trump is done yet. In fact, seeing as he’s apparently become convinced that there is a sinister conspiracy in Silicon Valley to discriminate against conservatives, the only logical conclusion is that he will continue yelling into the wind louder and louder.
This situation is also frustrating because, as Slate argued, Facebook promoted embargoed news of the bans that a number of news organizations published before some of the accounts involved were actually scrubbed from its properties, allowing them to direct their followers to alternate platforms. Facebook additionally issued only vague explanations of why it was doing so, other than the obviously untrue statement that it has “always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology.”
This created an opportunity for critics to position the bans as arbitrary—with the tiny grain of truth being that Facebook indeed has a long history of stumbling over content moderation issues and often only taking action against hate speech under sustained external pressure.
... Particularly in Facebook’s case, deplatforming also has to align with a set of clearly articulated policies so that it isn’t read as a tyrannical act of corporate censorship that will further inflame accusations of bias. In this case, Facebook created a news story in much the way it might if it had announced a new product, but it didn’t actually say why specifically the accounts were removed. What should have been a by-the-book punitive act became a spectacle—and probably one that Alex Jones and the like will try to spin to their advantage. Facebook has the power to punish wrongdoers, as it did on Thursday. But we don’t know its full rationale for doing so, nor do we know who will be next.
As Slate also noted, Facebook has said it is redesigning its site to promote private groups over the news feed, raising the question of whether those private groups will simply become alternate distribution networks for extreme, fringe content (much like its subsidiary WhatsApp has become across the globe).
Ultimately, it’s likely that losing access to mainstream platforms will result in some of these figures diminishing in influence, just as Alex Jones and Infowars plummeted in reach after his noxious properties grew to be so much of a headache that he was banned from most of them. But in the meantime, this shitshow train wreck is now fully off the rails, and the pistons are still pumping.
Update: 5/4/2019 at 8:00 p.m. ET: In the post above, we noted that Trump didn’t directly mention Loomer. But we missed an earlier retweet from the president on Friday morning, which did reference Loomer in the form of a screenshot of a Breitbart headline. Sigh.