Facebook on Tuesday announced its banning of eight pages, 17 profiles, and seven Instagram accounts that engaged in what it described as online political activity that was both “inauthentic” and ultimately an “abuse” of its platform. While the activity was not attributed to anybody specific, the implication was clear, and at several points, the company made comparisons to a Russian organization U.S. authorities accused of trying to influence U.S. voters during the 2016 election.
But at least one of the pages deleted this week was run by a group of real Americans who say they’ve been unfairly targeted by Facebook and falsely accused of being “unwittingly” duped into helping plan a protest scheduled to take place in Washington, DC, less than two weeks from today.
Facebook, for its part, says the page advertising the event was founded by a group whose administrators include some who have been flagged as a potential threats—entities, it says, who are likely trying to influence domestic politics from abroad, as Russian trolls had done two years ago. The real activists, however, say that Facebook, in this case, overshot its mark, overzealous perhaps in its attempt to placate a hostile Congress, while holding fast amid a week of ugly financial misfortune.
Disparate narratives notwithstanding, it is clear that Facebook is operating in unfamiliar territory and without a net as Americans inch closer to yet another election already mired by fears of foreign interference. Facebook, too, can’t help but fear another season of contentious congressional hearings, which will invariably follow even a minor misstep by the company in the weeks and months ahead.
The question raised by the activists, whose organizing efforts became collateral damage of Tuesday’s takedowns, is this: Who will pay the higher price for Facebook’s hypervigilance, seedy overseas actors working to rattle U.S. voters or politically engaged Americans who are, to their own alarm, heavily reliant on the data-sucking social media giant to coordinate their legitimate protest activity?
“We are not bots. We are not influenced by any Russians. We are local organizers,” said Andrew Batcher, an organizer with Shut It Down DC, a group mobilizing against white supremacists in the nation’s capital. “It’s ridiculous when you know who you are and what you’re doing and you’re still accused of being a Russian puppet.”
Batcher is also an admin of the anti-fascist page Smash Racism DC, which was one of six co-hosting the Facebook event page eighty-sixed by the company on Tuesday. Batcher and other local activists controlled the now-disabled event page “No Unite the Right 2,” a counter-protest scheduled for August 10-12 to coincide with a planned neo-Nazi rally in Washington. DC. The latter event is reportedly being organized by Jason Kessler, a chief organizer of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia.
If held, both events will take place during the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville, where 32-year-old Heather Heyer was fatally injured in a vehicular attack last year. The man who drove the car that killed Heyer and injured 19 others had earlier that day protested alongside members of a white supremacist group known as Vanguard America.
During a conference call Tuesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg identified the counter-protest against the white supremacists as the reason that Facebook went public.
As Facebook tells it, “inauthentic admins” of a Facebook Page called “The Resisters” coordinated with five other “legitimate Pages” to create the now-deleted event. In a blog Tuesday, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, wrote that the “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.”
Only, the activists behind those “legitimate Pages,” including the one run by Batcher, say they were not unwitting participants of anything. Nor was the counter-protest against the white extremists staging Charlottesville 2.0 the brainchild of any malicious foreign actor. Instead, they say, Facebook knowingly capsized the work of Americans activists who, of their own volition, spent weeks planned to gather in Washington and participate in a deliberate demonstration.
“This was a shortsighted gambit to appease legislators, avoid regulatory action, and protect the wealth of Facebook shareholders,” said one event organizer, who asked not to be named. The organizer noted that praise of Facebook’s action came from both Republicans and Democrats.
Other organizers, whom Facebook characterized as having been duped into helping plan the anti-fascist protest, have now started a brand new Facebook page promoting the exact same event—only, at time of writing, it has more than two thousand fewer participants.
In a statement, the organizers called Facebook’s removal of their event “censorship” aimed at hindering a “real movement against white supremacy and fascism.” The organizers added that the only evidence a “bad actor” was involved at all was a single admin on “The Resisters” page, which, they say, did nothing to advance the August protest itself. “Specifically, local organizers put our own messaging, graphics, and videos in it,” they said. “We did not promote anyone’s views except our own. The Resisters had no say in it. Nor did any sort of ‘Russian agent.’”
In a Twitter thread Tuesday, Brendan Orsinger, a DC activist who had admin access to “The Resisters” page wrote that Facebook “seems to have mistakenly confused some of us with Russian agents and deleted a legitimate event.” Neither Orsinger nor any of the activists who spoke to Gizmodo seem aware of who is responsible for creating the page. But they also don’t care. It was a vital tool, they said, which allowed them to reach thousands of real people. And ultimately, whoever did create “The Resisters” contributed nothing to the organizing of the real-world events focused on by Facebook.
Another activist and university student, who formerly worked for an educational nonprofit and is currently organizing for the upcoming DC protests, said that Facebook’s decision had left her genuinely concerned for her safety, worried that with her name linked to the now-deleted event, she would become the focus of some strange far-right conspiracy theory. “This could have real and dangerous repercussions,” she said. “It’s like if Qanon or Pizzagate got on the New York Times front page as authentic, but combined with the reality of Charlottesville 2.0.”
Among the growing incidents of violence, outside last year’s murder at Charlottesville, the organizer pointed to an event this week in San Antonio where white supremacists wearing masks attacked protesters camped outside an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, stealing and destroying their personal property while chanting “Strong borders, strong nation.”
Others aired concerns about language in Facebook’s blog, which cited the company’s close collaboration with U.S. law enforcement agencies, uneasy about the possibility that their personal information had been shared with the FBI. While Facebook says it did not pass to law enforcement information on any legitimate users, the denial was met with skepticism by the D.C. activists.
Likewise, Facebook’s remarks about “bad actors” going to great lengths to obscure their identities—more so, the company said, “than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has in the past”—caused ample alarm. Many activists, particularly those in DC, rely on tools such as the Tor Browser and virtual private networks (VPN) for online organizing, a change in behavior necessitated by the Justice Department’s past efforts to acquire the IP addresses of thousands of visitors to a website that promoted an Inauguration Day protest.
While Facebook confirmed to Gizmodo that the use of privacy tools wasn’t the only thing that led it to believe the accounts purged this week were “bad actors,” it declined to identify what other behaviors brought the accounts to its attention.
The calculated takedown of a page promoting a legitimate protest reveals that Facebook’s reaction to the troubled 2016 election can be just as disruptive to the political discourse of real Americans as the mischief brought by a Russian troll factory 4,000 miles away. It also shows that Facebook can police its platform poorly, or at least hastily, while still receiving praise from the same legislators who’ve spent the last year tearing into the company’s executives in hearing after hearing.
Regardless, it seems unlikely that Facebook will find the balance it seeks anytime soon. This may only be a precursor of future fumblings to come.
“There’s nothing more dangerous for online free speech than when technologically illiterate politicians are screaming at web platforms to ‘just do something’ about a problem that’s actually quite difficult to address,” said Fight for the Future’s Evan Greer, a longtime political organizer. “It’s clear that in Facebook’s haste to appease lawmakers, they silenced perfectly legitimate political speech. You couldn’t ask for a better example to show that this type of overzealous censorship is not the solution to the very real challenges democracy and human rights face in the digital age.”