Under the pretext of “newsworthiness,” U.S. tech leaders have, for years, aided political leaders in spreading extremist views underpinned by racial animus and other prejudices, in turn giving rise to an explosion of violence and persecution targeting some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.
A new report this week by the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism (GPAHE) lays bare the consequences of Silicon Valley’s complicity and neglect. As high-profile executives ignored and frequently profited off the toils of known extremists—some of whom they collaborated with directly in shady business arrangements—they helped to arm them with powerful constituencies, giving dangerous fanatics a megaphone with which to cast immigrants and minorities as existential threats in their respective nations.
The report comes as the United States is in the midst of grappling with a wave of anti-Asian sentiment online, which preceded thousands of documented accounts of harassment, physical assault, and civil rights violations against Asian Americans. The Pew Research Center last summer reported that 31% of Asian Americans had experienced slurs or jokes about their race or ethnicity, more than any other group since the start of the pandemic.
Many users and news commentators aghast by the uptick in violence against Asians and Asian Americans have rightly drawn a straight line to racist rhetoric depicting the covid-19 outbreak as a “Chinese virus,” sentiments that platforms such as Twitter helped to normalize throughout 2020. A cursory review of the Trump Twitter Archive reveals that former President Donald Trump’s tweets containing the phrase “China virus” or “Chinese virus” received more than 2.1 million retweets before his suspension in January over an unrelated offense.
“For years, Trump violated the community standards of several platforms with relative impunity,” GPAHE’s report notes. “Tech leaders had made the affirmative decision to allow exceptions for the politically powerful, usually with the excuse of ‘newsworthiness’ or under the guise of ‘political commentary’ that the public supposedly needed to see.”
Only after instigating a mass-violence event at the U.S. Capitol was Trump permanently expelled from Twitter; Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, meanwhile, chose only to “indefinitely suspend” the president while they internally deliberate the decision. Facebook has passed the buck to its newly formed Oversight Board (its so-called “Supreme Court”), which is currently comprised of 20 members hand-picked by the company.
“[T]he fact that it took an actual insurrection, planned and encouraged on the companies’ own services, to get Facebook, Twitter, et al., to move is unbelievably discouraging,” GPAHE says, while noting that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s response was to push the blame onto her competitors. “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said during a Jan. 11 interview.
Citing a Media Matters for America (MMFA) investigation last month, GPAHE notes that more than 6,000 of Trump’s Facebook posts in the year preceding the Capitol violence—nearly a quarter of his 2020 posts—contained extremist rhetoric and disinformation about the pandemic and the 2020 election. In the year leading up to Jan. 6, Trump used Facebook to push false or misleading information about the election specifically at least 363 times, MMFA found.
Like Twitter, Facebook openly and intentionally authorized Trump to violate its community standards in exchange for user engagement, influence, and profit.
In one noteworthy incident, amid last summer’s protests and adjacent property destruction incited by police brutality against Black people, Trump declared via Twitter that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a remark widely viewed as an endorsement of violence by his own supporters, some of whom traveled in heavily armed caravans to major protest sites.
While Twitter “hid” Trump’s post behind a written warning, likely to be ignored by his own followers, having been conditioned to view social media companies as hostile to their politics, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg decided to do nothing, despite the outcry by thousands of his own employees. Zuckerberg instead sought to frame Facebook’s inaction as a public service, claiming that “accountability for those in positions of power can only happen when their speech is scrutinized out in the open.”
With its CEO having acknowledged the post publicly, Facebook was itself arguably encouraging violence at that stage by way of its decision to continue circulating the message to at least hundreds of thousands of users. “Within days,” GPAHE notes, “it had been shared over 71,000 times and reacted to over 253,000 times. The message was also overlaid onto a photo shared on Trump’s Instagram account, which quickly received over half a million likes.”
“The company insists the use of incendiary populist language predates social media, so its spread is unrelated to Facebook,” the report says. “This position completely ignores how Facebook has manipulated the online space in favor of extremism and how political abuse of social media has altered the American political landscape.”
Facebook’s inaction in the face of warnings by experts about the growing calls for violence by extremists across its platform is well documented.
The group Muslim Advocates, whose leaders have for years sat in meetings with top Facebook officials—including Zuckerberg and Sandberg, personally—published a timeline last year showing its efforts to warn company officials about armed militias and white supremacist groups organizing events that targeted communities based on their race and religion. The group said it was forced to release the timeline after Zuckerberg claimed an “operational mistake” was responsible for Facebook hosting a militia event page telling members to bring weapons to a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. (The event page had been flagged by users at least 455 times.)
The GPAHE report further highlights international extremists fueled by far-right ideologies that have risen to power with the help of U.S.-based social media platforms. The Alternative Fur Deutschland (AfD), for instance, which is “rabidly anti-Muslim, anti-refugee, and anti-LGBTQ,” has relied heavily on Facebook to spread messages of hate. As GPAHE notes, in 2017 the AfD rose to become Germany’s third-largest political party, the first to promote far-right views in the country in over a half-century.
AfD’s rise from a fringe party in 2013 to an increasingly formidable extremist force is deeply tied to the party’s harnessing of social media, researchers found. Starting in 2016, the AfD built up a large following on both Facebook and Twitter by sharing a high volume of sensationalist tweets and posts,” GPAHE says, adding that by 2019: “AfD maintained 1,663 Facebook pages, more active pages than all the other German political parties combined.”
The report further highlights the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, a serial human rights abuser who, upon taking power, oversaw the unlawful killings of thousands of his own citizens and jailed his opponents on baseless charges. Facebook, a platform in use by an estimated 97% of Filipinos, worked closely with the Duterte campaign and even co-sponsored a forum that was broadcast, according to an exhaustive 2017 Bloomberg report, on 200 television and radio stations. Once elected, the company doubled down on the relationship. Facebook celebrated Duterte’s fame, which it helped to create, dubbing him at one point the “undisputed king of Facebook conversations.”
Human Rights Watch last year documented the Duterte government’s extreme punishments for citizens accused of violating the country’s covid-19 restrictions, often broadcast on Facebook, including videos of people placed in “dog cages” where police and other officials “forced them to sit in the midday sun as punishment, among other abuses.” Broadcast on Facebook Live by a police official, three members of the LGBTQ community were forced to kiss each other and “do a sexy dance” in front of onlookers, including a minor.
Similar accounts included in the report detail Facebook’s participation in helping to elect violent, bigoted officials in other nations, including the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who has sanctioned bloodshed against Muslims by rioters.
“Social media, and Facebook in particular, has had a horrifying damaging effect on democracies, societies and vulnerable populations around the world,” GPAHE says. “Bigoted populist leaders and far-right political parties across the globe have harnessed the power of social media to achieve political heights likely previously unattainable.”
GPAHE has issued specific recommendations in response to its findings, calling on social media companies to end “newsworthiness” exemptions globally, apply fact-checking to political advertisements, and implement “preventative genocidal protocols,” among others.
You can read the full GPAHE report, Democracies Under Threat, by clicking here.