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Facebook brings a ban hammer to the far right

Programming note: Next week, your humble newsletter writer has been asked to participate in one of ou
May 2 · Issue #326 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: Next week, your humble newsletter writer has been asked to participate in one of our democracy’s noblest traditions: jury duty. If I am chosen, I will proudly serve! And if I’m not, I plan to take the week to work on some exciting original reporting projects. Either way, no Interface next week.
When Facebook told me this morning that it would ban Alex Jones and Infowars from its platform, my initial reaction was one of deja vu. Haven’t we been through this before? Indeed, it was nine months ago that Facebook first acted to remove Jones’ public page, after previously suspending him.
But banning a Jones page and removing Jones’ network are different things. And despite Facebook’s move — along with many other tech platforms — to remove his influence, Jones continued to thrive. It was only in February when Facebook found another 22 pages related to him and his businesses. And while his diminished reach has certainly limited his ability to attract new followers and profit from vile conspiracy theories, he has continued to have a home even in places where he was supposed to be unwelcome.
That’s what makes today’s move by Facebook an important escalation of the effort to scrub Jones from social networks. The company has officially designated him — along with fellow extremist influencers Louis Farrakhan, Paul Nehlen, Milo Yiannopoulos, Paul Joseph Watson, Laura Loomer, and Infowars itself — as dangerous individuals and organizations. From my story today in The Verge:
“We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology,” the company said in a statement. “The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.” […]
As some observers pointed out, it’s quite a stretch for Facebook to say that it has “always banned” people who promote hate. “Always” is offensive here to the individuals who’ve had to spend countless hours pointing out clear rule violations,” Charlie Warzel tweeted.
And the actual ban took longer than expected. Facebook began removing accounts at 10:30AM PT on Thursday, but some accounts remained up for an hour or more, Paris Martineau reported in Wired.
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.
Some reporters made hay of the fact that in delaying the actual ban, some of the affected accounts were able to change their bios to promote other remaining social presences, such as an email newsletter or a Telegram account. While that’s unfortunate, any superfan making hourly visits to the Facebook or Instagram page of any of these accounts almost certainly would have found those other social presences somehow through other means.
Of greater concern, I think, is that Jones in particular continued to thrive on Facebook for nearly a year after he was purportedly banned. The other extremists who lost their accounts benefited similarly from Facebook’s excessively deliberate approach to enforcing its own policies. How many followers did they accrue over the past year, thanks in part to Facebook’s own viral sharing mechanics? How much farther did their ideology spread around the world than it otherwise might have?
One heartening aspect of today’s bans is the reasoning behind them. From my story again:
First in December and again in February, Jones appeared in videos with Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes. Facebook has designated McInnes as a hate figure.
Yiannopoulos publicly praised McInnes and British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who Facebook has designated as a hate figure.
Loomer appeared with McInnes in December, and more recently declared her support for far-right activist Faith Goldy, who was banned after posting racist videos to her account.
In citing those examples, Facebook has acknowledged that right-wing extremism is a global network, in which the most prominent influencers regularly collaborate and promote each other. By banning the extremists because they collaborated, Facebook both begins to root out its hate-speech network and discourage others from joining in. (Let’s hope YouTube is paying attention here.)
But perhaps the biggest lesson to learn here is that banning an account is not a one-time action. Jones’ existence on Facebook has lasted for nearly a year since the ban hammer first came down. Keeping these extremists off the network is going to be an ongoing challenge. Here’s hoping Facebook is up to it.

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