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Facebook is finally banning white nationalist content

The new ban, which will also apply to content supporting white separatism, comes after months of advocacy from civil rights groups.

One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, in April 2018.
One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the US Capitol in Washington, DC, in April 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook has announced a ban on content that includes “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism” — a significant policy shift that comes after months of criticism from civil rights groups.

The change, which was first reported Wednesday by Motherboard, will go into effect next week and will also apply to Instagram. The platform will also direct users who try to post this content to Life After Hate, an organization that helps people leave hate groups.

In a blog post published on Wednesday, Facebook explained its decision, noting that the new policy is the result of months of discussions between Facebook and outside groups. Previously, Facebook had banned content promoting white supremacy (generally, the belief that whites are superior to other races).

But the platform allowed white nationalist content (which promotes a belief that a white majority should control the social and political direction of predominantly white countries) and white separatist content (which argues that whites should create a separate ethnostate devoid of people of color). While their proponents argue that these ideologies are very different, groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center argue that the latter two often express a belief in white supremacy, making them all very similar.

Facebook says additional conversations with civil rights groups and experts “confirmed that white nationalism and separatism cannot be meaningfully separated from white supremacy and organized hate groups,” leading the social media platform to expand its policy on hate language.

The ban will focus on explicit language and will not target more implicit statements supporting white nationalism and separatism. While civil rights groups want Facebook to work harder to eliminate racism and bias on its platform, they say the new policy is a crucial first step.

The ban comes less than two weeks after a mass shooting at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, and after much criticism over Facebook’s previous policy. In a May 2018 investigation, Motherboard found that internal Facebook moderator training documents allowed explicit support for white nationalism and separatism, claiming that these ideologies are not always rooted in hate or racism and were different from support for white supremacy.

The social media platform also argued that banning white nationalism would also require banning other forms of nationalism (like black nationalism and Zionism) on the platform. Historians and civil rights groups said this argument was flawed and ignored the unique historical impacts of white supremacy, adding that the platform’s distinction between white supremacy, white nationalism, and white separatism was unnecessary and based on a “mere technicality.”

Months later, Facebook says it agrees.

“We decided that the overlap between white nationalism, [white] separatism, and white supremacy is so extensive we really can’t make a meaningful distinction between them,” Brian Fishman, policy director of counterterrorism at Facebook, told Motherboard.

Facebook initially said white nationalism and white separatism were significantly different from white supremacy. Experts disagreed.

Less than two years ago, a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, ended with the death of counterprotester Heather Heyer and injuries to other counterprotesters.

In the weeks after the violence, Facebook began making external and internal changes to how it handled white supremacy on the platform. The changes included drawing the distinction between white supremacy, white nationalism, and white separatism.

Historians and civil rights groups disagreed with the distinction, noting that the differences among the three ideologies are minimal, and that white nationalists and separatists often openly express a belief in white supremacy.

“Anyone who distinguishes white nationalists from white supremacists does not have any understanding about the history of white supremacism and white nationalism, which is historically intertwined,” American University historian Ibram X. Kendi told Motherboard last year.

In a September 2018 letter, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argued that Facebook was ignoring “centuries of history, legal precedent, and expert scholarship that all establish that white nationalism and white separatism are white supremacy. ”

“When we met with your company this summer, both our staff as well as the staff at Facebook, were unable to identify an example of white nationalism or white separatism that was not white supremacist,” the group said. They also pointed to specific Facebook pages with names like “It’s okay to be white” and “American White History Month 2” to further make the point that content considered to be white nationalist or separatist still often supports a belief in white supremacy.

On Wednesday, the civil rights group said it supported Facebook’s decision, but it wants the platform to take additional action. “While we are pleased that Facebook is taking long overdue action, we know well that communities are still reeling from the rise in hate and racially motivated violence, and that extensive remedial action must be taken to ensure that hate is eliminated root and branch across the platform,” Kristen Clarke, the organization’s president and executive director, said in a statement.

Other groups agreed. “We are glad to see the company’s leadership take this critical step forward in updating its policy on white nationalism,” Rashad Robinson, president of the online racial justice group Color of Change, said in a Wednesday statement.

Last week, Facebook settled a group of civil rights lawsuits and complaints, promising that it would change its advertising tools to limit the ability of some groups to target people based on race, gender, age, and other categories.

While cvil rights groups support these changes, they say that Facebook is really late to addressing these issues and must work to seriously enforce the ban it has finally put in place.

“It’s definitely a positive change, but you have to look at it in context, which is that this is something they should have been doing from the get-go,” David Brody, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told Motherboard. “How much credit do you get for doing the thing you were supposed to do in the first place?”

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