I wrote several weeks ago about my dilemma with leaving Facebook. I shared with you that I had concerns that were both political and values-based. Several of you responded that you were having similar thoughts and considering leaving as well. Many of you have stayed with Facebook because it provides a way to connect to non-local family and friends that you don’t see often…especially during the pandemic. I certainly agree with that argument. Some of you told me that you were going to wait until after the election.
After the Election
That is what I have decided to do…wait until after the election. Several considerations went into that postponement. I wanted to be able to participate in my own political activism related to registering to vote, mail-in ballots and voting. I wanted to see how postings on Facebook might influence the election. And, I wanted to participate on the Facebook pages of a couple of the organizations that I belong to. About the time I wrote my blog, Facebook announced that it was cracking down on the activities related to QAnon and other ultra-right groups that use its platform. (QAnon is a loose group whose members promote a vast conspiracy theory claiming that a satanic cabal rules the world as well as additional lies and misinformation.) I wanted to see if Facebook kept their word. So, I stayed. I have even checked my feed more often.
Extremist Groups Proliferate
I am very disappointed in Facebook’s lack of effectiveness in addressing QAnon and other extremist movements. The New York Times reports that a militia movement calling for armed conflict on the streets of US cities has gained thousands of new followers. One QAnon group has gained hundreds of followers while questioning common-sense pandemic medical practices such as wearing masks and staying home if you are sick. One post with a QAnon tag pulled in 20,000 likes by claiming that no one has died from the coronavirus. Although promising to restrict extremist groups, the Associated Press found Facebook was still encouraging users to join groups promoting QAnon. New York Times research also confirmed this.
Facebook, using its own algorithm that surfaces content recommendations, continues to steer users toward the groups discussing QAnon conspiracies despite assurances that this would not happen. Sophie Bjork-James an anthropologist at Vanderbilt University, studies QAnon. She states that the Facebook “algorithm worked to radicalize people and really gave this conspiracy theory a megaphone with which to expand.” It is their “responsibility for shutting down that megaphone. And time and time again they are proving unwilling.”
Facebook’s Inadequate Response
These examples raise questions of Facebook’s credibility and whether it is even able to implement the policing and monitoring of extremist groups it has promised on its platform. QAnon is very agile in avoiding Facebooks’s restrictions. It changes names, avoids key terms or edits content to disguise their intent and to make it more acceptable to naïve users. Despite the claims by Facebook that it was removing almost 800 QAnon groups from the site and using new rules to limit other groups that promote violence, at least 100 QAnon groups tracked by the Times continued to grow by more than 13,000 per week (down from 15,000-25000 before the new restrictions).
Marc-André Argentino, doctoral candidate at Concordia University, also studies QAnon. He has identified 51 groups that branded themselves as anti-child-trafficking organizations, but which are actually predominantly sharing QAnon conspiracies. He reports many of them formed in 2020 and actually grew after Facebook began to enforce bans on these groups. Before the bans, they added dozens to hundreds of new members each week; but after the bans they attracted tens of thousands of new members weekly. Although Facebook has said they are studying the groups, they have taken no action.
Threatening Individuals and Society
My own State Senator, Scott Weiner, recently was attacked by QAnon, called vile names and physically threatened with his life because of legislation he has sponsored in California’s State Senate. The Anti-Defamation League has pressed Facebook to take action on militia and other extremist organizations. The League states that they have warned Facebook for years about the problem of dangerous and potentially violent extremist groups using the platform to organize and recruit followers. The Anti-Defamation League has presented their concerns to Facebook in addition to other social media platforms who seem be more receptive. David Sifry, vice president of its Center for Technology and Society, said “The response we get back is markedly different with Facebook. There are people of good conscience at every single one of these platforms. The core difference is leadership.”
I agree that Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, does not seem to provide effective leadership. He seems incapable of implementing Facebook’s own restrictions on extremism. The evidence does not signal commitment to control these extremist groups on the Facebook platform. I still plan to leave Facebook after the November election. Facebook won’t even record my departure. And, I will need to find another way to stay connected to my friends and family. But my values and actions will be more congruent…and I will have time to do something else I enjoy.
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