Facebook blames contractors for failing to remove Kenosha militia’s ‘call to arms’

a group of people looking at a cell phone: Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Mark Zuckerberg blamed an “operational mistake” by contractors for Facebook’s failure to remove the “call to arms” of a Kenosha, Wisconsin, militia prior to the shooting Tuesday night that left two people dead and another injured.

The Kenosha Guard militia had established a Facebook page in June 2020 and this week used a Facebook event page to invite “any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out [sic] City tonight from the evil thugs”, referencing those protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Facebook has admitted that both the page and the event should have been banned under the company’s new policy addressing groups linked to violence, such as militias. The company nevertheless failed to remove the page or event despite multiple users who reported the content to Facebook, the Verge reported.

a group of people looking at a cell phone: People march on Thursday during a protest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.

© Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters
People march on Thursday during a protest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha.

“It was largely an operational mistake,” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, said in remarks during a weekly meeting with staff. Facebook has a specially trained team dedicated to enforcing its ban on “dangerous organizations”, Zuckerberg said. “The contractors and the reviewers who the initial complaints were were funneled to … basically didn’t pick this up.” Once reports were sent to the specialized team – after the fatal shooting – both the page and the event were removed.

Zuckerberg said Facebook had found no evidence to suggest the alleged shooter responded to the Facebook “call to arms”, which was also amplified by the conspiracy site InfoWars.

Facebook published a portion of Zuckerberg’s remarks following a report by BuzzFeed News on the anger and pushback among Facebook employees over the company’s handling of the violence in Kenosha.

“At what point do we take responsibility for enabling hate filled bile to spread across our services? [A]nti semitism, conspiracy, and white supremacy reeks across our services,” one employee wrote to Zuckerberg, according to the report.

“We need to get better at avoiding mistakes and being more proactive,” another wrote. “Feels like we’re caught in a cycle of responding to damage after it’s already been done rather than constructing mechanisms to nip these issues before they result in real harm.”

In the publicized remarks, Zuckerberg continued: “What we’re trying to do here now is we have our teams proactively out there looking for content and removing content that praises the shooting, or the shooter … We are going to continue to enforce our policies and continue evolving the policies, to be able to identify more potential dangerous organizations and improve our execution in order to keep on getting ahead of this.”

Related: Praise for alleged Kenosha shooter proliferates on Facebook despite supposed ban

On Thursday, the Guardian reported on Facebook and Instagram’s failure to keep content praising the alleged shooter off of their platforms. Two fundraisers for the alleged shooter were shared more than 19,000 times on Facebook, and Instagram memes praising the alleged shooter attracted tens of thousands of likes. Until Friday morning, Instagram was also auto-completing search results with hashtags that praised the alleged shooter or called him a hero.

The initial two fundraisers were removed by the online fundraising platforms that hosted them, but a third was launched Thursday on the Christian site GiveSendGo and has raised more than $125,000. The new fundraiser has been shared more than 3,500 times on Facebook since Thursday, and many of those posts remain live, despite Facebook’s ban.

Facebook’s rules ban “content that praises, supports, or represents events that Facebook designates as terrorist attacks, hate events, mass murders or attempted mass murders, serial murders, hate crimes and violating events”. Extremist groups often adulate mass killers, and several recent mass shooters have indicated that they took inspiration from figures such as the Norwegian far-right terrorist Anders Breivik.

A Facebook spokesperson said on Friday that the company had removed specific posts praising the shooter that the Guardian had shared with it. The company also banned the page of Joshua Feuerstein, an evangelical Christian social media influencer with 2.6m Facebook fans, for repeatedly violating its rules. Feuerstein had shared a meme in support of the alleged shooter with the caption, “SHARE THIS BEFORE THEY TAKE IT DOWN AGAIN!”, garnering more than 3,700 shares in about two hours on Thursday. Feuerstein also has an Instagram account, where his “story” currently includes a meme mocking the Kenosha victim who was shot in the arm.

The spokesperson said the company is blocking certain hashtags and searches and removing fundraisers in order to enforce its ban on content that praises the shooter or the shooting. The company is also “hashing” photos and videos that violate this ban, a process that involves applying a unique digital fingerprint to digital images, allowing systems to automatically block users from re-uploading an image that has already been deemed to violate a rule.

“This is a highly adversarial space and we know that people will continue trying to skirt our detection – so our teams are working around the clock to stay ahead of them and help us keep content related to the attack off of the platform,” the spokesperson said.

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