This afternoon, Facebook removed from its platform a series of campaign ads for President Donald Trump, citing policy against hate speech—a takedown that landed right in the middle of a hearing where a Facebook official was being grilled by Congress about the site’s failures to act on hate speech originating from the White House.
The ad campaign, paid for by Trump’s reelection committee, ran on the official Facebook pages for Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and the “Team Trump” campaign. The text of the advertisements reads, “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem,” and it encourages viewers to sign up for communications with, “Please add your name IMMEDIATELY to stand with your President and his decision to declare ANTIFA a Terrorist Organization.”
The ad campaign began running since June 3, according to left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters. As of yesterday, however, a new version of the ad started running on Facebook, featuring an inverted red triangle with a black outline. As immediately pointed out by several anti-defamation groups and media outlets, that symbol was used by the Nazi party to identify political prisoners in concentration camps. That category first included communists, then also social democrats, socialists, anarchists, trade unionists, Freemasons, and other perceived threats.
The Trump campaign claimed that the red triangle is a symbol widely used “by Antifa” and “in an ad about Antifa.” However “antifa” is not a single group—and affiliated organizations have not been associated with a triangle logo. Instead, the best-known image used by participants in the decentralized movement, while red and black, is that of two flags waving in sync.
Facebook, after being contacted by several media outlets, said early Thursday afternoon it removed the posts for violating its policies on hate speech. “We removed these posts and ads for violating our policy against organized hate. Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
Facebook data shows that, prior to removal, the ads had been viewed nearly 1.5 million times from the president’s and vice president’s pages.
The hot seat
The announcement came while Facebook’s head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, was busy testifying at a Congressional hearing, along with representatives from Google and Twitter. The hearing, convened by the House Intelligence Committee, was probing matters of election security and misinformation in the run-up to the 2020 election. House members, however, spent much of their question-asking time digging into the firms—especially Facebook—over their moderation and content policies in the current political environment.
Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) likened the current civil discourse to toxic gas, saying, “All it takes is a match,” perhaps lit by actors in Russia or China, “to set off a conflagration.”
Accusing Facebook’s algorithm of “promoting hatred and anger,” Himes added, “You keep using the word ‘community’ and ‘authentic.’ Those are value-neutral words. There is nothing good or bad about authenticity or good or bad about community.” Indeed, he went on, “community” can be explicitly bad. Himes pivoted unexpectedly to the example of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was charged in 1999 with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Milosevic, Himes said, “injected some authenticity and created new communities” among extremists in the former Yugoslavia as he stoked ethnic fears that led to a genocide in the 1990s.
“The real threat to me,” Himes went on, “feels like Facebook’s underlying business model and algorithm, which promotes engagement—it’s like me driving down the highway and seeing a car crash—I can’t not look at it… So I really want to understand what Facebook is specifically doing not to be the Slobodan Milosevic of the destruction of the American republic?”
Gleicher was somewhat at a loss to respond. “What we’ve found is that people who are on our platforms don’t want to see clickbait. They don’t want to see divisive content that you’re describing. If we were to show only that, users wouldn’t want to engage, and they wouldn’t want to come back,” he ventured, in complete defiance of the lived experience of millions of US Facebook users.
Rep. Himes was not impressed with Gleicher’s answer, and neither were Reps. Denny Heck (D-WA), Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), or Val Demings (D-FL), who all returned to push harder on Gleicher later in the hearing.
Krishnamoorthi specifically took Facebook to task over a post from the president last month that seemed to encourage violence against protesters demonstrating against police brutality and in support of black communities. Twitter appended a warning to the post, explaining it stood in violation of the site policies against glorifying violence but would be allowed to remain present due to a public-interest newsworthiness exception. Facebook, however, chose to do nothing at all.
A short time later, Gleicher was better prepared for questions specifically addressing the Trump campaign ads. Right at the end of the hearing, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) asked about the ads, which at that point had just been removed. “What will you do with the spread of what’s already out there with this hate symbol?” Swalwell asked, asking if any action would be taken against the campaign, which has had ads taken down before.
“We don’t allow symbols that represent hateful organizations or ideologies unless they’re put up with context or condemnation,” Gleicher said. “In a situation where we don’t see either of those, we don’t allow it on the platform, and we will remove it. That’s what we saw in this case with this ad, and anywhere that that symbol is used, we would take the same action. So we’ll be consistent in enforcing that.”