Facebook sat by as Trump set off wave of hate speech, memos show

‘We can see clearly that the entire country was basically on fire,’ an internal Facebook memo said in June 2020, soon after Mr Trump sent a menacing message to protesters

Nathan Place
New York
Thursday 28 October 2021 16:47
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Zuckerberg Responds to Facebook Internal Document Leak

Facebook knew a message by Donald Trump preceded a national wave of hate speech, but refused to take down the post, company documents show.

According to an analysis by the Associated Press, leaked internal memos from the social media giant – now known as the Facebook Papers – show that violent and hateful posts on the platform skyrocketed after 28 May, 2020. On that day, as protests over the killing of George Floyd ravaged Minneapolis, then-president Trump sent out a menacing warning to demonstrators.

“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis,” Mr Trump wrote on Facebook and Twitter. “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Until then, violent and hateful posts concerning Mr Floyd’s death and the resulting protests had mostly stayed within the Minneapolis area, according to Facebook’s data. After Mr Trump’s post, the documents show, they spread across the country. Complaints of hate speech tripled, and reports of violence increased to five times as many.

And as a 5 June memo shows, Facebook knew all this at the time.

“After Trump’s post on May 28, situations really escalated across the country,” the internal memo says. By 2 June, “we can see clearly that the entire country was basically ‘on fire.’”

And yet, Facebook did not take down Mr Trump’s post. As in-person protests, looting, and violence spread across the country, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his company’s decision.

“I know many people are upset that we’ve left the President’s posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies,” Mr Zuckerberg wrote on 29 May.

More recently, Facebook has said Mr Trump’s post itself did not necessarily cause the uptick in hate speech.

“This spike in user reports resulted from a critical moment in history for the racial justice movement – not from a single Donald Trump post about it,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Independent. “Facebook often reflects what’s happening in society and the only way to prevent spikes in user reports during these moments is to not allow them to be discussed on our platform at all, which is something we would never do.”

The spokesperson also added that Facebook has taken concrete messages to combat hate speech.

“To handle this increased activity, we set up a command center, worked to proactively remove violating content and supported people's right to protest peacefully and raise awareness of police brutality,” they went on. “Importantly, this issue has been reported on extensively in the media and Donald Trump is no longer on our platform.”

Twitter, meanwhile, took action against Mr Trump’s “shooting” message in the moment, although it didn’t remove the post either. Instead, the platform covered the tweet with a warning and blocked it from being shared.

Though there is no way to determine exactly how much Mr Trump’s post contributed to the wave of hate that swept the country, experts say Facebook bears at least some responsibility.

“When people look back at the role Facebook played, they won’t say Facebook caused it, but Facebook was certainly the megaphone,” Lanier Holt, a communications professor at Ohio State University, told the AP. “I don’t think there’s any way they can get out of saying that they exacerbated the situation.”

The Independent has reached out to Facebook for comment.

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