Facebook has moved to block the accounts of the Proud Boys, an alt-right extremist group that has an established pattern of violence.
By making a major move against a large hate group, Facebook has set a major precedent against hate speech. The social media giant disabled several accounts, one of which had over 22,000 followers.
The move comes after the Proud Boys participated in a violent attack on protesters in New York City on October 12.
The protest was being held outside of the NYC Metropolitan Republican Club where Proud Boys’s founder, Gavin McInnes was giving a talk. Intoxicated by the presentation, the members launched themselves into the group that had gathered outside to protest the talk. Nine Proud Boys members attacked the demonstrators, calling them homophobic slurs as they battered and kicked those who’d fallen.
The NYC Police Department has apprehended five of the assailants.
Many people have been calling for social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to remove accounts from known hate groups. They state that social media should not be a safe place for people with such divisive views.
The Southern Poverty Law Center labels the Proud Boys as a hate group, citing the numerous racists, sexist and incendiary comments from McInnes. The group initiates members by being beating them in and calling out the names of breakfast cereal to show that they can stay calm in a fight. However, despite this violent birth, Proud Boys members see themselves as greater than your average extremist. They even call themselves “Western chauvinists.”
The relationship between social media and the alt-right has become controversial lately. While many members with extreme views have been pushed off of major channels like Facebook and Twitter, they have found new paths on the internet called “the dark web.” The investigation of these channels began after the shooter who attacked a Pittsburgh Synagogue used Gab to connect with other far-right extremists. This was the last resort after finding Facebook inhospitable to his political ideations.
Gab, which was previously unknown, has now been uncovered as a “free speech” social media site, and is a favorite among far-right extremists. Many websites, like GoDaddy and PayPal have refused to be compatible with the service. Meanwhile, the channel has worked with blockchain cryptocurrencies to make it essentially “bulletproof” against destabilization from mainstream providers.
As social media providers push these people further from mainstream media outlets, their plans become harder to uncover. When these extremists plan openly, authorities have an easier time apprehending them before anything escalates.
However, public channels also serve as channels of recruitment for hate groups. As more mainstream outlets oust hate from their platforms, it cripples their ability to gain attention. While it might be harder to track and anticipate their behaviors in these darker corners of the web, it also helps contains their voice in an echochamber. Hence, their message remains contained and cannot reach or influence others. It serves as an opportunity to stunt recruitment efforts, and can be a method of smothering involvement. A fire cannot rage without oxygen.
While social media is one of the ways that the alt-right recruits members, it isn’t the only way. Hate groups often use recruiting methods similar to other worldwide extremist groups, like ISIS or Al-Qaeda. These methods involve many methods of propaganda, like manifestos or videos spread through emails or message boards.
Many times, extremists will often use politics to ignite their cause. In 2009, the FBI reported that military veterans may be susceptible to the language used by white nationalist rhetoric. In response, many alt-right hate groups took to their email outboxes and sent the reports to their friends. These reports claimed the Obama administration thought these groups were terrorists. As a result, the alt-right movement grew simply by word of mouth.
While websites like Facebook are places for public discussion and discourse, it is important to remember they are also private companies. They have no responsibility to protect free speech on their pages. Their mission is to protect the content on their sites. Facebook has now made it clear that hate speech is against their terms of service, and maintains this position with a heavy hand.