Tech & Terrorism: Facebook’s Groups Feature Shown To Provide Platform For Hate Speech

Despite Its Own Problems, Tech Giant Casts Blame On Other Sites

(New York, N.Y.) — For years, users have been spreading “blatant misinformation and calls to violence” on Facebook’s Groups feature. In August, data scientists warned company executives that this type of content had evolved to comprise the majority of content posted in Groups. Facebook, however, responded by taking limited action, banning some of the problem Groups ahead of the U.S. presidential election and reportedly viewed this measure as temporary. After the January 6 riot on the U.S. Capitol building, Facebook took down more Groups and imposed new rules in an “emergency response.”

This episode marks yet another instance of Facebook’s reactive policy making process and another failure to uphold its commitment to eliminating hateful and harmful content from its platform. Further, despite the internal warnings, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg instead attempted to shift blame to smaller social media sites for providing a platform that allowed the January 6 attack to occur. Sandberg’s readiness to fault others, regardless of Facebook’s own problems with Groups, suggests that the company is still all too eager to embrace its deny, delay, and deflect mantra.

Extremists have a history of using Facebook’s own features to organize and promote their propaganda. In its 2018 report, Spiders of the Caliphate: Mapping the Islamic State’s Global Support Network on Facebook, the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) observed ISIS activities on Facebook that included recruitment, posting propaganda, hacking, spamming, and discussing terrorist activity over Facebook Live. Pro-ISIS Facebook users also worked to hack non-ISIS accounts and used the new account to share ISIS propaganda and post hateful and threatening messages. A group of American ISIS supporters held weekly “meetings” on Facebook Live to discuss topics ranging from ideology to how to avoid detection from the FBI. Facebook’s suggested friends algorithm even recommended ISIS supporters, propagandists, and fighters, connecting extremist individuals and helping to expand ISIS networks.

In a recent op-ed for Morning Consult, CEP Executive Director David Ibsen reiterated the need for Facebook and the tech community at-large to adopt better standards for removing extremist content and individuals—particularly notable given that Facebook reactively changed its rules multiple times for Groups. “CEP has long argued for tech industry removal policies that are transparent and based on established standards and laws. For example, we have called for social media platforms to ban participation from U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Nationals. Such a commonsense approach will help ensure that the tech industry can focus on a clear and defined set of targets and be held accountable when companies fail to take effective and permanent action against actual extremists with a history of advocating for violence or carrying out terrorist attacks.”

To read CEP’s report, Spiders of the Caliphate: Mapping the Islamic State’s Global Support Network on Facebook, please click here.

To read CEP Executive Director David Ibsen’s January 2021 Morning Consult op-ed, please click here.

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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