Facebook tried to turn a ban of far-right figures into a PR opportunity, but it backfired

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at Facebook Inc's annual F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S. May 1, 2018. REUTERS/Stephen Lam - HP1EE511DALLB

Business Insider

Facebook is barring a host of far-right figures and conspiracy theorists — but the move hasn’t gone entirely to plan.

On Thursday, the California social network announced that it was taking action against a bunch of controversial figures on its apps, including Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopoulos, Louis Farrakhan, and the conspiracy site Infowars.

The company also briefed a handful of news outlets under “embargo” (meaning the companies would not publish their stories until a specified time) in advance of the announcements, including The Washington Post and The Atlantic. But when the articles were published, many of the accounts were still up — giving some of the targeted figures the opportunity to warn their followers of their impending bans and to direct them to follow them on other platforms.

Yiannopoulos, the far-right provocateur and journalist, shared a screenshot of a headline about the ban on Instagram and urged his followers to subscribe to an email mailing list. (Disclosure: In 2014, I wrote some freelance articles for The Kernel, a website owned by Milo Yiannopoulos at the time.)

And Laura Loomer, a far-right activist, told her Instagram fans to join her channel on the messaging app Telegram.

Meanwhile, Jones was broadcasting live through Facebook an hour after the announcement to talk about that announcement.

There’s nothing unusual about media outlets agreeing to be pre-briefed on important news under embargo: Tech companies regularly make use of embargoes to coordinate coverage for product launches and the like. (Business Insider often agrees to embargoes from Facebook about news, though we weren’t given a heads up on this story.)

But these briefings typically involve the launch of new products or business initiatives, not enforcement actions.

Thursday’s incident raises the question of why, if Facebook believed the targeted figures were promoting “hate and violence,” it took the time to organize a public-relations opportunity around the bans — rather than taking action immediately.

On previous enforcement actions, Facebook hasn’t made advance announcements or briefed journalists — it has just taken action. For example, when it banned the far-right group the Proud Boys last year, it didn’t say anything about it until Business Insider noticed the bans coming into effect and reached out to its press team for comment.

And in this instance, by timing the embargo for before many of the bans came into effect, Facebook gave the toxic figures it was targeting time to respond and try to mitigate the damage.

Reached for comment about the initial decision to ban the accounts, a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement: “We’ve always banned individuals or organizations that promote or engage in violence and hate, regardless of ideology. The process for evaluating potential violators is extensive and it is what led us to our decision to remove these accounts today.”

In a follow-up email, the spokesperson said the takedowns had taken longer than the company had originally anticipated, causing issues.


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