As of yesterday a number of US sites have had their social media presences scrubbed by the Nasdaq giant on a flimsy pretext that they are promoting violence — it’s another reminder of our vulnerabilities online.
Outside of our long-running Louis Further column Freedom tends to limit the amount of US-based content it runs, both because other sites do that far better and because US politics can be overwhelming enough of its own accord. The recent decision of Facebook to significantly widen its policy definitions on what content can and can’t be hosted however is worth highlighting as it will have an impact far beyond American shores.
In an official statement posted yesterday the social media behemoth showcased both its executives’ own ignorance and an aggressive blunt force approach to free speech which seems to herald a block to all but the fluffiest forms of resistance against State violence and repression. It notes:
The idea that “offline anarchist groups” would support militia organisations or Qanon, both of which are right-wing phenomena, is of course utterly ludicrous and makes a mockery of the announcement as a whole, suggesting the people now deciding what is acceptable content know nothing about what they judge.
Nevertheless this car crash of a statement has, as of the time of writing, already led to the removal of IGD News and Crimethinc, and they have written an eloquent joint rebuttal on the subject, noting:
The way Facebook defines violence, it is legitimate for police to kill a thousand people per year while evicting, kidnapping, and imprisoning millions—it is legitimate to drop bombs on civilians, so long as the aggressor represents an official government—but it is “violence” to prevent a white supremacist from assaulting a crowd or return a tear gas canister to the police who shot it. Suppressing the voices of those who seek to protect their communities from institutional and white supremacist violence is an intentional decision to normalize violence as long as the ones employing it hold institutional power.
Lumping anarchists and anti-fascists together with far-right militias who explicitly support the state and especially the current administration is a strategic move to muddy the issue. This is the same operation that William Barr performed in creating a Department of Justice task force focused on “anti-government extremists” of all stripes.
Update: Germany-based site Enough is Enough has also been banned, showing fairly succinctly that these measures are not going to be confined to US outlets.
For all that it “generously” allows people to defend groups that supposedly support groups that break their existing terms and conditions (albeit with restrictions aimed at penalising such efforts), Facebook’s new policy is clearly extraordinarily vague and open to wide-ranging interpretation, which has allowed it to take down sites with no requirement to justify its actions beyond a shrug of the shoulders and a line of “our site, our rules.”
Facebook’s behaviour should act as another reminder (on top of the many which have gone before) that social media controlled by the likes of Zuckerberg is not designed for us but for the ruling classes. Anarchist groups use Facebook because it’s convenient, and because it’s the single easiest way to reach like-minded people, but we’re here entirely on the sufferance of the rich, and this is never a good position to be in.
To take our own site, around half of Freedom’s audience reached us via social media over the last month and our more casual daily interactions with Facebook and Twitter audiences are a large part of how we grow. We are among the better-known anarchist sites but losing access to Facebook would be a serious blow to readership. So this statement, in and of itself, supporting groups which have been banned for supporting groups which may or may not support ill-defined forms of direct action is taking a (probably minor) risk.
What to do, what to do
There is one useful aspect of this debacle, as a warning that we’re next on the list — and we do have an example of how things may go from here. For all its many horrors, the far right has been ahead of us on the ban list, with people like Tommy Robinson, Katie Hopkins, Britain First and co having been kind enough to test the waters when it came to the process of getting punted off mainstream social media outlets.
We know from their whining on places like Telegram that audience building and fundraising becomes much, much harder (though as anarchists aren’t trying to buy mansions or supply a gak habit we tend to be after less money). We know that planning ahead is important if you want to salvage something from an accounts sweep. We know that regular restarts and rebranding to stay ahead of media-led targeting is an unfortunate reality if wanting to stay on the horse. And we know that having movement-controlled or less mainstream/corporate pressured alternatives, even annoyingly glitchy ones, can be useful (if only so people can jump on once in a blue moon to find out where else to go). If we are the new heads on the chopping block we have only to look at what happened to them to know what to expect.
But this is not just a question for admins and propagandists, it’s one for readers and people getting on without all the noise. If having a clearer picture of what’s happening is no longer possible when anarchist outlets are getting blocked then finding alternative ways to stay in touch is important. RSS readers such as feedly are a way to collate sites’ updates and stories independently of Facebook, and there are attempts at radical-run networks like Raddle as well. They’re worth engaging with if we want to break our reliance on Zuck and co.
More important however may, ultimately, be the need to sideline online itself. The last couple of decades have not been kind to us. Reflecting the nature of the medium we swim in online many of us have become far too comfortable just talking to our own kind while shouting at or blocking the Other. Too often we’ve ended up being powerless Opinioneers in these spaces rather than acting as practical radicals, making things happen and earning respect through our actions. Long gone are the days when anarchists were trained in Hyde Park to hold their own in front of an audience of hundreds of sceptics. We do need our own internet outlets, but the very act of reproducing them is too often limited by the reality that a lack of people taking physical action often reflects in a lack of labour power for supporting journalistic and theoretical projects — Freedom News itself would struggle to continue if a handful of people stopped typing (you can of course get involved helping out there — email editor at freedompress.org.uk).
On which note, this rather negative article could stand to end on a positive and so it shall — our own physical space is due to reopen! Freedom Bookshop is back in business tomorrow (a fact which we of course announced on Facebook). We’re not set up for meetings yet, but depending on the fortunes of Covid we are beginning the process of getting ourselves back on track providing a physical space for the movement. We need more of these areas beyond the reach of the online barons, and places like Angel Alley, 56a, Housmans, Mayday Rooms and the like will need support over the coming months.