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Black Lives Matter Activists Say They're Being Silenced By Facebook

As the platform regulates speech, social justice advocates want it to stop perpetuating the same structures of racism they experience offline.

Posted on June 19, 2020, at 7:59 a.m. ET

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Louiza Doran was leading an anti-racism workshop in Zoom on June 3 when she noticed the roughly 12 women participating were making strange faces.

“Every single one of them, at the same moment, was starting to get notifications from Instagram that any posts that had my name, that linked to my work, or even just had pictures of me had been flagged and taken down because they violated community standards,” Doran, an Oakland-based anti-racism activist and educator, told BuzzFeed News.

Courtesy of Louiza Doran

Louiza Doran

Doran said Facebook prevented her account from going live and removed some of her posts and comments — and it wasn't the first time.

“Black folks are talking about their experiences in this country right now, and they are systematically being silenced,” she said.

A spokesperson for the social network told BuzzFeed News the action against Doran’s Facebook and Instagram accounts was temporary and unrelated to her content, saying a technical issue caused its automated systems to flag the URL of her personal site as spam.

“The voices speaking out against racial injustice and systemic racism are critical right now, and we are actively trying to elevate them, not silence them,” said Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesperson. “These examples were enforcement mistakes, and they were certainly not intentional.”

On Thursday, the company announced $200 million in additional funding to support Black-owned businesses and organizations, and said the Facebook app will add a section, called Lift Black Voices, to highlight stories from Black people.

Doran was unconvinced by the company’s explanation and deeply skeptical of its commitment to racial equality. But she also felt she had no choice but to continue using its products.

“I'm in a little bit of a heartbreaking catch-22,” she said.

Black Americans have long expressed frustration that Facebook wrongly flags or removes posts discussing racism or white supremacy. That puts them in a difficult position. Black activists who spoke to BuzzFeed News said they recognized the power of Facebook and Instagram to mobilize support and organize, but they didn't trust the company.

“I do fundamentally believe that Facebook and now Instagram exist as a tool of domination. They exist to uphold oppressive narratives and content of the farthest right ideologies,” Doran said.

Facebook is “asleep at the wheel,” Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color of Change, a nonprofit digital racial justice organization, told BuzzFeed News. “When you have a company that has been so reckless time and time again, you have millions of people that are impacted. That has chilling impactions for free speech to actually be realized.”

Color of Change has collected hundreds of reports of Black Lives Matter and anti-racist content being removed or acted upon by Facebook in recent weeks. “We are reaching out on issues of racism and police violence time and time again and are being shut down,” she said. “It does call into question who is making the decisions.”

One person who has raised concerns is Carolyn Wysinger, the board president of San Francisco Pride, whom USA Today featured in a 2019 article about Black activists on Facebook. Since then, the social network has invited her to events focused on civil rights and content moderation, including one that brought Black online influencers together for a roundtable discussion.

Courtesy of Carolyn Wysinger

Carolyn Wysinger

Wysinger said Facebook treats racist or anti-gay speech as “simply a matter of a difference of opinion”; its moderation systems, she said, inaccurately flag posts that discuss racism and white supremacy.

“They have still not found a way to distinguish between people who are legitimately being threatening versus people who are talking about their real-life experiences of racism and homophobia,” she said.

She remains wary of the company’s ability to change.

“In all of those meetings that I've been through, I've met some very lovely people that work at Facebook and people who really want to try to do amazing work around this issue. But at the end of the day, the powers that be will never let it be a truly equitable situation,” she said.

Last summer, the company published details of an internal civil rights audit, after which COO Sheryl Sandberg said senior executives on the company’s recently created civil rights task force would receive civil rights training, among other measures.

“We know these are the first steps to developing long-term accountability. We plan on making further changes to build a culture that explicitly protects and promotes civil rights on Facebook,” she wrote in 2019.

For Facebook to rebuild trust with Black activists, it might need to change its leadership. Many of those who spoke with BuzzFeed News singled out founder Mark Zuckerberg. Collins-Dexter cited, as an example of misplaced priorities, his refusal to act when President Donald Trump posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Instead of building a race-neutral platform, she said, the site should work to elevate marginalized voices and secure civil rights for its users.

Courtesy of Louiza Doran

Screenshots of deactivated posts.

“Facebook is attempting to create a place that is race- and gender-neutral, and what that leads to is the marginalized voices most in need of speech protection are the ones whose speech gets shut down and censored,” she said. “This means activists are being actively censored on the platform while Mark Zuckerberg is refusing to take down disinformation actors."

This leaves some Black activists with a tough choice: continue to use products from a company they don’t trust, or risk losing their voice when it’s never felt more important. Doran decided to reduce her use of Facebook and focus on Instagram.

“I'm in a position where I have to pick the lesser of the evils and find ways to continue to get the messaging out there,” she said. “I could submit and stop saying the things and stop doing the things, but that's neither in my character nor does it align with my commitment to this work.”

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