Sandra Fiehrer thought she was helping Facebook enforce its own rules when she reported “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property,” an event being organized on the social network for the evening of Aug. 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The event, which was created by the Kenosha Guard, a self-proclaimed militia group, had hundreds of RSVPs by the time Fiehrer came across it and was already a hotbed of raucous discussion. Members discussed plans to bring guns to 900 57th St. in Kenosha, defend public property, and potentially attack people protesting the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
“I fully plan to kill looters and rioters tonight,” one person wrote on the event page, according to screenshots seen by BuzzFeed News. “I have my suppressor on my AR [rifle], these fools won’t even know what hit them.”
“When the shooting starts, make sure that somebody is sending a live feed of the mother fuckers going down,” said another.
“I had a bad feeling about it,” Fiehrer, who volunteers for Moms Demand Action, a gun safety nonprofit, told BuzzFeed News. She said she had seen similar militia groups stoke fear and hatred in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio. The day before the event, she filed a complaint with Facebook about the page “inciting violence,” hoping the social network would take swift action.
“I fully plan to kill looters and rioters tonight.”
But Facebook allowed the event page and the Kenosha Guard page to remain on its platform despite newly instituted policies banning militia groups. On Tuesday the 25th, Fiehrer watched in horror as civil unrest led a 17-year-old gunman, who spent part of the evening with members of an unidentified militia, to allegedly shoot and kill two protesters and wound another. Later that evening Facebook responded to her complaint: “This event was reviewed ...it doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards.”
Fiehrer’s complaint was one of the 455 sent to Facebook warning of a militia event violating the company’s policies. Together, they inspired four manual and numerous automated reviews of the event page by Facebook’s content moderators, which all concluded it did not violate the company’s rules. CEO Mark Zuckerberg would later tell employees it was “an operational mistake.” In those same remarks, which were made public after being reported by BuzzFeed News, Zuckerberg suggested to employees that the company had removed the event and militia page from the platform the next day.
But internal company discussions obtained by BuzzFeed News show that’s not true. The event was actually deleted the day after the shooting, not by Facebook, but by a page administrator for the Kenosha Guard. Later that day, Facebook removed the Kenosha Guard page itself.
Interviews with Facebook users and employees, never-before-published comments from the Kenosha Guard’s event page, and internal company documents obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that the company’s handling of the events in Kenosha wasn't so much an “operational mistake” as it was a total failure to take action.
“The fact that Facebook took credit publicly for removing the event page shows Facebook is more concerned with reputation management than product safety,” said Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. “The vengeful posts on the Kenosha Guard’s event page are not an isolated case though. As I search through hundreds of pro-gun groups, the comments are rife with people fantasizing about becoming vigilantes and sharing Dirty Harry memes.”
“They should be taking action against it before people get killed, not after.”
“Facebook didn’t just fail Kenosha; it continues to fail us all when they don’t exhibit the moral faculties and technical readiness to prevent this tragedy and the next one,” she added.
Responding to questions from BuzzFeed News, Facebook said it had incorrectly claimed it had removed the event page.
“When we responded to questions about our initial investigation into what happened in Kenosha, we believed we'd removed the Event Page for violating our policies,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Our investigation found that while we did remove the Kenosha Guard Page, the Event was removed by the organizer. We apologize for the error."
Facebook said the alleged shooter was not a follower of the Kenosha Guard Facebook page and did not RSVP to the “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” event. But area residents who spoke to BuzzFeed News wondered whether he would have gone to Kenosha were it not for militia groups like the Kenosha Guard calling for people to do so.
Jordan, a 33-year-old mother who lives in Wisconsin and asked that her full name not be used for fear of retaliation, reported the Kenosha Guard group page before the shooting. She dismissed Facebook’s claim that the gunman had no connection to the Kenosha Guard or its event page, noting that it’s easy to be aware of and attend Facebook events without RSVPing to them via the social network. The event was public and could be viewed by anyone.
“The shooter knew there would be others with guns in the area,” she said.
And as Fiehrer noted, what really matters is not that the shooter was inspired by the Kenosha Guard’s call to arms, but rather that the Kenosha Guard was able to issue such a public call, and host violent threats, without consequence.
“If that doesn’t violate rules, my question is: What does?” she asked. “They should be taking action against it before people get killed, not after.”
“Take Up Arms”
According to Facebook’s rules, the Kenosha Guard page should not have been allowed on the social network. An Aug. 19 update to the company’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy explicitly forbids US-based militia organizations that “have celebrated violent acts, shown that they have weapons and suggest they will use them, or have individual followers with patterns of violent behavior.”
Still, the Kenosha Guard page continued to operate, amassing more than 3,000 likes as a “social club” as of late August, according to screenshots provided to BuzzFeed News by nonprofit news organization Wisconsin Watch.
So when a Guard page administrator reportedly sent out a call to arms around 10:44 a.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 25, urging people to “take up arms and defend out [sic] City tonight from the evil thugs,” the message reached plenty of people. It was promptly followed by an event invitation called “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property,” according to a timeline outlined by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. The event gathered additional momentum after Alex Jones’ conspiracy site InfoWars featured it in a story.
Late Tuesday afternoon, hours before the 17-year-old gunman allegedly shot three people, Liz Lahue, a bartender in Illinois, visited the Kenosha Guard’s Facebook event page and began reporting violent comments.
“People were just talking about violence for no reason,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“Do not let these protestors get close to you. Just keep them in line if they’re protesting, but if they are rioting and destroying things … pew pew pew time,” wrote one person on the event page, making a thinly veiled reference to gunshots.
“Start laying lead down, they will get the point eventually,” said another. “There is only one punishment by law for treason,” wrote still another, referring to the death penalty.
“Could someone drop me a location on where the heavy dense fighting area is?”
Lahue reported several comments to Facebook, including some by a man who made multiple death threats against protesters, and who later threatened her on the event page. The company rejected all of her complaints. It’s not clear if they were included in or additive to the 455 reports filed about the event page, as Facebook declined to answer that question.
As the night wore on and protesters flooded the streets of Kenosha, the Kenosha Guard page became an organizational hub. People posted their locations, the type of firearms they were carrying, offers of backup, and bogus claims of inbound rioters.
“Could someone drop me a location on where the heavy dense fighting area is?”
“Vet here with quite a few people to help and all the equipment we need. We can take one of the more dangerous areas.”
“ATTENTION!! I received a call from my neighbors both of who [sic] are police officers. They told me that a caravan full of rioters are headed to Salem and Paddock Lake.”
Some people urged caution and warned of deadly consequences. “I’m concerned that most of the people involved in this group are untrained civilians. Once they get scared someone’s getting shot.”
At 10:38 p.m., after reading what she described as obvious “calls to violence,” Jordan, the mother from Wisconsin, reported the event to Facebook.
At that point, the 17-year-old gunman had already been filmed on a livestream standing in front of a car dealership with unidentified members of a militia. “Our job is to protect this business,” he told a video producer with the Daily Caller. After a skirmish at roughly 11:45 p.m., the teen allegedly shot three people, killing two and wounding another.
Jordan didn’t see the news until the next morning. At approximately the same time, she received a notification from Facebook saying the group had not violated any of the social network’s community standards.
“This Is Not True”
After the shootings, chatter on the Kenosha Guard event page took on a celebratory tone.
“Tried to attack business owners, got their azzes shot off. MORE please… this needs to happen a LOT MORE,” wrote one man.
“1 protester dead got shot in the head… then they tried to attack the guy and a couple more got shot. Gotta love it,” wrote a man who was labeled by Facebook’s automated system as a “Top Fan” in the group due to his frequent posting.
The comments continued to flow in the hours after the shooting. Danielle, a woman who lives near Milwaukee, checked the event page around 3 a.m. and found a mix of people justifying the killings and others mocking the militia members.
“There were some people already justifying the shooting when at that point it really was very unclear what had actually happened, who was at fault,” she said.
Early Wednesday morning, a person running the Kenosha Guard Facebook account posted a statement about the shooting. They said they were “unaware if the armed citizen was answering the Kenosha Guard Militia’s call to arms,” adding that “we need all the facts and evidence to come out before we make a judgement.”
Sometime after noon on Wednesday the Kenosha Guard’s Facebook page and associated event were gone. That evening, an internal communications manager at Facebook, posted a note to the company’s internal message board updating employees about an investigation into the matter.
Facebook had “designated the shooting as a mass murder,” the manager explained, noting that the company had deactivated the shooter’s Instagram and Facebook accounts. “Separate from the shooting however, the Kenosha Guard Page and their Event Page violated our new policy addressing militia organization and have been removed on that basis,” she added. That information turned out to be partly false.
“The event was user deleted hours before we disabled the owning page. I’m not sure where the mixup happened, but this is a pretty important distinction.”
On Thursday, during a companywide meeting that can be viewed by all of Facebook’s more than 50,000 employees, Zuckerberg also seemed to credit Facebook for the removal of the Kenosha Guard’s “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” event. “There have been a bunch of media reports asking why this page and event weren’t removed sooner,” Zuckerberg said. Calling it an “operational mistake,” he blamed moderators who were unfamiliar with Facebook’s new policy on militias. “On second review, doing it more sensitively, the team that’s responsible for dangerous organizations recognized that this violated our policies and we took it down,” he said.
But it wasn’t Facebook that deactivated the event page. It was the Kenosha Guard itself. And some employees knew it.
“I’m not sure why our external and internal comms have claims that we removed the Kenosha Guard event,” one staffer wrote on Workplace, Facebook’s employee-only message board. “This is not true: the event was user deleted hours before we disabled the owning page. I’m not sure where the mixup happened, but this is a pretty important distinction.”
“We Are Making the World Worse”
In the days following Zuckerberg’s all-hands address, Facebook’s handling of the Kenosha Guard incident continued to rankle employees already frustrated by the company’s handling of issues around racial justice.
In other posts to Workplace, employees challenged company leadership to explain why the Kenosha Guard page and event were allowed on Facebook at all. Others posted example after example of Facebook and Instagram posts celebrating the shooter, despite Zuckerberg’s public commitment to eliminate such content.
One employee asked why a meme showing one of the victims of the shooting overlaid with text that read “Don’t be a thug if you can’t take a slug” had been ruled non-violative by Facebook’s human moderators. “Shouldn’t this be part of our zero tolerance policy?” they asked.
Another worker asked the same question about a racist comment disparaging Black people as “uneducated druggies” who are “killing their own kids.”
“This is such flagrant and uncoded racism that I’m baffled that I even need to [flag it],” they wrote. “In no uncertain terms: we are making the world worse by allowing content like this to exist in our platform.”
Sarah Roberts, an associate professor at UCLA and the author of Behind the Screen: Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media, said Facebook’s outsourcing of the critical function of moderation affords it an easy way to shift blame to contractors when things go wrong.
“Here we have the CEO who's sitting at the top of this incredibly lucrative and immeasurably powerful firm with a product used by billions of people, and [he’s blaming] unnamed, unknown people probably working somewhere very far away from Kenosha, Wisconsin,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Whereas there's absolutely no responsibility being taken by him.”
A former Facebook moderator, who worked for a third-party contractor called Cognizant in Phoenix, called Zuckerberg’s operational error remark and attempt to blame moderators “ludicrous.” Having served as a moderator for Facebook during the 2018 Parkland mass shooting, he said it’s difficult to keep up with the social media giant’s shifting moderation expectations and rules.
“Even if there was training, people need experience — practical experience over a period of time before it’s really effective,” he said. “Who is really to say what’s a militia and what is not a militia?”
Some of his colleagues were woefully underprepared, the former moderator said, and often questioned Facebook’s guidelines.
Content moderation isn’t just an issue on Facebook’s public-facing platform; it’s also becoming a challenge on the company’s internal Workplace message boards. In the aftermath of the Blake shooting, one employee published a now-deleted post asking colleagues to show their “Support For Law Enforcement” writing, “mourning the death of those who serve our communities does not mean supporting injustice by anyone in society.”
The following day, in a post first reported by the Daily Beast, another worker asked his colleagues on Workplace to consider the “well-intentioned law enforcement officers who have been victimized by society’s conformity to a lie.”
“Law enforcement has no moral obligation to allow non-compliant criminals to put officers lives in danger,” he wrote. “FBI data confirms that law enforcement is disproportionally more likely to be killed than the other way around.” (The poster did not include any data to back up this claim.)
“This post is shameful.”
“What if racial, economic, crime, and incarceration gaps cannot close without addressing personal responsibility and adherence to the law?” they added.
In the top-voted comment responding to the post, one Facebook staffer called the note “openly racist.”
“Saying that economic disparities are due to a lack of ‘personal responsibility’ is openly racist,” they wrote. “This post is shameful.”
Earlier this week, the debate continued, with one Facebook staffer asking if the company would reverse its decision to remove the alleged shooter’s Facebook and Instagram accounts if it were proven that he was acting in self-defense.
By labeling the gunman “an attempted mass shooter and banning users who support him, are we not pre-deciding his guilt?” the employee wrote, comparing the situation to George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, or Bernard Goetz, the vigilante who shot four Black men on a New York City subway in 1984. “It does not seem prudent to position the company firmly on one side of a brewing national debate, just as it begins, particularly when there is a non-zero chance his actions may yet be deemed lawful.”
His “criminal guilt will be [determined in court],” one colleague responded. “In the meantime we can prevent additional harm from coming to people by keeping those will [sic] kill multiple people with AR-15s off our platform.”
Such internal vitriol has forced Zuckerberg to more aggressively wrangle outspoken employees and introduce new moderation policies. Last month he threatened to fire those who violated the company’s respectful conduct policies and bullied others. On Monday, he sent a note to employees saying that “systemic racism is real” and that the company is taking steps to “better manage discussions in our workplace.”
“The direction we’re headed is to have dedicated spaces on Workplace for discussing charged topics, with clear rules and strong moderation,” he wrote. “That means you won’t be able to post highly charged content broadly in open groups.”
On Thursday, Zuckerberg was scheduled to address employees at the company’s weekly all-hands meeting. Had he done so, internal polls reviewed by BuzzFeed News show he would have faced tough questions about Kenosha and Facebook being used as a platform for radicalization. Late Wednesday, however, Facebook canceled the meeting.
Employees still had the option to gather for another previously scheduled event on Thursday: a talk by Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. ●