Facebook has just taken down a event page for a protest organized to counter the “Unite the Right Rally” planned for DC on August 12. Why? Because the social media conglomerate unilaterally decreed the racial justice protest was being promoted through “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” The implication being that the activity was tied to nefarious Russia-linked influence operations.
While the event was initially set up by “Resistors,” an alleged Russia-linked group, it was taken over by local organizers. It is local organizers who hold the actual permit for the real life protest and who were using the page as an organizing platform. The local groups include Black Lives Matter DC, Smash Racism DC, and Resist This (formerly DisruptJ20).
Defending Rights & Dissent is a national organization, but our staff is based in Washington, DC. We know many of the organizers involved. We are disturbed not only that Facebook has deprived grassroots activists of an important organizing tool, but has maligned local activists as Russian agents. We are dismayed that so many in the media are uncritically parroting this claim, further compounding the tarring of local anti-racist activists as being part of a nefarious foreign plot to hijack our democracy.
The removal of this page is upsetting, but it’s not surprising. It is the natural endpoint of much the “Russiagate” discourse. As an organization that vehemently opposes our own government’s attacks on democracy, we have no sympathy for any foreign government’s influence operations. We understand that many people have good faith concerns about foreign meddling or the malevolent and deliberate spreading of false information online.
But concerns about Russian meddling and fake news, either through manipulation or carelessness, are being used to stigmatize domestic dissent.
We have been repeatedly subjected to a narrative in which foreign operatives have amplified “divisive issues,” such as Black Lives Matter or opposition to fracking in order to sow discord. Such a narrative delegitimizes domestic dissent. It is also remarkably condescending. People don’t need Russians to tell them to be concerned about the police violence they experience or contaminated water they drink.
The “sowing discord” line is troubling. It posits that “controversial” issues, by “dividing” rather than “uniting” us, inherently benefit a foreign power. Using this logic we can never challenge racism or government misconduct without acting as unwitting foreign pawns.
Social movements led by the oppressed demanding justice are by their very nature “divisive.” Such movements are not only vital to a democracy, they are necessary to defending and advancing human rights. We cannot allow these movements to be stigmatized as being harmful to our national security.
At a news conference today, FBI Director Christopher Wray was asked about Facebook’s recent decision to take down 32 pages, including the one in question. Both the question and Wray’s answer neglected to mention that local organizers have wrongfully had their event removed and were entirely premised on the notion that all of those pages were part of a Russian influence operation. While Wray declined to comment on the specific cases, he did state that as part of the FBI’s Foreign Influence Task Force, that the FBI and social media companies were sharing information with each other about alleged foreign influence.
We need greater transparaceny about how and why Facebook choses to take down pages. When pages like the Unite the Right counterprotest event are wrongfully removed, we also need to know if the social media company received any information from the FBI’s task force or if they shared information with the task force.
And we all need to reject narratives they treat dissent as paramount with disloyalty. When talking about how to address the real problems of foreign meddling and online disinformation, we need to avoid parroting claims that domestic dissent is by its very nature beneficial to foreign adversaries.