Future Tense

Donald Trump Finally Did Something Facebook Couldn’t Refuse to Delete

A large blue sign reads "Welcome to Facebook."
Facebook deactivated Trump ads that evoked Nazis. Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

On Thursday, Facebook deactivated ads from the Donald Trump campaign that contained an inverted red triangle, a symbol the Nazis once used to mark political prisoners, such as communists and social democrats, in concentration camps. The company made the decision in response to inquiries from the Washington Post. “We removed these posts and ads for violating our policy against organized hate. Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone told the Post.

The ads warned that “dangerous MOBS of far-left groups are running through our streets and causing absolute mayhem,” and encouraged supporters to sign an online petition concerning antifa. Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and Bend the Arc condemned the ads’ imagery. The Trump campaign defended its use of the triangle by claiming that the symbol is “widely used by Antifa” and is not in the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate Symbols Database.

Facebook has long resisted calls to moderate content from Trump and his campaign. The platform faced a wave of criticisms in October when it refused to take down an ad from Trump’s re-election campaign that falsely accused Joe Biden of using his power as vice president to stop Ukrainian officials from investigating his son. At the time, Facebook said that politicians were free to post virtually anything they wanted because of the company’s belief that political speech is “already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is.” Amid the controversy, CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered an address at Georgetown University arguing that social media should not curtail free expression.

Scrutiny of Facebook’s moderation policies kicked up again late last month, when Twitter decided to place a fact-check label on the president’s tweets that falsely claimed that mail-in ballots are fraudulent. In response, Trump signed an executive order targeting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives legal immunity to platforms that moderate their content. Experts have raised doubts, though, that the order would hold up against legal scrutiny. Twitter subsequently hid tweets from Trump that called police brutality protestors in Minneapolis “thugs” and declared “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a phrase associated with former Miami police chief Walter Headley when he was cracking down on civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s.

In the midst of Trump’s tiff with Twitter, Facebook reasserted its lax approach to political speech. Zuckerberg said in a Fox News interview at the time, “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online.” The platform declined to take any action on posts from Trump that made the same false allegations about mail-in ballots and threatened protesters. Hundreds of Facebook employees participated in a virtual walkout at the beginning of June in which they refused to work in order to protest the company’s inaction.

Recently, however, Zuckerberg has become more willing to denounce Trump’s comments—a sign, perhaps, that shifting waters have moved the CEO off of the high ground he has attempted to stake out. He and his wife Priscilla Chan sent an email last week to a group of scientists associated with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative that read, in part, “We are deeply shaken and disgusted by President Trump’s divisive and incendiary rhetoric at a time when our nation so desperately needs unity”—referring to Trump’s remarks during the nationwide police brutality protests. You’d think that removing a Nazi symbol would be a no-brainer, but these days, that too counts as progress.

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Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.