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Facebook's Strategy for Taking Down Hate Groups is Spotty and Ineffective

Facebook continues to provide a safe haven for hate groups and extremists despite the company’s attempts to “stop the most egregious and dangerous groups from using its tools.” Hatewatch staff previously reported several extremist groups and pages currently active on the platform directly to Facebook in 2018.

A March 25 report by Mother Jones describes how Facebook recently “revealed its secret strategy for taking down hate groups” using its platform, including “the worst racists in America.”

Following the public revelations of Facebook’s “work on dangerous organizations,” Hatewatch staff reviewed several extant neo-Confederate Facebook groups and pages tied to the hate group the League of the South. The League continues to use Facebook as a component of its organizational and outreach strategies.

Mother Jones’ interview with Brian Fishman, Facebook’s director of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations policy, details Facebook’s strategy to combat online hate. According to Fishman, Facebook secretly monitors hate groups and maps their networks before quietly removing them from the platform without explanation.

Although the Mother Jones piece does not seek to define “the worst racists in America,” the League of the South warrants honorable mention in any list that accounts for vitriolic racism, antisemitism, and arrests and convictions of its members for planning and perpetrating violence.

Michael Hill, League president, was billed as a featured speaker at the planned “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was largely organized on Facebook. League members formed the front of a phalanx of white nationalists who slammed into counterprotesters before the event was scheduled to start, igniting a brawl that led Virginia’s governor to declare a state of emergency. Two men who marched with the League that day were involved in the gang-beating of DeAndre Harris, a black man. Tyler Watkins Davis, a Florida League member, is currently serving a 25-month sentence for his role in the attack.

Prior to Unite the Right, Facebook was the League’s core operations platform. Access to Facebook allowed the League and other extremist groups to recruit members through propaganda; to organize and coordinate real-world meetups; to build in-group cohesion by sharing pictures of public gatherings, successfully distributing propaganda distribution, and reinforcing core narratives necessitating adherence to the group’s beliefs; to intimidate opponents by sharing personal information of perceived “enemies” and to coordinate harassment campaigns both on and off the platform.

The League, along with other extremist groups, have been seeking alternative services for communication structures, including such peer-to-peer encrypted apps as Wire, Wickr and Signal. The departure from more visible social media platforms follows increased scrutiny from law enforcement and journalists, combined with some strengthening of terms and conditions enforcement by social media companies. Nevertheless, Facebook still provides an avenue for recruitment and organizing.

One League of the South member in particular, Mary Barlow of Lake City, Florida, continues to use Facebook groups and pages to coordinate attendance at hate group events and to disseminate League propaganda to groups that Barlow and the League believe are viable recruiting pools.

Megan Squire, a data scientist and expert in online extremism, identified 54 separate extremist Facebook groups that Barlow participated in through various aliases.

On March 3, Barlow wrote on Facebook, “Who else is going to Arkansas to hear Dr. Hill speak?” Several members, including Michael Hill himself, the League’s “operations chief” Robert Isaacs, aka “Ike Baker,” and Mississippi League member Shaun Winkler each responded to Barlow’s post in the comments indicating their plans to attend. The event in question is the “Faith and Freedom Conference,” held every year in Harrison, Arkansas, by Thomas Robb, the director of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Barlow also frequently posts to various Facebook groups and pages she has created on behalf of the League, including a public recruitment organ for the Florida League. When one user commented, “How do I join this organization?” in December 2019, the page administrator responded with a link to the Florida League of the South website. Barlow has also created a recruitment page for the Arkansas League. Hatewatch surveyed additional pages for the Virginia League of the South, the “Southern Nationalist movement,” and the League’s quarterly tabloid publication The Free Magnolia.

Hatewatch has publicly documented Barlow’s role as a recruiter for the League and has previously flagged pages Barlow has created for the League to Facebook representatives.

In August 2018, a member of Hatewatch staff emailed Facebook employees regarding a League of the South page on Facebook and noted that the League’s website linked directly to it. Currently two state chapters on the League’s website link directly to active Facebook groups.

Barlow and the League’s continued presence on the platform, often achieved without even disguising the groups or the ideology they represent, casts doubt on Facebook’s insistence that the company strategy is sufficient to deter persistent, highly motivated extremists who use the site to normalize their views.

While the Mother Jones article does not mention the League, one hate group mentioned in it still has active groups on Facebook.

Hatewatch staff contacted Facebook about Identity Dixie, a neo-Confederate propaganda group in late July 2019, shortly after the publication of a report on the group’s leaders and membership.

Identity Dixie maintained an active presence on Facebook for some months following the publication of Hatewatch’s expose. In his interview with Mother Jones, Fishman stated that groups could continue to operate on the platform while Facebook staff worked to “identify as many of their assets as we could, identities of their supporters and members, groups, pages, and then take them all down at once.”

Hatewatch continued to investigate Identity Dixie after identifying its leadership and observed members preparing to abandon Facebook as they developed their own web forum intended to replace Facebook. Members were encouraged to join that forum before the group departed Facebook.

Nevertheless, at the time of publication Identity Dixie still has at least three active groups on Facebook. Many of the accounts that participated vigorously in racist debates within banned groups associated with Identity Dixie and the League are themselves still active, in spite of Facebook’s proscription against fake accounts.

When contacted for comment, Brian Fishman provided the following statement regarding Facebook’s policies:

Last year we identified and removed a series of Pages, groups and accounts maintained by Identity Dixie, a previously banned hate organization, for violating our policies prohibiting groups that proclaim hateful and violent missions. When we ban these organizations, we aim to remove their presence but continue identifying any efforts to evade our detection methods. Most of the content we remove for violating our policy against organized hate comes from routine content review but in some cases, we work to map out a group to remove a larger network at once.

Neo-Confederates aren’t the only extremist cohort relying on Facebook as part of their operations strategy.

Barlow often cross-posts to white nationalist Facebook groups such as “White Student Union” in order to share the League’s content. “White Student Union” has taken advantage of Facebook’s “secret group” feature, which allows administrators to hide content from other users and evade Facebook’s community reporting feature. The group currently features numerous posts spreading disinformation propaganda regarding the global outbreak of COVID-19 and another lauding Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

Free use of Facebook is much less of a concern for more “mainstream” hate groups with access to political power, especially anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim groups, which continue to publicly spread bigotry and vitriol on the platform with little in the way of felt consequences. Antigovernment groups and militias also rely on Facebook.

For example, anti-LGBTQ hate group American Family Association used its Facebook page to liken LGBTQ people to Nazis in a Feb. 27 post spurred by a lawsuit over a Philadelphia human rights ordinance. “This sad incident is further proof of the danger to religious liberty posed by the Gay Gestapo and the radical homosexual lobby,” the post read.

American Family Association’s Facebook page has 257,917 likes and 244,126 followers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of more than 40 groups joined together to propose model policies to combat hateful activities on social media platforms.

Photo illustration by SPLC (Image by grzegorz knec / Alamy Stock Photo)

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