Facebook's anti-Islam algorithm

Facebook's anti-Islam algorithm
Comment: Facebook needs to take its responsibility to remove hate speech a lot more seriously, writes CJ Werleman.
5 min read
21 Jun, 2019
Right-wing evangelical Christians have created an array of Islamophobic Facebook pages [Getty]
A newly published Snopes investigation provides a deeper understanding of how small groups of right-wing extremists are manipulating Facebook to portray anti-Muslim views as representative of a much broader swath of the general public.

The authors of the investigation reveal how a small group of right-wing evangelical Christians have created an array of Islamophobic Facebook pages in conjunction with establishing Political Action Committees (PACs) to build "a coordinated, pro-Trump network that spreads hate and conspiracy theories" about Islam and Muslims.

For instance, the Facebook pages titled, "Blacks for Trump" and "Jews for America," among others, are financially tied to Christian evangelical activist Kelly Monroe Kullberg, who is neither black nor Jewish, but founder and president of The America Conservancy, a group that claims to do "justice" to the "American story", and "to explore those roots and fruit of thriving culture possible in relation to a life-giving God who brings dying things back to life."

Well, that's what "the Kullberg group" claims to be all about, but in reality their motives are far more sinister. These include the manipulation of Facebook to promote US President Donald Trump by stirring up further fear and hatred of Muslims, at a time when the United States is dealing with a domestic white nationalist terrorism crisis, one that produced more than 500 hate crimes against Muslims in the first five months of 2019.

The task of removing Islamophobic memes and conspiracies is an entirely different challenge altogether

A total of 24 Facebook pages were traced back to Kullberg, according to the fact checking service Snopes, including "Christians for Trump," "Women for Trump," and "Evangelicals for Trump,".

Some of the content falsely accuses survivors of the Parkland school massacre of being on a "leftist-Islamic payroll" and preaches that Muslim immigrants are aiding and abetting in the "cultural destruction and subjugation" of white America, to name but a couple examples of the kind of anti-Muslim sentiment these pages disseminate.

Alarmingly, these 24 Kullberg financed Facebook accounts have amassed a total of 1.4 million followers, with an enormous amplifying effect for her anti-Muslim hate speech and conspiracies. 

It also puts her in direct violation of the social media platform's user guidelines, which prohibit "coordinated inauthentic behaviour." But her pages remain active, nevertheless, serving as another reminder social media platforms are still not taking the threat posed by Islamophobic content seriously.

In fact, Yanghee Lee, a United Nations investigator, explained how "Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended," adding that it has become a vehicle for inciting "acrimony, dissension and conflict,". Lee also blamed it for being a driving force behind the Rohingya Muslim genocide in Myanmar.

Last year, I wrote how Facebook poses an existential threat to Muslim minorities, particularly in developing countries that have low literacy rates and even lower media literacy rates, with an ever increasing amount of anti-Muslim conspiracies appearing in user's social media feeds.

In a revealing article for The Guardian, British Muslim journalist Hussein Kesvani narrates what he learnt when he meet with an "Islamophobic troll" who had harangued him on Twitter with anti-Muslim memes, conspiracies and tropes on a near daily basis since 2017, "spamming" him with "pictures taken from anti-Muslim websites, blogs and Facebook groups".

Kesvani summarises how "Phil" began moving away from mainstream media sources and "the biased BBC", towards conspiratorial blogs claiming the British population and politicians are being controlled by a secret cabal of "Illuminati".

He then moved on to reading about the "great replacement theory," which posits there's a Jewish led plot to replace the white population with non-white immigrants and Muslims, a theory that was also espoused by the Christchurch mosque terrorists, who murdered 51 Muslims during Friday prayers in March.

"It wasn't long before Phil switched from blogs to more active communities on Facebook and YouTube, where he found abundant videos about the great replacement from YouTubers such as Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux," writes Kesvani.

Islamophobia has become a great revenue earner for Facebook

"Phil told me that he spent hours on YouTube, 'researching the imminent demographic change.' From these videos, he had learned that 'Islam is taking over the UK by stealth,' and that "their followers are being encouraged to have lots of children and outbreed non-Muslims.'"

If you're wondering why anti-Muslim hate crimes are spiking off-the-charts, with more than 500 hate crimes recorded against Muslims already this year; 813 recorded against Muslims in Germany in 2018; and with 50 percent of hate crimes in the UK targeted towards Muslims in the UK, then clearly the inability of Facebook and other social media platforms to control and remove anti-Muslim or far-right extremist propaganda in the same way it has effectively quelled pro-Islamic extremism content is an important facotor in the crisis.

While Facebook has taken at least one step forward in recently announcing it will ban white nationalists and white supremacist content from its platform - a decision that came after the company was widely condemned for its role in the Christchurch mosque attack - the task of removing Islamophobic memes and conspiracies is an entirely different challenge altogether, given the normalisation of anti-Muslim bigotry in political and public discourse.

Social media platforms are still not taking the threat posed by Islamophobic content seriously

For instance, a 2018 analysis by Buzzfeed News found that Republican Party officials in 49 states have "openly attacked Muslims with proposed legislation since 2015," with much of their anti-Muslim sentiments shared via Facebook to their constituents.

Moreover, Islamophobia has become a great revenue earner for Facebook, with groups such as Kullberg's The America Conservancy pulling in donations via their PACs, which, in turn, are funneled into ads or "boosts" to amplify false articles relating to Muslims, according to Snopes.

With attacks on mosques and Muslim minorities occurring all over the world, and with much of it driven by deliberately produced disinformation by groups, including evangelical Christians, and organisations that seek to advance a political agenda by leveraging Islamophobia, it's never been more urgent for Facebook to act.

CJ Werleman is the author of 'Crucifying America', 'God Hates You, Hate Him Back' and 'Koran Curious', and is the host of Foreign Object.

Follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.