Facebook has come under sharp scrutiny following the armed protests against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her restrictions on public activities due to COVID-19, which led to the closure of the Michigan Capitol building Thursday.
In the days leading up to the protest in the state capital of Lansing, Facebook groups opposing Whitmer’s policies were promoting violence and mobilizing armed rallies in violation of the social media company’s policies, according to the Metro Times.
Metro Times gained access to four private Facebook groups that can only be seen by approved members.
“The pages, which have a combined 400,000 members, are filled with paranoid, sexist, and grammar-challenged rants, with members encouraging violence and flouting the governor’s social-distancing orders,” Metro Times reported this week.
The Michigan protests have added to concerns about the use of Facebook and other social media as channels for spreading false information and conspiracy theories that can spill over into violence.
“Violent rhetoric appears to be increasingly common among people protesting stay-at-home orders” amid a pandemic that has so far killed 85,000 people in the United States, according to The Washington Post.
Shortly after the Metro Times stories appeared, Facebook removed three private groups whose members were promoting what were described as “paranoid and violent rants to hang, behead, shoot, and beat” the Democratic governor because of her stay-at-home orders.
“We removed multiple groups, Pages, accounts and posts for violating our policies and will continue to take action against further violations,” a Facebook spokesperson told Metro Times.
Among the groups that were removed were “The People of Michigan vs. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer,” “Michigan United for Liberty,” and “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” which had more than a combined 400,000 members.
The disabling of those Facebook accounts may have kept the turnout relatively low on Thursday, some media reported.
The roughly 200 protesters who showed up outside the Capitol building held signs that said, “Stop Whitmer now,” and, “Dangerous safety is better than safe tyranny.”
Near the capitol steps, one man had strung an American flag onto a fishing rod. Below the flag, a brunette doll dangled from a noose tied to the pole. When another protester reached to grab the doll, a fight broke out, according to The Washington Post.
The Senate and House were both out of session Thursday, adjourned until next Tuesday, leading Michigan State Police to close the Capitol to the public. No arrests were made.
This is the third such protest in Michigan. Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders are among the most rigorous in the nation. Those orders and the state of emergency were extended until May 28 despite pressure from Republican state lawmakers.
The latest protest and the Capitol’s closure came two weeks after protesters, some armed, entered the building and demanded to be allowed into the legislative chambers, which have been closed due to social distancing measures.
The public protests have been supported by President Donald Trump, who tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” in April.
“This is a terribly concerning development in that we have legislators who are showing up to work wearing bulletproof vests. That is disenfranchising thousands of people in our state if their legislator doesn’t feel safe enough to go to work and to do what their job is,” said Whitmer in an interview on The View.
Garrett Soldano, a founder of the more than 380,000-member group “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine,” confirmed that Facebook removed the page, according to CenterSquare.
“So that lets everybody know out there know what’s at stake,” Soldano said in a Facebook video. “Now more than ever, this just threw a tremendous amount of gasoline on the fire of my liberty,”
Soldano created a new Facebook page – “Stand Up Michigan” – as a replacement.
“They will not silence us, folks,” Soldano said. “They will not.”
Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation has long been a subject of debate. In recent weeks, misinformation about COVID-19 has spread across all social media channels.
As Mark Zuckerberg this week detailed the results of the company’s latest Community Standards Enforcement Report, he also revealed that Facebook is being inundated with COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation—and that the company has been struggling to stop it, reported DarkReading.
Zuckerberg has acknowledged that Facebook is not doing enough to stop COVID-19 misinformation.
“Our effectiveness has certainly been impacted by having less human review during COVID-19, and we do unfortunately expect to make more mistakes until we’re able ramp everything back up,” he said.
The report, released Tuesday, says that improvements in the company’s machine learning systems helped Facebook remove 68 percent more hate posts in the first three months of 2020 than it did from October to December 2019.
On Wednesday Facebook announced the first 20 members of its Oversight Board, an independent body that can overturn the company’s own content moderation decisions, reported CNBC.
“The oversight board will govern appeals from Facebook and Instagram users and questions from Facebook itself, although it admitted it will have to pick and choose which content moderation cases to take due to the sheer volume of them.”
Notable members include Alan Rusbridger, former editor in chief of The Guardian and Andras Sajo, a former judge and VP of the European Court of Human Rights.
Nancy Bilyeau is deputy editor of The Crime Report.