Facebook runs ad from Congressional candidate urging people to shoot "looting hoards"

This is the online edition of the Popular Information newsletter. Sign up to get independent accountability journalism in your inbox:

Facebook is facing an internal revolt over CEO Mark Zuckerberg's handling of a post by Trump that encouraged shooting "looters." Zuckerberg said Trump's post, which declares "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," did not violate Facebook's prohibition against advocating violence. Many Facebook employees disagree — and some have even resigned over the issue.

But Facebook's issues are much bigger than Trump. 

On May 29, Facebook began running an incendiary paid ad from Georgia Congressional candidate Paul Broun (R). In the ad, Broun that urges people to use their "Liberty Machines" to take care of "looting hordes from Atlanta." What is a "Liberty Machine"? In the accompanying video, Broun explains he's referring to an AR-15 rifle, which he repeatedly fires in the video.

"Whether its looting hoards from Atlanta, or a tyrannical government in Washington, there are few better Liberty Machines than an AR-15," Broun says in the Facebook ad, which also ran on Instagram. 

Popular Information emailed Facebook regarding the Broun's ad on Wednesday morning. A few hours later, the ad was removed. 

"We removed this ad, which advocates the use of deadly weapons against a clearly defined group of people, for violating our policies against inciting violence," Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. 

But by that time, the ad had already run for more than five days. According to Facebook's internal metrics, it was shown over 50,000 times to people in Georgia. 

Facebook would not disclose how the decision to remove the ad was made, except to describe it as a "thorough" decision.

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called Broun’s Facebook ad “scary and disturbing and clearly an indictment to violence against Black people.” She said Facebook’s failure to act prior to the ad being flagged by Popular Information was “dangerous.” Gupta, who has advised Facebook on civil rights issues, added that Zuckerberg “makes decisions in a bubble disconnected from the real life impact of such in action.”

How much does Facebook care?

The incident raises more questions about Facebook's commitment to enforcing its rules against politicians. In the first three months of 2020, the company made $4.9 billion in profit. It could easily afford to hire people to manually review every ad from a federal candidate. Instead, Facebook relies on artificial intelligence to enforce the rules. But this system does not work.

Early Facebook employees speak out

Key employees from Facebook's founding have penned an open letter to Zuckerberg, blasting the CEO for failing to enforce its rules against Trump. The letter, which was published by the New York Times, describes Zuckerberg's actions as a "betrayal." 

Today, Facebook’s leadership interprets freedom of expression to mean that they should do nothing — or very nearly nothing — to interfere in political discourse. They have decided that elected officials should be held to a lower standard than those they govern. One set of rules for you, and another for any politician, from your local mayor to the President of the United States.

This is a betrayal of the ideals Facebook claims. The company we joined valued giving individuals a voice as loud as their government’s — protecting the powerless rather than the powerful.

Facebook now turns that goal on its head. It claims that providing warnings about a politician’s speech is inappropriate, but removing content from citizens is acceptable, even if both are saying the same thing. That is not a noble stand for freedom. It is incoherent, and worse, it is cowardly.

Caught on tape

The full audio of Zuckerberg's call on Tuesday with the entire Facebook staff was leaked to Recode. The transcript reveals that Zuckerberg is either confused or being disingenuous about what Trump said.  

So we’re getting into the history of the comment around “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” and it’s clearly a troubling historical statement and reference, whether or not it’s inciting supporters to go to violence, and we basically concluded after the research and after everything I’ve read and all the different folks that I’ve talked to, that that reference is clearly to aggressive policing — maybe excessive policing — but has no history of being read as a dog whistle for vigilante supporters to take justice into their own hands.

The phrase, however, is, in fact, a racial dog whistle. It was popularized by notoriously racist Miami police chief Walter Headley in 1967. Contemporaneous reports state that Headley's officers were "told that any force, up to and including death, is proper when apprehending a felon.”

Headley believed outreach to the black community was pointless, and violence was the only answer. "We have done everything we could, sending speakers out and meeting with Negro leaders. But it has amounted to nothing," Headley said. This approach culminated in a brutal crackdown on the city's black community during the 1968 Republican National Convention. 

It is not, as Zuckerberg suggests, a call for "aggressive policing." It is a call for vigilante justice against black people under the guise of state power. 

UPDATE (6/4, 6:45PM): On Wednesday, another Republican Congressional candidate in Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, began running an Faceboook advertisement advocating violence. In the ad, Green cocks a semi-automatic rifle while she delivers a message to “ANTIFA terrorists”: “Stay the hell out of Northwest Georgia.”

Popular Information contacted Facebook about the ad on Thursday morning. A few hours later, the ad was removed. By that time that ad had already been shown 50,000 times to Facebook users in Georgia.

Facebook told Popular Information it took down Green’s ad for the same reason it took down Broun’s ad.


Give a gift subscription

Thanks for reading!