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Facebook provides safe haven for white nationalists in Maine

It was the morning of Nov. 6, and Safiya Khalid had just made history, becoming the first Somali-American to win a seat on the Lewiston City Council. Her groundbreaking victory, after a campaign marred by Islamophobic political attacks, garnered national attention, including an article in the Washington Post and an appearance on CNN, as well as a congratulatory tweet from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota.

Members of a popular local Facebook group called LA’s Journal were not celebrating. Many of them had spent the past week spreading racist and anti-Muslim hate speech online in an effort to derail Khalid’s campaign — a tactic that had proven effective in past municipal elections. Some members of the Facebook group called Khalid a “shitbag muslim” who wears a “head diaper.” Another advocated “killing as many muslims as possible.” One poster shared Khalid’s home address, implicitly encouraging other group members to terrorize the 23-year-old, who reportedly received death threats and was harassed during the race.

“Good morning lewiston. Is everyone congratulating safiya khalid this morning,” LA’s Journal member Shawn Asselin posted in the private group.

“No,” replied fellow group member Scott Moody. “They should never be able to run for anything,” he added, referring to Muslims as “flea bags.”

“Fuck her piece of shit,” opined an LA’s Journal member named Luc Plourde, whose comment was “liked” by several others.

“So glad I don’t live in that shit hole,” wrote group member Natasha Elsman, invoking one of President Donald Trump’s infamous slurs. Lewiston is “already starting to look like the shit hole they came from. Between trash, gang fights, kids being neglected, Bugs,” she wrote. Elsman’s comment had earned twice as many “likes” as Plourde’s at the time of the screenshot obtained by Mainer.  

LA’s Journal poster Mike Bailey referred to Khalid as a “pig” who “hate[s] everything to do with you or anybody else if you don’t believe in Allah.” Below Bailey’s comment, LA’s Journal member Linda Proulx wrote, “Lewiston is going to hell now.”

Not all the posters in the private group used the occasion to stoke anti-Muslim hate. “Congratulations,” wrote Christian Venable. “Nothing wrong with her being on the council. She was voted in. Instead of everyone bashing her … why dont [sic] we support her and be part of coming solutions.”

Pearl Benner, the creator and primary administrator of the Facebook group, replied to Venable and tagged him in her comment. “Why don’t you write your grandchildren a letter and apologize for not fighting for them [angry-face emoji] because by the time they grow up we will have Shari [sic] law … one of your great grandchildren will marry some old nasty man at the age of 9 [emojis of a woman in a hijab flanked by two hands extending the middle finger]. I will never forget [w]hat this [sic] S.O.Bs [sic] did on 9/11. Wake the FK up.”

Created in the fall of 2016, LA’s Journal was initially a group where Facebook users posted old photos of Lewiston and Auburn that inspired nostalgic comments about “the good old days.” Group members also share the type of hyper-local news found, to a diminishing degree, in daily papers like Lewiston’s Sun Journal.

But LA’s Journal has also become a haven for haters to spew racist vitriol and demonize Lewistonians who arrived after fleeing terrorist violence in Somalia and other African nations. Its administrator, Benner, routinely allowed the type of bigoted comments that would never be printed in a reputable publication, even as a letter to the editor.

There are now about 6,000 former refugees living in Lewiston (pop. approx. 36,000), and their presence is widely cited as a major factor in the city’s revitalization. Yet there are over 4,200 members of LA’s Journal, each personally approved by Benner or co-admin Tina Ouellette. To gain access to the private group, users must answer the xenophobic (and ungrammatical) question, “Was you born in Lewiston Auburn?”

Non-members cannot see posts on LA’s Journal in their Facebook news feed, and this layer of anonymity has clearly emboldened the trolls to use racist slurs, promote lies about Islam, and incite violence against their Muslim neighbors. For example, to help Lewistonians “survive the Somali invasion,” one LA’s Journal member, Michael R. Edgecomb, Jr., shared a “Handy Sharia Law Checklist” earlier this year. The graphic lists “necrophilia,” “paedophilia,” “unlimited sex slaves,” “bestiality,” “cannibalism” and “rape of non muslims” as intrinsic tenets of Islam.

Another recent post appears to show a Muslim girl on a school bus punching another student in retaliation for being taunted. The comment thread below the video quickly devolves into a virtual lynch mob, with one member replying, “Nasty fucks!! Ship em back! They come here and infect all of us.”

“Is that Ilhan Omar??” another LA’s Journal commenter posted below the video. “Rip the fucking hijab off that Cunts [sic] head!!” When a group member suggested hate speech like that comment likely led to the skirmish on the school bus, yet another commenter replied, “Go fuck yourself! I’m sick of these assholes being defended and protected while we’re supposed to just sit back and accept it!”

One LA’s Journal member (who requested anonymity due to threats this user has received from other group members) used the mechanism Facebook provides to “report” offensive posts. But the tech giant consistently blew off this user’s concerns. In the case of the “Handy Sharia Law Checklist,” for example, Facebook’s faceless administrators sent a message that began, “Thanks for your report — you did the right thing by letting us know about this. The post was reviewed, and though it doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards, we understand that it may still be offensive to you and others.”

“No one should have to see posts they consider hateful on Facebook,” the reply continued, “so we want to help you avoid things like this in the future. … [Y]ou may be able to unfriend or unfollow” the offending poster.

Tellingly, the Facebook message encouraged the concerned user to “consider using Facebook to speak out and educate the community around you. Counter-speech in the form of accurate information and alternative viewpoints can help create a safer and more respectful environment.”

The LA’s Journal whistleblower took Facebook’s advice and tried to engage in some “counter-speech” with a group member who’d posted hateful content. The result was more hate speech and a threat of violence. “Some aliens are not humans. End of story,” the LA’s Journal member retorted in a private Facebook message to the concerned user. “They are shit bags they are scum and they are Islamic f***** hard who would behead you in the street if you were in their own country. Do not ever make the mistake of crossing my path.”

An incident in Maine earlier this year also demonstrates how calling out white supremacy on Facebook creates an “environment” that is less respectful and less safe for users of conscience. As Mainer reported last summer (“Cookies for Nazis,” Sept. 17), a young woman in Hallowell who sounded alarm about a Facebook group called Maine for Mainers, which is administered by a neo-Nazi couple actively planning white-power actions here, was subjected to threats of violence and other harassment, and ultimately lost her job for speaking out. 

On Nov. 12, Mainer published an article about the hate speech on LA’s Journal and Facebook’s continued refusal to take any action against the group’s members and administrators. Our post about the article was widely shared on Twitter, prompting responses from locals as well as individuals and groups working nationally to hold Facebook responsible for the content on its website.

“Thank you so much for covering this,” a reader on Twitter wrote. “I grew up very close to L/A and I’ve heard this rhetoric my entire life. These same violent bigots teach children, own businesses, run our towns, etc. Most people and local media just pretend this isn’t a problem here but it is.”  

“It just never ceases to be unbelievable that Facebook, the world’s largest advertising platform, regularly allows extremists to organize, threaten and wage harassment campaigns on their social network despite rules that are supposed to prevent all of it,” wrote Sleeping Giants, a social-media activism organization.  

“This story is scary,” observed NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny. “And I confidently fear that there are more of these Facebook groups.”

In fact, Facebook is filthy with individual pages and user groups promoting white supremacy, and it has a history of failing to remove hate speech on its platform even after that content is brought to its attention.

Julia Carrie Wong, a reporter for The Guardian, noted that in 2016 the Southern Poverty Law Center “sent Facebook a list with links to more than 200 pages, profiles and groups affiliated with SPLC-designated hate groups.” A year later, the British newspaper found that “at least 175 of those links remain active, including closed [private] groups for neo-Nazi, white nationalist and neo-Confederate organizations.” When The Guardian brought this to Facebook’s attention, the corporation “removed nine additional groups,” Wong wrote.    

Mainer had a similar experience. Our tweet about the LA’s Journal article was seen over a million times on Twitter, and thousands of Twitter users nationwide began tagging Facebook to prod the tech giant to take action. It worked — sorta.

Just after midnight (EST) on Nov. 14, Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Schroepfer, responded to Mainer’s story via Twitter. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention and for your investigative reporting,” Schroepfer wrote. “We have no tolerance for hate speech on our site and we’ve removed the violating content.”

Facebook clearly does tolerate hate speech on its site, especially in the user groups that are unique to its platform. As Wong reported in 2017, “Facebook will only remove groups if it finds they are ‘dedicated’ to promoting hate against ‘protected’ characteristics such as gender or race.” And as a social-media expert at Harvard told The Guardian last month, “white nationalist and white supremacist groups adopt the trappings of news outlets or publications to disseminate their views.”

So a group like LA’s Journal, which claims in its description to be about “old memories and new ones,” can allow members to hold virtual Klan rallies without being sanctioned by Facebook. It’s up to individual group administrators to monitor and, if they deem it necessary, remove posts by group members — an arrangement not only tolerated, but created by Facebook to increase visits to its site.

Benner policed LA’s Journal, but it seems her targets where those who questioned the hateful narratives her group encourages. For instance, after Khalid’s election win, a woman posted that “referring to Somalians as ‘they’ and stereotyping” won’t help the city of Lewiston. Her post attracted a swarm of racist trolls, and then Benner intervened — not to upbraid or block the racists, but to kick the dissenter out of the group.

Last year, Vice News exposed Facebook training materials that indicate the tech giant was attempting to draw a distinction between white nationalist and white supremacist content, and was “explicitly allowing white nationalism,” The Guardian wrote. In other words, racist content of a political nature would be tolerated, but more personal expressions of racist hate could be subject to removal.

Tolerance of white nationalism is tolerance of hate speech. 

Facebook did remove a number of posts from LA’s Journal after Mainer’s story broke, including the “Sharia Law Checklist” it had previously considered acceptable. But as Sun Journal reporter Steve Collins observed in a tweet, “most of the hate speech on LA’s Journal remains.” This was, apparently, not the “violating content” Schroepfer had in mind.

The Facebok executive’s response “would be funny if hate speech on the platform wasn’t so deadly serious,” wrote Media Matters, the nonprofit watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.  

Social media can facilitate the radicalization of armchair racists into white-power domestic terrorists. (See our accompanying article, “Leaks Show Mainer’s Online Radicalization By Neo-Nazi Terrorist Cult”). LA’s Journal has become an access point for white-power groups in Maine and “from away.”

This fall, an LA’s Journal user posted an invitation to join the 3 Percenters, an anti-Muslim militia whose members pledge to take up armed resistance against the government if it strips away their perceived Constitutional rights, such as the right to bear arms. One LA’s Journal member replied to the invitation by exclaiming, “DEUS VULT my brother!” — meaning “God wills it,” a battle cry of Christian soldiers during the First Crusade, in the year 1095.

In 2018, three men calling themselves “The Crusaders,” an anti-Muslim terrorist group with ties to the 3 Percent Movement, were convicted of plotting to bomb a Kansas mosque and an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants. This past September, Khalid posted a text message she received from a Facebook user that featured a 3-Percenter logo and had a profile picture of paramilitary fighters firing automatic rifles. The woman who sent the text accused Khalid of supporting sharia law and told her, “you get a big FU from me. There is NO PLACE for sharia law in Maine.”

Neo-Nazi Tom Kawczynski — the former town manager of Jackman, Maine, who co-administers the Maine for Mainers Facebook group — reached out to his “friends” on LA’s Journal on Nov. 19, writing “you have every right to discuss whatever you like, including all the consequences of demographic replacement ongoing down there.” He also thanked new members for joining his group, most of whom were from LA’s Journal.

“Researchers say Facebook is the primary mainstream platform where extremists organize and anti-Muslim content is deliberately spread,” BuzzFeed reporter Jane Lytvynenko noted in an article earlier this year. Lytvynenko also explained how the spread of hate speech aligns Facebook’s goals with the goals of white supremacists and anti-Muslim bigots: user engagement with the site — whether it’s promoting hate speech or “counter-speech” — is what drives Facebook’s profits. “Islamophobia happens to be something that made these [social media] companies lots and lots of money,” Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who’s researched online harassment, told Lytvynenko this spring.

Facebook, by its own admission, is overrun with vile and violent racist content. The tech giant removed “7 million pieces of hate speech” in a recent three-month period, according to Schroepfer. And though it has a net worth of roughly half a trillion dollars and the most cutting-edge artificial-intelligence technology at its disposal, the corporation claims it cannot stop racist cretins from exploiting its site to spread intolerance and encourage bloodshed.

“[T]he reality is humans and AI systems are just not 100% perfect,” Schroepfer tweeted in response to Mainer’s reporting. “The ‘proactive’ rate for hate speech has gone from 23.6% to 80.2% in the last two years,” he continued. “[We’ve] gone from 3 out of 4 posts found by someone outside of [Facebook] and reported to us to 1 out of 5 (the rest found by us first). We are working hard to do better and will continue to improve.”

Twitter users were unimpressed. “There’s WAY more that 7 million pieces of hate speech on Facebook RIGHT NOW,” one wrote in response to the CTO. “People report it and you do nothing.”

“Weird,” wrote another Twitter user, “generally when people urge others to kill, actual humans can[,] you know, tell what that is. You’re a shitty liar Schroepfer.”

The national activist group Sleeping Giants told Schroepfer, “you shouldn’t need investigative journalism to moderate your zillion dollar ad platform.”

But that is, at present, the situation. The press — decimated, in large measure, by the loss of audience and ad revenue to Facebook and Google — is the last line of defense when Facebook cannot, or will not, curb hate speech on its site. Facebook users disgusted by its content are free to stop using the platform, but that also means there are fewer people of conscience watching the feed and alerting Facebook to potentially dangerous posts, thus further empowering the hate groups.

Facebook has created a monster it cannot or will not control, partly because it profits from the mayhem the monster unleashes in our communities. Absent meaningful reform, there’s only one reasonable course of action: destroy the monster before it destroys us.  

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