Why is Lil B banned from Facebook for calling out white supremacy when dozens of actual white supremacists roam free on the platform?
That's the question many have asked in the weeks since the East Bay rapper was temporarily booted from his own Facebook page -- and the answer reveals what the current free-speech debate gets wrong.
Free speech is the right to say what we want without fear of government censorship, but the term is becoming polarized with the recent rise of white supremacists and neo-Nazis on the far right. In response to liberal outrage against these hate groups, many people and institutions -- like the ACLU -- have become concerned with defending extreme right-wing speech to preserve the sanctity of free speech for all.
But what separates free speech from hate speech is the intent to incite violence: In September, for example, Milo Yiannopolous posted photos and identifying information of two UC Berkeley students who vocally opposed his campus appearance, exposing them to death threats from his supporters.
That's disconcerting enough. But as Joseph Bernstein revealed in his Buzzfeed report, “Here's How Breitbart and Milo Smuggled Nazi and White Nationalist Ideas Into The Mainstream,” even while Yiannopoulos may not explicitly call for violence against minorities himself, he sources his ideology directly from white supremacists and neo-Nazis who advocate for ethnic cleansing. It follows, then, that violence seems to trail Yiannopoulos wherever he goes: For the past month since his Sept. 24 appearance in Berkeley, for instance, his supporters have led a harassment campaign against Berkeley’s Revolution Books, at one point elbowing a bookstore supporter in the face and breaking his glasses.
It’s ironic that while well-meaning liberals and moderates rally around protecting neo-Nazis’ free speech, people like Lil B who are most vulnerable to real-life ramifications of hate speech are censored on social media platforms for speaking out.
Do the white nationalist or the kkk or Neo nazis really hate me? I don’t belive it and I love them ! I’m serious I love all humans - Lil B
— Lil B THE BASEDGOD (@LILBTHEBASEDGOD) October 4, 2017
Facebook operates from the "race neutral" point of view that all speech is created equal, so arguments against white supremacy -- especially ones that use generalizations about whiteness or white people -- get swept into the same category as racists' posts that target marginalized groups. Lil B sent Motherboard a photo of the Facebook posts that got him banned for 30 days: “White people are the only ones who really love they guns U can tell they are violent people! I don’t live in fear I don’t have a gun,” he wrote in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting.
“WHITE PEOPLE SO SCARED THEY THE REASON GUNS ARE A PROBLEM,” reads his other post. “IF WHITE PEOPLE PUT DOWN THE GUNZ WE ALL BE SAFE BUT NOPE! THEY VILENT [sic].”
Anyone who's followed Lil B on either Facebook or Twitter knows that he has an eccentric way of expressing himself online, but that he gears his posts towards promoting understanding across race, class, and gender lines. He often writes as if he's thinking through controversial issues aloud in real time, and up until the Facebook ban, he had been posting prolifically about systemic racism and racial divisions in the current political climate. Someone who's followed him for more than a few months would be able to tell that his posts about white people and guns were hyperbolic -- and a legitimate reaction to the Las Vegas shooting and the oft-ignored issue of white terrorism in America. But Facebook's content monitors clearly missed the nuance of his message and banned him based on two posts without considering their context.
The ban for hate speech is particularly ironic given that Lil B is most famous using his social media platforms to preach positivity. As I've observed through following him on social media for nearly ten years, he mostly uses his platforms to advocate for human rights, animal rights, and the environment and promote peace. For instance, after A Boogie wit da Hoodie and his crew jumped Lil B at the Rolling Loud festival last weekend, Lil B took to social media to preach a message of forgiveness instead of retaliating. Nothing about his social media presence -- including those posts that got him banned -- could be construed as inciting violence, which is the true definition of hate speech.
According to a ProPublica report detailing Facebook’s hate speech policy, hate speech is defined on the platform as an attack against a “protected category” of people, which includes race, gender, and religious affiliation. But the policy -- which has been widely criticized as convoluted and inconsistently enforced -- doesn’t protect “subsets” of people. One training document showed that according to Facebook's content moderators, making posts about “white men” is out, but “black doctors” or “female employees” don’t get the same protections.
In practice, this policy plays out counterintuitively: White supremacists have found ways to veil their hate speech -- justifying posts of anti-black racism with crime statistics, for instance -- to evade Facebook’s content monitors. Black Lives Matter activist Didi Delgado was banned from Facebook for a week for writing “White people are racist,” while Congressman Clay Higgins, a Republican from Louisiana, received no repercussions from the company for advocating for the deaths of radicalized Muslims, posting “Hunt them, identify them, and kill them. Kill them all.”
“I report neo-Nazis all the time,” says Olga Tomchin, an Oakland activist and human rights lawyer who recently resigned from Northern California’s ACLU board following the organization's decision to represent a white supremacist from the Charlottesville protest in a lawsuit. “They still get to keep their pages. There’s a page on Facebook called ‘Jewish Ritual Murder’ and that page gets to stay on.”
Anthony Williams, a Bay Area activist with a large Twitter presence, quit Facebook last December because he received repeated penalties for violating community guidelines for posts critiquing white supremacy and racism. He believes that Facebook disproportionately censors black activists. “It’s not like they’re banning Lil B and banning Richard Spencer,” he says. “You’re letting all these people say, ‘Let’s do ethnic cleansing.’ But if someone critiques it in self-defense, they’re banned.”
“I don’t think the first amendment has ever applied to black people,” says Berkeley activist Blake Simons, a prominent Twitter user who is currently banned from the platform for a tweet that critically discussed a racialized trope.
If anything, Facebook’s disproportionate enforcement of its policies echoes the discrepancies in free speech protection we see in real life. Case in point: over the past several years, police across the country have responded forcefully against Black Lives Matter protests but sat back and watched as white supremacists assaulted counter-protesters in Berkeley in April and at the more recent September demonstration. Similarly, police watched as white supremacists marched at the Charlottesville protest where Heather Heyer was murdered.
“There’s no such thing as free speech in the first place,” says writer and activist Zoé Szamudzi. “Look how the state sides with fascists in these protests, giving them protection, but violently arrests counter-protesters.”
Ironically, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin advocated for labeling Antifa, a leaderless coalition of anti-fascists, a street gang, but didn’t advocate the same label for highly organized white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa, whose uniformed leader Nathan Damigo assaulted a woman on video at the April Berkeley protest.
Meanwhile, Lil B, a black artist famous for his pacifist message, is currently banned from the platform for "hate speech" -- demonstrating how lopsided the free speech debate has become.