Facebook’s Purge of Militia Groups Also Banned Revolutionary War Reenactors

Social-media moderation can be an inexact science

Revolutionary War reenactors standing in a line
Revolutionary War reenactors: not necessarily a huge threat.
Matt Briney/Unsplash

For social networks, banning violent extremist groups can be a challenge. It’s also something that — especially in recent years — goes on without end. In 2019, Facebook made headlines for removing a number of far-right figures from the platform; last year, it did the same for “boogaloo” groups. Not surprisingly, Facebook opted for similar measures regarding militia groups in the wake of several alarming events last year.

However, according to a recent report at The New Republic by Jacob Silverman, Facebook’s latest purge of troubling groups had an unintended side effect: the deletion of groups run by Revolutionary War reenactors.

The case of Rory Nolan, who belongs to “historical reenactment groups that sometimes dramatize Revolutionary War-era militias,” offers one window on this policy. Not long after the plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer came to light, Nolan found himself banned from both Facebook and Instagram.

As Silverman notes, it’s not hard to see why a search for modern-day militias on social media would also turn up people whose recreational activities involve reenacting the deeds of militias from centuries ago. “[T]hese systems seem to be more equipped to disable pages like Nolan’s than to respond to right-wing extremism and threats of violence,” Silverman writes; and the fact that such actions can leave objectionable pages and groups intact while inconveniencing people who aren’t involved in unsavory plots further complicates matters.

Groups like Nolan’s are a small fraction of a much larger concern — namely, that Facebook’s policies target the wrong people and groups while continuing to let toxic behavior endure. The article notes that, after The New Republic asked Facebook about Nolan’s case, the social network reinstated his accounts and stated that “the profiles were removed in error.” It’s good news for him, but the larger issue remains.

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