For many people, Facebook’s announcement in March that it would ban white nationalist content was long overdue. It came in the wake of the horrific massacre of 50 Muslims in Christchurch last month by a far right terrorist.

Facebook already considered white supremacist content to be a form of hate speech and therefore prohibited from its platforms. But it had continued to accept expressions of white nationalism as akin to any other expression of nationalism or national identity, such as “American pride and Basque separatism”.

It’s hard to imagine how the Facebook policy makers could meaningfully distinguish white nationalism – the idea that whites form a race needing protection and deserving its own ethno-state – from white supremacy – the notion that this white race is superior to all others. So in a sense, it is about time that Facebook dropped this flimsy rhetorical distinction between the two terms.

However, it’s important those of us involved in movements against racism and fascism interrogate the practical and political implications of such bans.

On the surface, the recent ban seems to mirror the real-world tactic of “de-platforming” the far right. While the definition of de-platforming and its targets have widened over the years, it essentially involves attempting to stop a far right individual from speaking or a far right event from taking place. De-platforming can be effected by a protest of individuals or by calling on some authority to shut down the event – for example, a government department, a local council or a university administration.

It’s a tactic that some of us in the anti-fascist movement argue against because in our current political context, de-platforming almost always relies on the latter approach, that is, calling on the state or some authority to handle our enemies on the far right for us. While it might stop one fascist from speaking or one event from taking place, it does nothing to build up progressive forces that can pose a serious challenge to the far right’s growth in wider society.

And given how the far right has weaponised the question of free speech and painted themselves as the victims of increased society-wide censorship of their views – despite evidence to the contrary – the left adopting the tactic of de-platforming has the potential to play into the right’s hands and cast the left as having a dismissive or relative attitude to freedom of speech.

Whether the left adopts the tactic of de-platforming depends on the strength of our movement and our ability to draw more people in. However, can the attitude we take to real-world anti-fascist organising be transposed onto the virtual world of social media? If we argue that anti-fascists should not call on the state to ban the far right but that we should build the left to take them on, does this also mean we should not call on Facebook to ban far right figures and organisations who use the social media platform to build their profiles, disseminate their ideas and with Christchurch, use Facebook to livestream an act terrorism?

I assume no one in Red Flag’s audience would mount a defence of the Christchurch livestream being allowed to stay online, or that the pages now banned by Facebook should have remained. Yet the question of where to draw the line is not insignificant.

In mid-2018, Facebook took down the event page for an anti-fascist protest to take place in Washington, DC, because it suspected that one of its organisers was an “inauthentic” foreign account. That is, Facebook suspected the protest was being organised by Russian hackers. 

The protest organisers got another event up and running but as one organiser said of Facebook’s actions at the time: “When Facebook decides what is real political organising and what’s not, it takes agency out of people organising on the ground in their own communities”.

It’s important that progressives remain cautious about cheering on companies such as Facebook when they ban fascists because the “community guidelines” used as justification are also used to ban left wing content.

The ban on white nationalist content also raises the question of effectiveness. As noted above, the far right has successfully constructed a narrative in which they are the ones whose freedom of speech is denied by liberals who have taken over every mainstream institution – from the state to the media to the universities.

The farce of this narrative was on display recently in Australia. On being censured in parliament for stating that the Christchurch massacre was due to New Zealand’s intake of “Muslim fanatics”, senator Fraser Anning labeled the censure a “blatant attack on freedom of speech” at a press conference he delivered to the media outside Parliament House.

Despite the farce of this argument, when social media companies such as Facebook or Twitter ban particular far right individuals or groups, it often results in a spike in far right online activity on other platforms, such as 8chan or Gab, because the users argue their free speech is being denied. Sites such as 8chan and Gab have large far right membership bases and are perhaps more significant than Facebook or Instagram for far right organising, with 8chan and Gab having been the preferred platforms for the Christchurch shooter and the man who shot 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue late last year.

Facebook is feeling the heat from governments around the world at the moment. Because of the Christchurch massacre, both the Australian and New Zealand governments want to point the finger at the social media giant for allowing fascists to spread their message. But this just lets the “mainstream” politicians off the hook. As Clarke Jones, an ANU senior researcher, told news website Junkee: 

“The rhetoric around refugees and immigration is, as portrayed by the government, that they’re somehow criminals, terrorists … The narrative starts at the top and gets fed through the media into social media. You’ve got to remember where the fire is lit and how it is spread into other platforms.”

Events like the Christchurch massacre compel companies such as Facebook to respond because their model of filtering content based on engagement is thrown into question. Governments like that of Scott Morrison have an interest in playing along, because it takes the spotlight away from their role in fomenting Islamophobia for political gain.

This will not be the last time that the left faces the question of online censorship – be it real or perceived. It is important that we at least remain cautious about supporting bans by social media companies and are sceptical about their effectiveness in limiting the far right’s growth. 

Instead, we need to focus on how we can stop the odious growth of the far right, which means organising in the real world.