Facebook Must Do Better—Because White Supremacist Words Matter

After a man murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, we learned that the perpetrator of this hate crime wanted to stem the “invasion” of Latinos into Texas. It was the most heinous hate crime committed against the Latinx community in our country’s recent history. 

Much analysis has connected the language the gunman used to President Trump’s demagoguery of immigrants of color—in particular, people from Central America. Other critiques have tied this hateful rhetoric to right-wing media. Define American’s analysis shows that the toxic language of extremist groups is permeating our most trusted news platforms.  

But what about the role of digital platforms like Facebook?

(Thought Catalog / Creative Commons)

According to the Pew Research Center, Facebook is the most popular social platform for U.S. adults who get their news from social media. Two-thirds of the people in the United States use Facebook, with 45 percent getting at least some of their news from the site. Perhaps most distressing is that, thanks to its ability to micro-target audiences with precision, the platform has the capacity to deliver paid political messages using its highly personalized digital-advertising technology

In January and February, Facebook allowed Trump’s 2020 campaign to use the word “invasion” to describe undocumented people in the United States in more than 2,000 political ads. This type of language comes directly from the white supremacist playbook—and the El Paso massacre makes the human cost of such blatant racism and fear-mongering all too clear.

In March, Facebook announced that it would ban “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and white separatism.” But as the tragedy in Texas shows, Facebook is still profiting off of white-nationalist hate. And if the company continues to look the other way, Trump and his extremist-group allies will use the platform to spread fear and hate into 2020 and beyond. 

What’s striking is that the language in the Trump ads clearly violates Facebook’s community standards on hate speech. Facebook’s strict definition of hate speech explains it as direct attacks on people with protected characteristics, including immigrants—“violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority or calls for exclusion or segregation.” The community standards also claim that “dehumanizing speech such as reference or comparison to insects… filth, bacteria, disease and feces… [or] sub-humanity” are removed from the platform. 

Words matter. They have the power to shape our perceptions of one another. Trump’s words, in particular, carry enormous weight.

After the El Paso shooting, like on so many other occasions, the president failed to acknowledge the role that he plays in empowering white supremacists and fueling violence against people of color.

Facebook users trust the content they read on the platform. We need to hold the company to the same standards we apply to news outlets. 

The Associated Press, the Society for Professional Journalists and respected style guides across the journalism industry encourages reporters and editors to use humanizing and accurate language when referring to people, to diligently seek out responses to official pronouncements, and to give voice to the voiceless. The dehumanizing language in the Trump ads makes a mockery of these principles. 

For this reason, our organizations have urged the media to reject inaccurate and inhumane terminology when describing new Americans. We’ve joined together in the Change the Terms campaign to push platforms like Facebook to crack down on the hateful language that is so rampant online.

When we say #WordsMatter, it’s because anti-immigrant violence, which is fueled by anti-immigrant rhetoric, is killing people.

About and

Carmen Scurato is a senior policy counsel at Free Press Action.
Kristian Ramos is the communications director at Define American.