Report: Facebook Chose Not to Take Down Militia Group That Brought Guns to Kenosha Protests

Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25, 2020. (Photo: Brandon Bell, Getty Images)
Police in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25, 2020. (Photo: Brandon Bell, Getty Images)

Facebook received reports in advance about the Kenosha Guard, a self-proclaimed militia that urged gun owners to “defend” Kenosha, Wisconsin against Black Lives Matter protesters on Tuesday. It chose not to do anything, according to a report by the Verge, until nine hours after one of the armed vigilantes that swarmed the streets of Kenosha shot three people.

Protesters have organised marches against police brutality in Kenosha every night since Sunday, when local police shot Jacob Blake in the back seven times, paralyzing him and sparking outrage nationwide. Similar to other demonstrations against police killings this year, authorities have launched a crackdown on the unrest with tear gas and rubber bullets. Numerous heavily armed men — apparently comprised mostly of right-wingers who had in some cases been warmly greeted by Kenosha police — have also shown up under the pretext of community defence to confront demonstrators. On early Wednesday morning, one of those men opened fire, killing two people and injuring another.

Police have arrested 17-year-old suspect Kyle Rittenhouse who, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, self-identified as a militia member defending Kenosha against violence. Many of the armed individuals who descended on the city Tuesday night likely were drawn by the Kenosha Guard, which had created a Facebook event titled “Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property” that was promoted by far-right sites like InfoWars and gathered thousands of RSVPs.

Kenosha Guards wrote in a post on the event page: “Any patriots willing to take up arms and defend out (sic) City tonight from the evil thugs? Nondoubt (sic) they are currently planning on the next part of the City to burn tonight!” Also present in recent nights were dozens of armed individuals affiliated with “Boogaloo,” loosely organised groups promoting the idea of a second U.S. civil war which have a major presence on Facebook.

It’s not clear whether Rittenhouse was responding to a call to action from either group or if came to Kenosha entirely of his own volition, but Business Insider reported that witnesses said he appeared to be alone shortly before the shooting and that his Facebook and Instagram accounts had “Blue Lives Matter” banners. According to the Verge, at least two Facebook users said they reported the Kenosha Guard’s account and associated event for inciting violence. Both said they received responses from Facebook’s moderation team saying the Kenosha Guard did not violate the site’s community standards:

One user, who asked not to be identified by name, said she had reported the Kenosha Guards event in advance of the protest. Facebook moderators responded that the event itself was not in violation of platform policy, but specific comments could be reported for inciting violence. She reported a specific comment threatening to put nails in the tires of protestors’ cars, but it too was found to be within the bounds of Facebook policy.

“There were lots of comments like that in the event,” she says. “People talking about being ‘locked and loaded.’ People asking what types of weapons and people responding to ‘bring everything.’”

The other Facebook user told the Verge he reported the event because “I felt it had the possibility to end in violence, and it did.”

Facebook has since removed the Kenosha Guard page and the event, citing policies cracking down on far-right militias, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and anti-fascist groups it introduced earlier this month. A Facebook press release at the time said such pages, groups, and Instagram accounts “will be removed when they discuss potential violence,” though others would be downranked in search results and news feeds and removed from recommendation lists.

“While we will allow people to post content that supports these movements and groups, so long as they do not otherwise violate our content policies, we will restrict their ability to organise on our platform,” Facebook wrote.

It’s not clear whether Facebook views the explicitly stated intent of the Kenosha Guards event — to “take up arms and defend” the city — to in and of itself be violation of its policies.

Facebook’s community standards prohibit “statements of intent or advocacy, calls to action, or aspirational or conditional statements” promoting bringing weaponry to locations “including but not limited to places of worship,educational facilities or polling places.” The language in the standards doesn’t mention protests or other mass gatherings — which would potentially affect a large number of other events, such as open carry events held by pro-gun rights groups or anti-social distancing rallies with ties to the gun industry. Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been especially sensitive to feverish assertions by Republican politicians and conservatives that it systematically stamps out and discriminates against right-wingers, treading lightly in recent years on policy issues that could lead to claims of anti-conservative bias.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment, and we’ll update this story if we hear back.