Facebook has rescinded its block on searches for Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenaged gunman who killed two and wounded another with an AR-15-style rifle during Black Lives Matter protests and civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin in August 2020. The decision comes after Rittenhouse was found not guilty of two counts of murder and one charge of attempted homicide. Rittenhouse will also be allowed back on Facebook and its sister company Instagram.
Facebook didn’t prohibit users from mentioning Rittenhouse or discussing the trial, but it did block searches for his name and banned his accounts, citing a policy on mass shooters. Brian Fishman, then Facebook’s director for counterterrorism and dangerous organisations, also tweeted the network would remove praise for Rittenhouse’s actions and said the company had “designated the shooting as a mass murder.” The decision made sense, as Rittenhouse had just shot several people at a protest. But it was immediately unpopular with the type of conservative pundit or politician that runs on outrage bait and saw in the decision some sort of pro-antifa liberal censorship conspiracy.
Yesterday we designated the shooting as a mass murder and removed the shooter’s accounts from Facebook & Instagram. Per standard practice in these situations, we are also removing praise and support of the shooter and have also blocked searches of his name on our platforms. 2/n
— Brian Fishman (@brianfishman) August 27, 2020
News of the reversal was first reported by the BBC.
Kenosha was one of the numerous cities across the nation where mass protests broke out against police brutality and racism in the wake of the Minneapolis Police murder of Black man George Floyd on May 25, 2020. On Aug. 23, a white officer with the Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back seven times, seriously injuring him and sparking another round of massive protests that lasted for days. The situation became particularly tense when bands of self-proclaimed militiamen, some associated with a Facebook group called the Kenosha Guard, arrived in the city heavily armed and proclaiming they were protecting the city against looters. On the night of Aug. 25, Rittenhouse — who had arrived in support of the armed groups with his own rifle in tow — shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, wounding a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse later claimed self-defence.
Facebook immediately faced heat for choosing not to delete the page of the Kenosha Guard, which was less an organised militia than a venue for paranoid reactionaries to demand violent retribution against the protesters. The group also created an event called “Armed Citizens to Protect Our Lives and Property” on the 25th which drew thousands of RSVPs and urged attendees to “take up arms” against the “evil thugs.” Facebook similarly failed to remove it, and the group was amplified by users on Reddit, conspiracy site Infowars, and right-wing media like local radio. CEO Mark Zuckerberg later admitted the company made an “operational mistake” in not nipping the group in the bud.
While there’s no evidence that Rittenhouse was a member of the Kenosha Guard, there’s plenty of evidence that it helped fuel the arrival of heavily armed vigilantes in the city at the worst possible time. When Rittenhouse was charged with murder and other crimes, he became a sort of right-wing celebrity; the jury’s acceptance of his self-defence claims has effectively made him a Republican Party mascot, and he met with ex-president Donald Trump following the verdict. Some of his supporters sent out political campaign-style fundraising emails for his legal costs. Hubs on the far-right internet have also taken to praising Rittenhouse as a hero and viewing the verdict as an all-clear signal that violent attacks on protesters can be justified under the pretext of self-defence, Slate reported.
Given that he has been found not guilty, Facebook is unblocking searchers for Rittenhouse’s name and allowing his new fanbase to praise him, short of celebrating the deaths that occurred. He will also be allowed to reinstate his Facebook and Instagram accounts, meaning he could probably become some kind of online influencer if he so chooses. (For the record, Rittenhouse’s lawyer, Mark Richards, has said that Republicans who want to “trade on his celebrity” are “disgusting”.)
“After the verdict in Kenosha we rolled back the restrictions we had in place that limited search results from returning content related to key terms including Kyle Rittenhouse,” Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Facebook’s recently created parent company Meta, told Gizmodo in a statement. “While we will still remove content that celebrates the death of the individuals killed in Kenosha, we will no longer remove content containing praise or support of Rittenhouse.”
As the Washington Post noted, Fishman, the Facebook official who publicly referred to the shootings as “mass murder,” announced on Oct. 28 he would be leaving the company with a final date of Nov. 19, the day of the Rittenhouse verdict. At the time he announced his departure, Fishman tweeted “I don’t intend to share additional details at this point, though keep in mind that correlation is not causation.”