Facebook on Thursday deactivated dozens of ads placed by US President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign that included a symbol once used by the Nazis to designate political prisoners in concentration camps.
The marking appeared as part of the campaign’s online salvo against antifa and “far-left groups.”
A red inverted triangle was first used in the 1930s to identify Communists, and was applied as well to Social Democrats, liberals, Freemasons and other members of opposition parties. The badge forced on Jewish political prisoners, by contrast, featured a yellow triangle overlaid by a red triangle.
The symbol appeared in paid posts sponsored by Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, as well as by the “Team Trump” campaign page. It was featured alongside text warning of “Dangerous MOBS” and asking users to sign a petition about antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist activists whom the Trump administration has sought to link to recent violence, despite arrest records that show their involvement is trivial.
Facebook removed the material following queries from The Washington Post, saying ads and organic posts with the inverted triangle violated its policy against organized hate.
“Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol,” said Andy Stone, a Facebook spokesman.
But the ads on the president’s page alone – which began running on Wednesday – gained as many as 950,000 impressions by Thursday morning. Identical ads on Pence’s page gained as many as 500,000 impressions.
Eighty-eight ads with the inverted red triangle ran in total – across pages for Trump, Pence and the official “Team Trump” page on the social network. They targeted all 50 states.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, faced questions about the ads from Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., during a Thursday hearing before the House Intelligence Committee.
“We obviously want to be careful to allow someone to put up a symbol to condemn it or to discuss it,” Gleicher told the lawmakers. “But in a situation where we don’t see either of those, we don’t allow it on the platform and we’ll remove it. That’s what we saw in this case with this ad, and anywhere that symbol is used, we would take the same action.”
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said, “The red triangle is an antifa symbol,” pointing to examples of iPhone cases and water bottles branded with the insignia. A more common emblem for the anti-fascist movement includes two flags, one red and one black, enclosed in a circle.
“We would note that Facebook still has an inverted red triangle emoji in use, which looks exactly the same, so it’s curious that they would target only this ad,” Murtaugh added.
Although certain symbols the Nazis deployed have been reclaimed, including the pink triangle used in concentration camps to label gay inmates, the red triangle has not been recast in a similar way, said Jacob Eder, a historian of modern Germany at the Barenboim – Said Akademie in Berlin.
“I think it’s a highly problematic use of a symbol that the Nazis used to identify their political enemies,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine it’s done on purpose, because I’m not sure if the vast majority of Americans know or understand the sign, but it’s very, very careless, to say the least.”
Thursday’s action by Facebook was not the first time the technology giant has taken action against Trump campaign ads. In March, the company removed ads it said included misleading references to the US Census – following an outcry from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., among others, about the platform’s initial decision to permit the posts.
Generally, however, the company has taken a light touch, pledging not to police the veracity of posts by politicians. That stance has caused roiling internal debates at Facebook, and it has also set the company apart from Twitter, which last month applied a label fact-checking the president’s misleading tweets about mail-in ballots. Twitter also took the unprecedented step of limiting the reach of a presidential tweet predicting, in the midst of demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, that looting could lead to “shooting.”
The moves by Twitter – which has banned political ads outright – drew rebuke from Trump, who days later signed an executive order that could open the door for the U.S. government to assume more oversight over online speech.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, in a lengthy post this month defending his handling of the president’s use of his platform, said he worried about an approach “leading us to editorialize on content we don’t like even if it doesn’t violate our policies.”
Facebook’s initial impression of the symbol was that it did not break the company’s rules. A user who reported one of the Trump pages for displaying the symbol received a response early Thursday indicating the imagery “doesn’t go against one of our specific Community Standards,” according to correspondence reviewed by The Post.
In internal Facebook communications, a policy executive said Thursday morning that deliberations were ongoing but that red triangle was “common enough that it’s an emoji in most keyboards, including on Facebook,” and that the “triangle without any more context clearly doesn’t violate the letter” of policies prohibiting symbols for hate organizations.
Others took a different view. One employee, writing on the company’s internal chat platform, called Workplace, described Facebook’s evaluation system as “fundamentally broken,” according to the documents viewed by The Post.
Facebook has long prohibited hate speech and symbolism on its platform, but the company has faced blowback at times for being too permissive. In 2018, Zuckerberg defended the rights of Holocaust deniers, saying he did not believe “they were intentionally getting it wrong.”
In this case, Facebook’s move against the Trump ads came after a concerted push, including by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. David Brody, the organization’s counsel and senior fellow for privacy and technology, reported the material to Facebook, as well as to its civil rights auditors.
Deborah Lipstadt, a leading American scholar of the Holocaust, said the inclusion of the symbol in alarmist advertising bore echoes of the campaign’s initial decision to hold a rally in Tulsa, Okla., on June 19, known as Juneteenth in commemoration of the end of slavery. Trump delayed the rally by a day following an outcry.
“It’s an insensitivity, and likely indicative of who’s around the table when these decisions are being made,” she said. “I find it shocking.”
Murtaugh, the Trump campaign spokesman, noted that the marking is not included in the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. But the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt, condemned its use in political combat as “offensive and deeply troubling.”
“It is not difficult for one to criticize their political opponent without using Nazi-era imagery,” Greenblatt said in a statement. “We implore the Trump campaign to take greater caution and familiarize themselves with the historical context before doing so. Ignorance is not an excuse for appropriating hateful symbols.”
Jake Hyman, an ADL spokesman, said the marking is not in the organization’s hate database because the inventory is not for “historical Nazi symbols” but rather for “symbols commonly used by modern extremists and white supremacists in the United States.”
The ADL and other leading civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and Color of Change, this week launched a new campaign urging big brands to pull advertising dollars from Facebook, saying the company has failed to prevent hate speech and incitement to violence.
Facebook maintains it has made strides in rooting out misinformation and hateful content, and this week announced a new initiative that seeks to help 4 million people register to vote this year. In a “USA Today” column outlining the effort, Zuckerberg also said the company would roll out a feature allowing users to opt out of seeing political ads in their feeds.
Other variations of the ad that prompted blowback on Thursday used a yield sign, which has the same shape and a similar color scheme but is notably distinct in featuring only a red outline and a white interior. Some of the material also featured a stop sign.
Trump has made antifa – a label associated with anti-fascist protesters who infamously sparred with far-right figures after his election in 2016 – a centerpiece of his response to recent demonstrations in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis. The effort to rally his supporters using the specter of a marauding horde resembles the emphasis he placed on the threat of a migrant caravan heading to the U.S. border in the lead-up to the midterm election in 2018.
So far, however, the alleged menace has been mostly nonexistent – a focal point of online alarm not reflected in scenes of mostly peaceful protest nationwide. Despite warnings of antifa incursions in scores of cities, there is no evidence linking outbursts of violence to an organized left-wing effort.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump tweeted, and then deleted, a graphic showing Hillary Clinton alongside $100 bills and a six-pointed Star of David – the type of star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear on their clothing. The then-candidate insisted in a statement that the insignia was not anti-Semitic because it represented a sheriff’s badge, not the stigmatized Star of David.