Summary: The Proud Boys, a group with a history of violent interactions, often in support of Donald Trump, received prominent attention during the first Presidential debate of 2020 between Trump and Joe Biden. Upon being asked about whether or not he would condemn white supremacist groups that support him, Trump asked for an example. When given The Proud Boys, Trump told them to “stand back and stand by,” which many in the group took to be an endorsement of their activities.

While the group has long denied that its views are racist, the group has long said that it is based around “Western chauvinism” and has been repeatedly associated with violence and white supremacist groups and individuals. Both Twitter and Facebook banned the group in 2018.

However, after they received renewed attention at the 2020 debate, actor George Takei suggested “reclaiming” the #ProudBoys hashtag, and using it to promote the LGBTQ community instead, saying that they could respond to hate with love.

This made the hashtag go viral on a variety of platforms, including Twitter and Instagram (owned by Facebook). In response Facebook was accused (incorrectly) of only just blocking the hashtag after this attempt at reclaiming. However, Facebook exec Andy Stone noted that the opposite was true, and that Facebook was currently in the process of unbanning the hashtag after seeing how it had been reclaimed, and the meaning and usage changed.

Decisions to be made by Facebook:

  • Is banning an entire hashtag appropriate?
  • When do you ban a hashtag associated with violence and bigotry?
  • How do you decide when to reverse such a ban, if the hashtag has been “reclaimed” by groups seeking to promote counter-messaging?
  • How do you avoid having that unbanned hashtag abused again at a later date?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • How do you create policies for situations that may change over time?
  • How do you handle situations in which the meanings of words and terms may change as other people make use of them?
  • Will banning hashtags or phrases act to prevent this kind of bottom up behavior?

Resolution: By moving quickly, Facebook and Instagram were able to relatively quickly allow for this viral response to reclaim the hashtag from the group. However, it remains an open question whether or not this usage will stay, or if the group will move to reclaim it as well, creating a constant cat & mouse scenario for a content moderation team.

Written by The Copia Institute, October 2020

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