In the wake of the mass shootings in El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH — not to mention President Trump’s numerous highly incendiary statements on the tragedies — there’s been an increased scrutiny of the role of social media in spreading false information about the attacks. In their response, it’s understandable that social platforms would be more aggressive about their censorship protocols. But in their effort to eliminate violent content and misinformation, some platforms have arguably taken too broad a view of their own community guidelines.
On Friday morning, satirical cartoonist and editor of the Nib Matt Bors tweeted a comic he had previously posted on Instagram. The comic depicts a mass shooter entering a mall with a screed detailing his fanatical beliefs, and an anti-fascist protester in a bandana throwing a beverage in his face — a reference to milkshaking, the tactic of dumping milkshakes on far-right figures used by anti-fascist protesters. The comic shows police arresting the protester and apologizing to the shooter, saying, “Sorry sir, these violent antifa are everywhere,” using the term for a loosely organized group of opponents of fascism. Nearby, a man in a suit and tie wags his finger, saying, “Call it what it is: domestic terrorism!”
Like some of Bors’s other work, the comic was intended to satirize right-wing rhetoric that places the blame for mass shootings on radical left-wing protestors, despite mounting evidence that white supremacist-motivated violence is on the rise. It skewers the circular logic that anti-fascism is the cause of violence, rather than fascism itself — or in this case, that milkshakes protesting gun violence pose more of a threat than actual guns. Instagram, however, apparently disagreed, interpreting it as a call for violence. “Instagram removed this comic from my account for promoting violence and dangerous organizations,” Bors said in a tweet that garnered hundreds of likes and shares.
Instagram removed this comic from my account for promoting violence and dangerous organizations. https://t.co/z4pXfr9bny
— Matt Bors (@MattBors) August 9, 2019
In a direct message to Rolling Stone, Bors says he was inspired to draw the comic after reading reports that the accused El Paso shooter had published a manifesto delineating his white supremacist views and saying that he was motivated by the “invasion” of Mexicans into Texas, a direct echo of the rhetoric used by President Trump and other far-right, anti-immigration pundits. In the wake of previous white nationalist shootings at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, and at a synagogue in Poway, California, the attack was an instance of “yet another white supremacist who seemed to be listening closely to Trump’s constant incitement of racial violence and white genocide speeches,” says Bors. The shooter’s statement also noted that he was inspired by the “invasion” of Mexicans into Texas, a phrase used frequently by Trump and other xenophobic right-wing figures.
By contrast, though he did not release a text explaining his attack, the accused Dayton shooter had some leftist political beliefs, expressing his support for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on his social media accounts. Dayton officials have said they do not believe the shooting was politically motivated and the Dayton shooter had a demonstrated obsession with guns and a history of making extremely violent, misogynistic threats. However, many on the right took his political affiliation as evidence that he was a member of antifa. (There is no evidence to suggest the Dayton shooter was directly involved with anti-fascist organizing activity.) Trump echoed this rhetoric in comments to reporters earlier this week, saying, “I am concerned about the rise of any group of hate … whether it’s white supremacy, whether it’s any other kind of supremacy, whether it’s Antifa, whether it’s any group of hate I’m very concerned about it and I’ll do something about it.”
Bors was infuriated by this false equivalency. “Antifa dumps a milkshake on some incel chud and we hear about how fascism is taking over the country from the left,” he says, “while multiple terrorist attacks and pogroms inspired by the president go mostly unremarked upon by major media outlets.” He posted the comic on August 7, and received the message from Instagram this morning, which said the cartoon violated the platform’s community guidelines against promoting “violence or dangerous organizations.” (When Rolling Stone reached out for comment, Instagram responded, “This content was removed in error and has now been restored.”)
The scapegoating of antifa by the right in the wake of the mass shootings plays into a larger, increasingly heated conversation about what dangers, if any, are posed by anti-fascist protesters. Some anti-fascist protesters have engaged in violence at rallies, as evidenced by an attack on far-right journalist and provocateur Andy Ngo at a Portland rally last June, which drew widespread criticism on both sides of the political aisle and led Sen. Ted Cruz to call for legislation classifying antifa as a domestic terrorist group. (Anti-fascist protesters have claimed that all violent acts are conducted in self-defense.) But many on the left claim the parallels the right has drawn between antifa and violent far-right extremists are a false equivalency, pointing out that the demonization of antifa is a distraction from larger issues of gun control and the rise of white supremacy, and that anti-fascist protesters do not commit violence on nearly the same scale as white supremacists. FBI director Christopher Wray has supported this argument, telling lawmakers at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last month that the majority of domestic terrorism cases “are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
“Regardless of what you think of [anti-fascist protesters’] politics of confrontation, I think it’s easy to see how this is a terrible overreach that will define broad swaths of left-wing resistors as criminal terrorists,” says Bors.
Bors says that this is not the first time one of his comics has been pulled from both his personal account and the Nib, saying that he’s more likely to see it happen in response to trolls reporting comics that address trans issues or neo-Nazis. “Instagram seems to automatically comply and remove art work at the whims of trolls,” Bors says. It’s unclear whether Instagram moderators took down the comic due to its depiction of guns or milkshakes, but the platform has long drawn criticism for arbitrarily enforcing its guidelines, receiving backlash for censoring ads for a magazine featuring LGBTQ models of color on the grounds that they violated its policy prohibiting the promotion of sex work. (The publication was not centered around sex work, nor were the models in the ads sex workers.)
In that case, as is the case with most conflicts involving Instagram and censorship — including this one — the platform contended that the removal of the ads was in error, and that due to its enormous user base, it is impossible to individually assess every instance of potential policy violations on the platform when a post is reported. The lack of transparency regarding the platform’s algorithm and moderation tools makes it nearly impossible to determine whether or not this is true. But given that this particular instance of censorship involved the removal of a satirical cartoon in an already-heated political climate, the stakes feel higher. “Clearly these platforms need to revise both their standards and the process by which they implement them,” says Bors. “The reporting tools are clearly abused by trolls and they’re unwilling to employ the amount of people necessary to give it a thoughtful review rooted in politics that aren’t complete shit.”