Don’t Feed the Trolls

A recent public controversy about how Facebook bans content and a June 28 column by Thomas B. Edsall, “Don’t Feed the Troll in the Oval Office,” illustrate the importance of how “racism” is defined.

As reported on September 20, Facebook bans content that affirms “white supremacy,” which it considers a “racist ideology based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore white people should be dominant over other races."

But Facebook allows “white nationalism” and “white separation.” Trying to take into account how their policies impact people around the world (such as the Zionist movement in Israel and the Basque movement in Spain), they believe white nationalism “doesn't seem to be always associated with racism (at least not explicitly.)” Many white nationalist groups say they’re not racist because they don’t consider other races inferior, but merely seek to ensure the survival of the white race and white culture.

In ‘White Nationalism,’ Explained” by Amanda Taub, The New York Times “The Interpreter” column reports:

While white nationalism certainly overlaps with white supremacy and racism, many political scientists say it is a distinct phenomenon…. Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck University in London, has spent years studying the ways that ethnicity intersects with politics…. Some will see the distinction between white nationalism and white supremacy as a semantic sleight of hand. But although many white supremacists are also white nationalists, and vice versa, Professor Kaufmann says the terms are not synonyms.

This issue relates to Facebook’s policy on hate speech, which is speech that’s “intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait.” Facebook declares, “Where there is hate, ...that sort of content, we would take down, and we would take it down from everybody.”

If Facebook is serious about banning hate speech, then it seems they should ban white nationalist groups on its platform that insult persons of color. Clearly there are many such Facebook groups that do so. And if Facebook is serious about banning racism, they should ban those groups that frequently post messages that assert that whites are inherently superior.

But Facebook seems to maintain groups in each of those two categories.

There’s no need, however, to ban all white nationalist groups because they affirm white nationalism. As I argued in “Racism: Language Matters,” the incorrect use of the term “racism” is counterproductive. Edsall makes that case in his excellent column. He argues:



The unpleasant reality is that a number of recent analyses based on psychological, sociological and political research provide a logical basis for the incendiary Trump-Miller-Bannon strategy.

[Trump and his allies] believe that they will thrive on repeated charges from the left that he and those who vote for him are racist….

Trump’s tactics are based on the conviction of many of his voters that opposition to immigration is not a form of racism. They deeply resent being called racist for anti-immigrant views they consider patriotic and, indeed, principled.

Most Democrats and liberals…do believe that opposition to immigration is racist [as documented by] Eric Kaufmann, a professor of political science at the University of London….

Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke, argues….

Allegations of racism no longer work to reduce support for the target of the accusation. Instead, such accusations are now tantamount to ‘crying wolf’ and have the opposite of their intended effect….

Jardina emailed:

I think it’s absolutely reasonable that many whites don’t think they hold racially prejudiced beliefs, even though by some social science measures, we think they do. Thus, when they’re accused of being “racist,” some whites either see the accusation as disingenuous, or they see it as a personal, unfounded attack, and they become defensive.

The danger of this new era,... Jardina argues

is that it may be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to effectively condemn politicians when they do in fact attempt to race bait, or when they express views that are racist or support policies that detrimental to racial and ethnic minorities.

...Kaufmann [wrote:]

Antiracist overreach on the immigration question arguably underlies the populist western backlash against elites. Cultural conservatives care deeply about the effects of immigration and resent being told their thoughts and voting behavior are racist. They hold elites responsible for enforcing antiracist norms — in the workplace, government and mainstream media — beyond the bounds of what they consider appropriate.

...Lisa Legault, Jennifer N. Gutsell and Michael Inzlicht … elaborate on the complexities of racism…. Long before Trump’s rise, they found that: “motivating people to reduce prejudice by emphasizing external control” resulted in worsening rather than lessening “explicit and implicit prejudice.”

Legault told an interviewer from the Association for Psychological Science:

Controlling prejudice reduction practices are tempting because they are quick and easy to implement. They tell people how they should think and behave and stress the negative consequences of failing to think and behave in desirable ways.

The problem is that such an approach to prejudice reduction can backfire, according to Legault:

People need to feel that they are freely choosing to be non-prejudiced, rather than having it forced upon them.

The authors conducted an experiment…[and] found that “participants in the autonomy-brochure condition displayed significantly less prejudice” after they read the brochure than those “who read the controlling brochure.”

Their conclusion? “This investigation exposed the adverse effects of pressuring people to be non-prejudiced.” Legault and her colleagues found that “strategies urging people to comply with anti-prejudice standards are worse than doing nothing at all” because they prompt “a reflexive, reactive effect that increased prejudice.”

...Kaufmann...argued in his 2017 paper that Democrats and liberals should consider a more nuanced strategy on the issue of immigration:

Pro-immigration forces should avoid using charges of racism to sideline discussions of ethno-demographic interests. Instead, they should accept the importance of cultural concerns but argue positively for immigration on humanitarian, national-interest or liberal grounds. They should cite assimilation data to reassure anxious majorities.

Faced with Trump as an adversary, Democrats and liberals must calculate carefully. One of the most important questions facing the American left is how complicit — albeit unwillingly and unconsciously — it has been in his rise. Insofar as the left engages in a war of incivility, it cedes the field of battle to a president who relishes uncivil combat. Plenty of open racists have joined Trump’s ranks, millions of them, but his supporters also include millions of men and women who believe they are not racist and who react in anger when they are reflexively accused of racism. No one knows what Trump’s ultimate intentions are — dangerous possibilities abound. For this reason and many others, liberals and Democrats should avoid stepping into Trump’s trap.



Some whites, who do not consider people of color to be inherently inferior, may prefer living in a predominantly white community for any number of reasons other than racism. They may merely be misinformed and consider immigrants an economic threat. They may not appreciate the value of cultural diversity. They may prefer avoiding the tension that can result from mixed-race interactions. It’s easier for civil-rights advocates to discuss these issues with them if they aren’t being accused of racism.

Even if all white nationalists were racists, it would not follow that they were racists because they affirm white nationalism. It does not follow that white nationalism is intrinsically racist, or that it is synonymous with racism.

There’s no need to get sucked into that diversionary, abstract, ideological, semantic argument. There’s no need to waste time on arguing about whether such people are racist. Just accept people on the basis of what they say explicitly, not what you infer. Facebook probably has more than enough reason to ban many or all white nationalist groups based on its hate-speech policy.

One reason this issue is important is that the loose use of the term “racist” makes it easier for politicians to build power by complaining about “political correctness.” Yes, all whites have a white racial worldview, and at least most of us have unconscious biases. But it overstates the case to say that all whites are racists, as does Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism. More precise language would undercut the manipulations employed by power-hungry politicians.

“Political correctness” is a term that originally emerged on the left because many leftists claim they’re more “pure” than other leftists. More broadly, there’s a tendency throughout society for people to claim moral superiority based on their beliefs. That’s one way the System operates to divide and conquer.

Loosely throwing around the label “racist” is one example. Doing so  may be a source of gratification, but undoing that tendency will help nurture a more compassionate society.