Facebook has taken down the controversial page of an Ocean County group that has been accused of posting racist and anti-Semitic content, 10 months after the New Jersey attorney general’s office first called out the site for hate speech.
In a post on its website, Rise Up Ocean County (RUOC) decried the removal by the social media platform of its Facebook page Wednesday morning as “arbitrary and capricious” and asserted, as the group’s anonymous leaders have in the past, that there was “no hint of anti-Semitism” in posts to the page by its administrators. The group contends it opposes overdevelopment and growth in Lakewood and surrounding Ocean County communities and not the group it says is largely responsible for that — the Orthodox Jewish community.
State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal disputes that contention. Last spring, his office first asked Facebook to monitor RUOC’s page as it announced renewed efforts to combat a rise in reported hate crimes and new guidelines that expanded the definition of bias incidents. These continue to climb in the state, with preliminary data released by Grewal last month showing a one-year jump of 65% in reported bias incidents, for a total of 944 in 2019.
On Jan. 3, after RUOC’s Facebook page was down briefly but then republished, a joint statement from Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy contended that the group had “an explicit goal of preventing Orthodox Jews from moving to Ocean County” and indicated that the state had followed up with Facebook that week, expressing continuing “concerns” over the page.
Shortly after Facebook removed the page Wednesday, Grewal and Murphy contended in a joint statement that RUOC’s page had been violating the social media platform’s terms of service for months.
“We appreciate that Facebook has now decided that this kind of hateful rhetoric has no place on its platform,” the statement read. “There remains much that should be done to stop the spread of hate on the Internet. The Murphy Administration will continue to call out hate whenever and wherever we see it, we will persist in demanding meaningful reforms to address the proliferation of hate online, and we will continue working to make New Jersey a safe and inclusive place for all of our residents.”
Facebook had been monitoring for months
The original letter on April 5, 2019 from Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the state Division on Civil Rights, to Facebook chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg cited examples of content on the RUOC page that she contended promoted violence against Orthodox Jews, including, “We need to get rid of them like Hitler did,” “when they resist, bulldoze them” and “…the gang war has begun.”
Facebook, which has established community standards that include a ban on hate speech, had been monitoring RUOC periodically over the past few months and had removed some posts leading up to its action Wednesday.
“Upon further review we have determined this page violates our community standards for hate speech and have removed it from the platform,” said Daniel Roberts, a Facebook company spokesman.
But a member of RUOC, who declined to identify himself because he said he has “serious concerns about our safety,” said in an interview the group has not posted anything that could be considered offensive in the last five weeks, when he said Facebook alerted the page administrators of concerns but said they did not warrant unpublishing the page. He called the social media platform’s action “draconian.”
Facebook has gotten more aggressive in removing hate speech over the last two years, according to company statistics. Between July and September 2019, the company took action against 7 million pieces of content; before that, content had been flagged as offensive or inappropriate by a member of the public 80% of the time. A user can appeal an action and that happened about 20% of the time in the third quarter of last year. But of those 1.4 million appeals, fewer than 170,000 pieces of content were restored — a restoration rate of about 12%.
RUOC appealed Facebook’s unpublishing its page within an hour of the page going dark Wednesday, according to a blog post on the group’s website. Titled “The Heavy Hand of Censorship (and Governor Murphy),” the post includes a screenshot of its Facebook page with the message from the platform stating, “Your Page has been unpublished for using hate speech, which goes against the Facebook Community Standards.”
Group has appealed to Facebook
That blog post included the text of its appeal to Facebook, signed by the Rise Up Ocean County Admin Team. The appeal cites three tiers of hate speech outlined by Facebook and contends its page violated none of them.
“We have in fact exercised great caution in OUR posts and OUR comments to insure that at all times we complied with Facebook community standards,” the appeal states. “The platform is too valuable to our efforts to risk losing it.
“Over the last month you will note that our posts have softened, this has been by design as we are transitioning from an informational resource to an action resource,” the appeal continued. “We have deliberately steered away from controversial topics, all in an effort to respect the rules put in place by Facebook.”
The group stated that it policed its page vigorously to take down inappropriate comments, and at the end of the day, “it is also our understanding that our responsibility to abide by Facebook community standards applies only to OUR commentary so as you can see, we do go the extra mile to insure that we are not what we have been accused of being by the Governor and Attorney General.”
The RUOC spokesman said he does not expect Facebook to republish the page, but that the group is reinvigorating its presence on other platforms, including its website, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
‘All you did was unshackle us’
“All you did was unshackle us,” he said. “We lived by the Facebook community standards. These don’t apply to other platforms.”
The group states on its website that it “was founded on the simple belief that the continued, unchecked growth in Lakewood is contributing to diminished quality of life in the surrounding communities of Toms River, Jackson, Brick and Howell.”
Development and population growth in Lakewood far exceed those in the state as a whole. The latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau estimate the township’s population at more than 104,000 in 2018. That’s more than 11,000, or 11%, higher than in 2010. Data from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs shows close to 1,600 building permits for new homes issued in Lakewood in 2017, 2018 and the first 11 months of last year.
The RUOC spokesman said one Lakewood leader estimated the township’s population will rise to as much as 240,000 by 2030.
“How can that community possibly survive?” the man asked. “That will ultimately destroy Ocean County.”
The growth of the Orthodox population appears to have contributed to financial problems in the Lakewood school district, which led it to close briefly over the summer when it did not receive $30 million in state aid Murphy had proposed. Because most of the township’s Jewish children attend religious or private schools and public school districts must provide busing or a transportation stipend for private school students, the district spends more than $31 million on transportation alone.
RUOC’s spokesman said the group is not prejudiced against Orthodox Jews because of their religious or cultural beliefs but opposes “the influx of residents and what that means for the environment.”