Facebook is Shaping the Cultural Understanding of Symbols
The social network removed Trump ads that included a symbol used by the Nazis. What does it mean when a corporate company determines the cultural meaning of a visual symbol?
Social networks, more than ever, are at the center of attention as the American public fights racism and calls for them to curtail violent content on their platforms. Lately, Facebook removed dozens of advertisements by the Trump campaign that included a symbol once used by the Nazis to classify political prisoners in concentration camps during World War II. Facebook removed the ads amid a public outcry, saying the imagery violated company policy. The symbol, an inverted red triangle, appeared alongside the campaign’s warning about a threat posed by Antifa and “far-left groups.”
The Nazis used the inverted triangles as identifying badges that were sewn into the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners. The Nazis used numerous colors of triangles to identify the reason prisoners were jailed in concentration camps. For example, the green triangle was for convicts and criminals; the black triangle denoted mentally disabled people, alcoholics, Lesbians, and Roma and Sinti women (Gypsies); the pink triangle symbolized gay men, bisexual and trans people, and sexual offenders. Meanwhile, red triangles were used to identify political prisoners: social democrats, liberals, socialists, communists, anarchists, gentiles who assisted Jewish people, and more.
The red triangle appeared in paid posts sponsored by President Trump, Vice president Pence, and the “Team Trump” campaign page, asking users to sign a petition about Antifa. Before taking down the ads, they gained more than a million impressions across the Facebook pages belonging to President Trump and Vice President Pence. The spokesman for the Trump campaign defended the use of the symbol. He argued that the red triangle is an Antifa symbol and that Facebook has an inverted red triangle emoji in use, which looks the same. Facebook’s decision to move against the Trump ads came after a public outcry and calls by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The Trump campaign had a twist in its answer that was broadly overlooked. Tim Murtaugh, the Trump campaign spokesman, noted that the triangle is not included in the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols. The ADL condemned the use of the symbol and explained its database is not designed to serve for historical curation, but rather to identify symbols used by modern extremists and white supremacists in the United States. However, the Trump campaign was arguing that the symbol exists, but it represents something else than what Facebook has decided, and that is not registered as hate speech.
What is a Symbol?
A symbol is something used to represent something else. A symbol is a combination of two things: the expression (could be visual, audio, etc.) or external manifestation, and meaning (for example, could be material like an organization or intangible like an idea or feeling) that the expression is describing. These things are separate. It is their combination that creates a new understanding (think of using a red heart to symbolize love).
A symbol could be a material object or immaterial like a sign, a letter, a word, a phrase, or an image, which suggests something else by association or cultural convention. The connection could be conscious or unconscious and is usually culturally accepted. Both words and objects exist, but it’s their combination that creates their unique meaning. Examples of symbols are the Peace Symbol, red roses to signify love, and the GOP’s elephant and the DNC’s donkey. An understanding of symbols provides us with a conceptual, cultural map that shapes our understanding of the material world.
The Trump campaign argued that the inverted red triangle’s meaning is negotiable, was not officially declared as hate speech, and could be interpreted freely. Following the current absurd discourse of ‘alternative facts,’ the underlying argument is that the triangle is just a triangle, and no one owns its ‘real’ meaning.
When Facebook took down the ads, it had determined the cultural meaning and importance of the red triangle symbol, identifying it as hate speech. It declared its meaning as the one the Nazis used to identify prisoners, which is in line with the dominant cultural understanding.
What does it mean when a commercial company determines the cultural meanings of symbols?
Facebook has long been viewed as a version of the classic ‘town hall’ and hosts much of the world’s public speech. Its interpretation of the symbol and recognition of its importance is an interesting step in social networks’ cultural effect in shaping the public discourse.
Different from previous cases of Facebook’s and Twitter’s involvement in adding warnings about manipulated media or glorifying violence, this case focuses on the cultural understanding of symbols. Whereas previous cases dealt with the dichotomous consideration of right and wrong in the presentation of factual data, the case of the inverted red triangle is different. Here, it is the cultural consensus that determined the current meaning of the symbol, and that is the accepted context in which to judge the symbol. It is a matter of cultural context and historical memory. This is why Facebook’s initial impression was that the symbol did not break the company’s rules and that there are enough common interpretations of the triangle to argue it does not provide a clear context that incites violence.
Ultimately, Facebook chose the culturally dominant interpretation of the symbol and made the right decision to take down this expression of hate speech. It should have done more to fight racism long ago. The way to fight hate speech, racism, and violence is to eliminate it from the public sphere and educate people about its history and meaning. Fighting racism means defining the meaning and context of tropes, phrases, and visual symbols. The interpretation of symbols portrays the acceptable moral boundaries of a society.
This means returning to the public discourse of truth and opposing the trend to see truth as something that exists ‘in the eyes of the beholder’ or as a cultural interpretation. The understanding of truth as not being subject to interpretation is necessary to eradicate violence. This is not about the political correctness trend, which has been criticized lately; this is about setting boundaries of right and wrong based on historical atrocities, like the Holocaust.
At the same time, it is important to remember that Facebook is a commercial company with interests of its own. It is not enough that, in this case, the company stood on the right side of history and prevented Nazi symbols from spreading. The company must continue to monitor hate speech and violence.
In these turbulent times, when the White House is sending divisive messages, and the public is looking for solace and justice while fighting a pandemic, Corporate America became the unifying voice, leading social and cultural recognition of the public’s demands for equality and confronting racism. By doing that, Corporate America is taking a stand and maintaining its cultural dominance.
Facebook is doing the same here. By determining the cultural understanding of the symbol, the company accepts its historical context and maintains the company’s role as a cultural moderator at the same time. Facebook took the symbol from its historical and academic context and embedded it in the modern public culture. This time, Facebook made the right call, even if long overdue. Although Facebook is reluctant to moderate speech and become the ‘arbiters of truth,’ as Mark Zuckerberg recently said, it seems they don’t have a choice. When it comes to explicit threats of violence and racism, the truth does not need any arbitration.
The public discussion about symbols and their cultural meaning will not disappear. Within this discussion, the role of civil society organizations that research, interpret, and educate about racism and anti-Semitism is crucial. Society, philanthropists, and the public must strengthen their position and influence. We must be prepared to honor the memory of the victims of racism and hate, as well as protect the public’s virtual ‘town hall’ by preventing such hateful discourse from taking place.