Another day, another potentially racist dog whistle from our president and his representatives. This time, Facebook — which has been reluctant to take on problematic content from Trump, unlike social media peer Twitter — is taking action and removing it from the platform.
On Wednesday, the Trump campaign placed 88 ads on Facebook — 88 is a number with Nazi connotations — that featured a symbol used by Nazis to denote political prisoners in concentration camps. The Trump campaign denied the reference to any Nazi symbols was intentional and deactivated the ads on Wednesday. (Deactivating the ads meant that they could still be seen on the pages of Trump and others, but Facebook was no longer placing the ads in users’ timelines.) Following tweets and reports about the ads, Facebook removed them on Thursday for violating its policy against “using a banned hate group’s symbol,” the company told Recode.
The symbol in question is an upside-down red triangle, which accompanies text about “dangerous mobs” of “far-left groups” causing mayhem in cities. The ad then asks readers to stand with President Trump against antifa. It ran on pages for Trump, Vice President Pence, and Trump’s official campaign.
Nazis used different colors of upside-down triangles sewn onto clothing to categorize concentration camp prisoners. The pink triangle, used to denote gay people, is perhaps the best known of these, as it was later reclaimed by the LGTBQ community. Red triangles were used for political prisoners, such as people believed to be communists or social democrats.
The Auschwitz Memorial tweeted its own explanation of the symbol, including an image of it on a camp uniform.
A red triangle that marked ‘political prisoners’ was the most common category of prisoners registered at the German Nazi #Auschwitz camp.
In August 1944, political prisoners constituted 95 percent of camp prisoners’. A letter inside the triangle could mark the nationality. pic.twitter.com/jBuNn0xmL1
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) June 18, 2020
Though the use of red triangles was, as the tweet says, very common, it’s not very well-known. But the use of a red triangle as an antifa symbol, which is what the Trump campaign claimed it was meant to be, is even more obscure.
Though the campaign said on Twitter that the upside-down red triangle is “widely used” by antifa, it’s not. The image most closely associated with the group is of a red and black flag. Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, told the New York Times that the triangle was not an antifa symbol, adding that its Nazi origins actually represented a “death threat against leftists.”
When asked for evidence of widespread use of the upside-down red triangle, the Trump campaign pointed to a poster being sold on a website that specializes in merchandise with user-submitted images on it. The campaign also pointed out that there is an upside-down red triangle emoji.
But that’s not all. Adding to claims that using a Nazi symbol was deliberate is the fact that the campaign ran exactly 88 ads featuring the symbol. The number 88 is a known code for “Heil Hitler.” According to Facebook’s ad library, the campaign placed 30 red triangle ads on the Team Trump page, 30 on Trump’s page, and 28 on Pence’s page. Those add up to 88. It’s certainly possible that the Trump campaign’s decision to go with a very specific number of ads — a number that also happens to have Nazi connections — is a coincidence. Facebook clearly doesn’t think so.
It should be noted that the Trump campaign also placed ads with the same wording but with different symbols attached. These symbols, which include a stop sign, a “slow” sign, and other shapes with warning exclamation points in them, do not appear to have any immediate Nazi reference built in. Similar numbers of those ads were placed on the three pages.
“Whether aware of the history or meaning, for the Trump campaign to use a symbol — one which is practically identical to that used by the Nazi regime to classify political prisoners in concentration camps — to attack his opponents is offensive and deeply troubling,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “It is not difficult for one to criticize their political opponent without using Nazi-era imagery. We implore the Trump campaign to take greater caution and familiarize themselves with the historical context before doing so.”
While Facebook has given Trump and his campaign a long leash in the past, they have run afoul of its ad rules before. In March, the platform removed ads that promoted a “census” (it was a campaign survey) that some users could mistake for the official US census. This was part of Facebook’s big push against census misinformation. Facebook also took down a campaign ad that contained copyrighted music.
Trump and his surrogates have been caught using more obvious dog whistles in the past. Some of these references were so blatant that they don’t really qualify as dog whistles at all. Most famous among them might be the image showing a Star of David next to a picture of Hillary Clinton and money. (Trump claimed the symbol was meant to be a sheriff star, but later replaced it with a circle.)
Trump has also retweeted accounts associated with Nazism and claims of “white genocide,” including one literally called WhiteGenocideTM. He also tweeted an image of supposed crime statistics that said 81 percent of murders of white people were committed by black people and 97 percent of black murders were committed by black people. These statistics were inaccurate and attributed to a “crime statistics bureau” that doesn’t exist. The image also showed a dark-skinned man holding a gun.
It’s possible that the symbol and the number of ads were a coincidence, given the obscurity of the triangle and the fact that the number of ads was spread across three accounts. But given Trump’s past with racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic imagery on social media, it’s pretty tough to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt now. Facebook didn’t.
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