As Afghan refugees flee the country following the Taliban takeover, xenophobic narratives are spreading widely on Facebook. Despite the platforms’ claim to “prohibit the use of harmful stereotypes” and to protect refugees from “the most severe attacks,” racist rhetoric that seemingly violates Facebook’s policy is rampant in both public and private groups.
These attacks on Afghan refugees come amid the American military’s withdrawal from the country and the Taliban’s rapid advance, which has resulted in a humanitarian crisis for more than half a million people displaced from their homes since January. With the United States' final withdrawal from the country completed on August 31, numbers show that “approximately 116,700 people have been airlifted out of Afghanistan” in recent weeks, many of whom allied with the United States over the previous two decades of war.
Now, as the U.S. occupation officially ends, users have taken to Facebook to promote xenophobic conspiracy theories and racist stereotypes about Afghan refugees as potential terrorists bent on harming the U.S. In reality, though much information has not been publicly released, government officials say they are conducting a thorough vetting process of refugees coming into the country from Afghanistan.
Some Facebook posts assert that terrorists will attempt to sneak in alongside Afghans seeking asylum. In “Back Boris,” a public group with over 41,000 members, one user wrote, “The Taliban will definitely send some of their supporters to the West posing as refugees. They will fight us in our own country.” (This post received over 1,000 reactions and more than 500 comments.) This narrative has also spread to right-wing media including Breitbart, where an article titled “Report: Up to 100 Afghans Seeking Resettlement in U.S. ‘Flagged’ by Terrorism Watch Lists” has received over 13,000 interactions on Facebook, according to the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
Other Facebook users claimed that Biden “surrendered Afghanistan to terrorists” and that only a small portion of people who were evacuated were U.S. citizens, claiming there was “NO VETTING. How many terrorists will Joe Biden bring to America?” Right-wing outlets like The Federalist have shared similar narratives which then spread on Facebook, with one such article accumulating over 1,700 interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) across both public and private posts on the platform.
Users are also leveraging xenophobic conspiracy theories to promote other misinformed right-wing narratives, especially those surrounding COVID-19 vaccinations and the U.S.- Mexico border policy. And some have even threatened violence, suggesting that users should arm themselves to “defend” their communities against Afghan refugees.
Though the platform allows discussion of immigration policies, the consistent attacks in which a whole population of people are smeared with dangerous stereotypes seemingly violate Facebook’s hate speech policy, which prohibits attacks based on national origin.
Disregarding its own policies on anti-immigrant rhetoric is not new for the platform, as a 2019 study in the European Journal of Communication found:
In short, commercial platforms such as Facebook provide spaces for xenophobic, racist and nationalistic discourse online, and they shape antagonistic (Farkas et al., 2018) attitudes towards immigrants. Moreover, through their large size, they affect mainstream discourses on immigration and refugees, and contribute to a normalization of previously marginalized types of utterances, attitudes and opinions. Anti-immigration groups and publics on commercial social networking services (SNSs) also seem to amplify xenophobic and racist attitudes among their participants.
Facebook is facing no accountability for the malicious content about Afghan refugees that is circulating on its platform, once again showing the company’s failure to stem the spread of misinformation, even in times of crisis.