Facebook has blocked at least 17 pages belonging to three different far-right networks with names like Unidad Nacional Española (Spanish National Unity), Todos contra Podemos (Everyone against Podemos) and Lucha por España (Fight for Spain).
The pages were coordinated from Barcelona and Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. Together the pages had approximately 1.5 million followers and had racked up more than seven million interactions since the beginning of the year. The takedown, which comes just days ahead of the Spanish general election on April 28, is one of the decisions with the most serious political consequences that Facebook has made in Spain.
[A network] of this magnitude could influence the electoral process in Spain
Christoph Schott, director of Avaaz campaigns
In a press release, the social media giant said the decision to take down the pages was not based “on the content they shared,” but rather on the actions of the page coordinators, who used duplicate and fake accounts, behavior that violates Facebook rules. The page Lucha por España, for example, was taken down for its numerous name changes. Since 2013, it has been successively called Mirarpeliculasgratis.com (Watchfreefilms.com), Mirar películas (Watch films) and Películas de España (Movies of Spain).
The removal of the far-right pages was instigated by an investigation by the activist organization Avaaz. On April 12, the NGO presented a report to Facebook outlining how the networks were breaching the platform’s rules. According to Christoph Schott, the director of Avaaz campaigns, a far-right network “of this magnitude could influence the electoral process in Spain.” While it is difficult to measure the influence of these accounts, they allowed far-right groups to share messages not found in traditional media with hundreds of thousands of people.
The network Unidad Nacional Española had more than one million followers and ran pages with names like Orgullo nacional (National pride), Ejército español (Spanish army), Adelante España (Onwards Spain) and Barcelona se queda en España (Barcelona stays in Spain). The only page coordinator identified by Avaaz was Javier Capdevila Grau, a well known far-right activist from the outskirts of Barcelona. In a message on his Twitter account, Grau questioned why the pages were taken down: ”Is it normal for Facebook to block and remove accounts without giving an explanation?”
In a conversation with EL PAÍS, Grau denied that the networks used fake or duplicate accounts. “I think they have blocked me so that I can’t influence these elections,” he said. “I am a moderate and respectful person, my publications have never been susceptible to censorship.”
Grau’s main page, with a reach of 760,000 followers, shared memes, links and comments, including posts that cast doubt on the origin of the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire and links to fake news articles on websites like El Diestro and Caso Aislado.
I am a moderate and respectful person, my publications have never been subject to censorship
Page coordinator Javier Capdevila Grau
“No one has the right to censure or manipulate information at the service of the powerful who want to control everything in order to have absolute power,” said Grau.
Antonio Leal, the coordinator of the Facebook pages Todos contra Podemos (Everyone against Podemos), Todos contra Pedro Sánchez (Everyone against Pedro Sánchez), Apretando tuercas (Tightening the screws) and Zarote TV, also thought that Facebook’s actions were an “attack” against “freedom of communication.” In a statement to EL PAÍS, Leal said the social media network did not explain why the six pages were taken down.
Leal, who is from Lanzarote, used his pages to share offensive memes. In one meme, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Party (PSOE) is depicted as “the great Caganer,” a traditional figure in popular Catalan culture depicted in the act of defecation, with the message: “If you don’t want this cheeky devil to defecate on you, don’t vote for PSOE.”
In an official press release, Facebook insisted its focus is on “protecting the integrity of the elections in Spain, Europe and the rest of the world.”
English version by Melissa Kitson.