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Louisiana Weekly

Facebook told about hate speech in secret groups for years

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Facebook says its standards apply just as much in private groups as public posts, prohibiting most slurs and threats based on national origin, sex, race and immigration status. But dozens of hateful posts in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents raise questions about how well if at all the company is policing disturbing postings and comments made outside of public view.

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By Ariana Tobin, ProPublica

Facebook says its standards apply just as much in private groups as public posts, prohibiting most slurs and threats based on national origin, sex, race and immigration status.

But dozens of hateful posts in a secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol agents raise questions about how well if at all the company is policing disturbing postings and comments made outside of public view.

Many of the posts ProPublica obtained from the 9,500-member “I’m 10-15” group (10-15 is Border Patrol code for “alien in custody”) include violent or dehumanizing speech that appears to violate Facebook’s standards. For example, a thread of comments before a visit to a troubled Border Patrol facility in Texas by Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, and Veronica Escobar, of Texas, included “fuck the hoes” and “No mames [fist].” Another post encouraged Border Patrol agents to respond to the Latina lawmakers visit by hurling a “burrito at these bitches.” And yet another mocked a video of a migrant man trying to carry a child through a rushing river in a plastic bag. A commenter joked, “At least it’s already in a trash bag” — all probable violations of the rules.

Facebook, citing an open federal investigation into the group’s activities, declined to answer questions about whether any posts in the 10-15 group violated its terms of service or had been removed, or whether the company had begun scrutinizing the group’s postings since ProPublica’s story was published. It also refused to say whether it had previously flagged posts by group members or had received complaints.

Facebook’s only response, emailed by a spokeswoman who refused to let ProPublica use her name, was: “We want everyone using Facebook to feel safe. Our Community Standards apply across Facebook, including in secret Groups. We’re cooperating with federal authorities in their investigation.”

Since April, the company has been calling community groups “the center of Facebook.” It has put new emphasis on group activity in the newsfeed and has encouraged companies, communities and news organizations to shift resources into private messaging. These forums can give members a protected space to discuss painful topics like domestic violence, or to share a passion for cookbooks. Groups can be either private, which means they can be found in search results, or secret, which means they are hidden unless you have an invitation.

This is part of an intentional “pivot toward privacy.” In a March blog post, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote, “Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally, which is why we build social networks.”

But this pivot also fosters hidden forums where people can share offensive, potentially inflammatory viewpoints. “Secret” groups such as 10-15 are completely hidden from non-members. Would-be participants need an invitation to even find the landing page, and administrators of the groups have full jurisdiction to remove a person’s access at any time.

When such groups operate out of sight, like 10-15, the public has a more limited view into how people are using, or misusing, the platform. In a secret group, only members can flag or report content that might be in violation of Facebook’s policies. The administrators of the group can set stricter policies for members’ internal conversations. They cannot, however, relax broader Facebook standards. They also can’t support terrorist organizations, hate groups, murderers, criminals, sell drugs or attack individuals.

Civil rights groups say they have been noticing and raising the issue of hateful posts in hidden forums for years — with limited response from Facebook.

Henry Fernandez, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and a member of Change the Terms, a coalition of civil rights groups pushing for better content moderation on Facebook, said the platform keeps creating features without “without vetting them for their implications for the use by hate groups or, in this case, Border Patrol agents acting in hateful ways.”

Posts in hidden groups have incited incidents of violence in the real world, most famously against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar and at the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. The military launched an investigation of a secret Facebook group in 2017 after Marines shared naked pictures of female service members. Facebook has acknowledged the problem and has made some efforts to address it with new initiatives, such as a proposed independent review board and consultations with a group of 90 organizations, most focusing on civil rights.

ProPublica’s Border Patrol story came out the day after Facebook released an audit of civil rights issues on the platform. Recommendations included strengthening hate speech policies around national origin, enforcing a stricter ban on the promotion of white supremacy and removing an exemption that had allowed humorous posts that contained offensive content.

Facebook did not say whether it will make all of the recommended changes. But in a blog post, COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote, “We will continue listening to feedback from the civil rights community and address the important issues they’ve raised so Facebook can better protect and promote the civil rights of everyone who uses our services.”

Jessica Gonzalez, vice president of strategy and senior counsel at Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms, said that even after the back and forth with auditors, she was not surprised that the hateful posts in 10-15 were not flagged.

“What Facebook released on Sunday is an improvement,” she said, “but I think Facebook has engaged in this all along in an appeasement strategy. They’ll do what they need to do to get the bad publicity off [their] backs.”

The civil rights audit also called for better transparency about civil rights issues on Facebook’s advertising portal, which became a priority for the company after multiple ProPublica investigations and lawsuits by civil rights groups.

Bhaskar Chakravorti, dean of global business at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Business, said the new emphasis on privacy is part of Facebook’s attempt to keep users on the platform, while reassuring investors.

So to the extent that Facebook provides shelter to groups of all kinds — whether they are people who are sharing hateful messages or messages for the good of the world — it benefits their business model.”

Since we published our story, more people have gotten in touch to tell us about other secret groups that may warrant closer scrutiny.

We know there are members of groups who don’t agree with everything that is said in these forums. We need your guidance to do more reporting. We’d like to hear about what’s happening in your communities particularly from those of you who are concerned public servants. Fill out our questionnaire, or send an email toborderpatrol@propublica.org.

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.

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Bahamians in New Orleans support island recovery

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, a group of New Orleanians with Bahamian roots has organized a donation drive to provide aid to the Bahamas. The local association, which calls itself the Bahamian-New Orleans Connection (BNOC), plans to direct the money it raises to the Ranfurly Homes for Children and the Bahamas Crisis Centre, two organizations dedicated, respectively, to supporting children and families displaced by the Category 5 storm, which devastated the northernmost islands of the Bahamas in early September.

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National flag of the Bahamas (Photo by: Steve Allen | Twenty20)

By Nicholas Hamburger

In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, a group of New Orleanians with Bahamian roots has organized a donation drive to provide aid to the Bahamas. The local association, which calls itself the Bahamian-New Orleans Connection (BNOC), plans to direct the money it raises to the Ranfurly Homes for Children and the Bahamas Crisis Centre, two organizations dedicated, respectively, to supporting children and families displaced by the Category 5 storm, which devastated the northernmost islands of the Bahamas in early September.

In addition to monetary donations, BNOC is collecting supplies such as non-perishable food, clothes and toiletries at Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church, located at 2120 North Roman St., in the hopes of filling a large container and shipping it to the Bahamas at the end of the month. Solid Rock will be open to receive donations from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on October 15, October 17 and October 19.

As an archipelagic country positioned on the fringe of the West Indies, the Bahamas is no stranger to hurricanes, but it has never confronted a natural disaster of Dorian’s scale. Indeed, after making landfall with record-tying winds, Dorian stalled over the Abaco Islands and Grand Bahama Island, inundating the northern part of the country for days. Sixty-one people have been confirmed dead and hundreds are missing; meanwhile, roughly half the population of Great Abaco Island remains displaced, and approximately 45 percent of the homes on Grand Bahama have been severely damaged or rendered uninhabitable.

According to members of BNOC, New Orleans could serve as a model of reconstruction for the Bahamas.

“As Bahamians who lived through the experience of Katrina, we have a vast knowledge to pass on to the Bahamian people,” said Dario Carey, the pastor of Solid Rock who came to New Orleans from the Bahamas in 1998. “It’s our job to provide Bahamians a map to navigate through these turbulent times.”

Formed last winter, BNOC consists of over a dozen Bahamians, all of whom immigrated to New Orleans within the past forty years. Before Dorian battered part of the archipelago, the primary purpose of the group was to unite the small number of people who live in New Orleans and hail from the Bahamas, a dual geography bridged by a notable cultural kinship.

“We look at New Orleans as an extension of the islands because the culture is very similar,” explained Alexina Medley, the former principal of Warren Easton High School and a native of Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. “For example, New Orleanians call it gumbo, we call it soup. They say jambalaya, we say peas and rice. They do couvillion, we do steamed fish on the stove.” Carey chimed in: “They call it Mardi Gras; we call it junkanoo.”

Economically, New Orleans and the Bahamas resemble each other as well, with tourism functioning as a crucial industry in both places. While Dorian has damaged the tourist capital of the country, Grand Bahama, Medley issued a piece of advice to holiday-makers reconsidering their upcoming visit to the country: “The Bahamas is not one big island; it’s a chain of islands. Don’t disregard the Bahamas because you feel as though it has been completely affected, when, in fact, the storm only hit two islands.”

Still, Dorian has left thousands of Bahamians without homes or jobs, the type of circumstances that often prompt migration. Given its proximity to the Bahamas, and its status as the country with the second-largest Bahamian population, the United States would be a fitting destination for Bahamian evacuees, but President Trump recently denied Temporary Protected Status to Bahamians seeking refuge in the U.S., breaking from American precedent.

Carey, however, does not envision a mass exodus from Grand Bahama or the Abacos.

“They’ll come to Florida to do some shopping,” he said, “and then they’ll be back in the Bahamas.” Medley concurred: “Bahamians are very proud, and they don’t travel far from home. If they come, I don’t see them staying, not in large numbers.”

In this way, Medley pointed out, Bahamians will likely also approximate New Orleanians, who largely returned to the city after being uprooted by Katrina in 2005. That year, and in the years that followed, Bahamians in Nassau raised a noteworthy amount of funds to assist recovery efforts in New Orleans. With the northern part of the Bahamas currently in need of aid, BNOC intends to reciprocate the generosity, nearly fifteen years later.

To donate directly to the Ranfurly Homes, visit www.ranfurlyhome.org, click “Support Ranfurly,” then click “Donate.” To donate directly to the Bahamas Crisis Centre, visit www.bahamascrisiscentre.org and click “Donate.” For more information on the Bahamian-New Orleans Connection relief effort, contact Dario Carey at (504) 342-8373.

This article originally published in the October 14, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly.

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Veterans take art therapy to heal PTSD

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — Participants at a day-long gathering last week that focused on ways artistic endeavors might offer needed therapy for troubled military veterans said such art programs could especially help veterans of color. However, at the Louisiana Military and Veterans Arts and Humanities Summit that was held Oct. 8 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, speakers, military officials and citizens concerned for the welfare of veterans, those involved in the day-long summit, said that negative stigmas might pose particular challenges for Black, Latino, Asian and other minorities working through battle trauma and other psychological disorders.

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Photo by: Sandi P. | Twenty20

By Ryan Whirty

Participants at a day-long gathering last week that focused on ways artistic endeavors might offer needed therapy for troubled military veterans said such art programs could especially help veterans of color.

However, at the Louisiana Military and Veterans Arts and Humanities Summit that was held Oct. 8 at the New Orleans Jazz Museum, speakers, military officials and citizens concerned for the welfare of veterans, those involved in the day-long summit, said that negative stigmas might pose particular challenges for Black, Latino, Asian and other minorities working through battle trauma and other psychological disorders.

“African Americans going through the healing process need to understand the value of the art,” said Nolen Bivens, a retired Army brigadier general and now president of Leader Six, a management and consulting firm involved with veterans programs.

“Art can give them the means to self-help,” he added, “that [art] can be natural to them, without a stigma.”

Attendees said that many veterans of color might view enthusiasm for the arts and humanities as a weakness or as something that’s foreign or unusual. But on the other hand, civilians and the general public might doubt the potential healing effects of art therapy for veterans, including those of color, said Xiaobin Tuo, an active-duty lieutenant in the Coast Guard.

Tuo said that mutual stigmatization and perceptual schism between the public and veterans needs to be bridged in order for veterans who have post traumatic stress disorder or other psychological and emotional scars from their service.

“How do you connect the public and veterans?” Tuo posed. “People have to get past their conceptions [of art therapy], and it does start with building those bridges.”

While those challenges remain to be conquered, one general theme of the summit last week was that Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, has always been a melting pot of culture and individual expression. Whether it’s by making music, painting murals or creating sculptures, the culture-rich city is a natural fit for art therapy programs for veterans.

Army veterans Ray Facundo, who gave a performance and testimonial at the gathering last week, said the summit will hopefully start a discussion about the benefits, funding and implementation of art therapy programs for veterans and even soldiers and officers still serving.

“Art is important,” Facundo said. “It’s not for everyone, but it is for folks who have something to say, whether they know it or not. Without this expression, there might be less opportunities to heal and to create a dialogue.”

Alejandra Juan, communications director and women veterans outreach coordinator for the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs, said later in the week that art therapy and art instruction can help bring service members closer to the people they protect.

“When a veteran can participate in the visual, musical and performing arts in his or her community, not only is this a step forward in that veteran’s journey back home, but that community gets to know our veterans personally,” Juan said.

“The arts afford all of our veterans – no matter their race, creed or branch of service – a place to tell their story, sing their song, paint their picture so that we here at home never forget what our veterans mean to our country – not only on the battlefield, but in what each veteran contributes when he or she comes back home,” Juan added.

Last week’s summit was organized by the office or Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, with involvement from the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs; the Louisiana Division of the Arts; the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities; Americans for the Arts; and several other organizations.

Featured speakers and moderators included Bivens; Air National Guard Brig. Gen. Mike Cushman; Alejandra Juan, retired Air National Guard officer and the communications director for the LDVA; Marete Wester, senior director of Arts, Policy, National Initiative for Arts & Health Across the Military and Creative Forces Military Healing Arts Network, Americans for the Arts; and Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities president and executive director Miranda Restovic.

Other highlights of the summit included a discussion, “National and State Perspectives: State of the Arts and Humanities across the Military Continuum,” a breakout session in which smaller groups brainstormed ways to enhance and promote arts therapy programs for veterans; and a musical and visual-art performance by David St. Roman, Doug Gay and Sarah Burke, members of the Veterans Songwriting Workshop and Songs of Survivors. Song of Survivors is a long-running, popular effort dedicated to creating and making music by veterans.

This article originally published in the October 14, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly.

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New visual book relives life and commerce along the Mississippi River

LOUISIANA WEEKLY — The murky, muddy waters of the Mississippi River go on for miles and can be seen treading beneath the many boats and barges that slowly crawl along the river, daily.

Award-winning photographer Richard Sexton spent two decades observing and documenting the river, its industrialization and how it continues to evolve as time goes. This project began as a sponsorship for a portfolio of industrial landscape but later turned into something more.

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Fishing in the flooded Bonnet Carré Spillway with moored tankers in background, near Norco (detail); 2015; © Richard Sexton; The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2015.0364.51

By Sydney Odom

The murky, muddy waters of the Mississippi River go on for miles and can be seen treading beneath the many boats and barges that slowly crawl along the river, daily.

Award-winning photographer Richard Sexton spent two decades observing and documenting the river, its industrialization and how it continues to evolve as time goes. This project began as a sponsorship for a portfolio of industrial landscape but later turned into something more.

On Sept. 17, the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC), a museum and research institute dedicated to the study and preservation of the history and culture of New Orleans, released “Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River,” a book chronicling the impact of industrialization between and along the Mississippi River’s banks over the past 20 years.

“New Orleans is here because of the river. I wanted to showcase that and let people decide what they think about it,” Sexton said.

The book features 100 black-and-white photographs showcasing the changes on and along the river’s bank, as well as how it has been integrated in everyday life. To accompany the release of the book, an exhibit of the images is on display at the HNOC’s exhibition center at 520 Royal St. until April 5, 2020. The exhibit uses some of the photos to highlight the development of the landscape. Both the exhibit and book contextualize the obvious but also complex uses of the Mississippi River.

The photos are organized geographically in the exhibit, starting in St. Bernard Parish and ending in Baton Rouge Parish. The section of the river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is one of the most economically dominant passages in the country.

“New Orleans is still a prominent city because of the economic development of the river,” Sexton said. The photos bring the river to the forefront and help spark aesthetic and critical discussions about life in the city. They raise debates on issues such as global warming and how industrialization has and is affecting the land and communities around it.

“The exhibit speaks to the changing relationship between humans and the landscape of the lower Mississippi over the last decades,” said Siobhan McKiernan, an associate editor for The Historic New Orleans Collection. The Collection felt it was necessary to display Sexton’s work because of the impact that it could have on understanding the community. The photos speak to the dramatic changes that cannot always be seen by just gazing at the river, McKiernan explained.

New Orleans is a port-city with tons of goods in transit every day. Large corporations take advantage of the easy access that the Mississippi River provides but do not consider the environmental cost that the locals may have to pay, McKiernan explained.

Sexton’s work portrays this through photography of the residential areas along the water. They highlight the growing erosion and depreciation of the land. The images are annotated with essays from author Paul Schneider, who has produced books on natural history, and John H. Lawrence, who contextualized Sexton’s images.

“A lot of people aren’t aware of the history of the river in Louisiana,” said Jenny Bagert, a resident who attended the exhibit launch on Sept. 17. The exhibit along with the book display the current history of the Mississippi River, one that is rarely shown to the public. Bagert added that she felt the images clearly show the evolution of southeastern Louisiana that residents do not normally get to see.

While many public conversations surround changes to the city’s more touristic parts, residents who attended the exhibit launch said there is a need for more documentation that reflects social and environmental changes that impact ordinary residents. Presenting Sexton’s photos in the Historic New Orleans Collection provided them a place for a conversation about the environment that is playing out in activism and policy making, particularly during disasters.

The exhibition and book not only seek to present information but also inspire change, residents said. “This has really been a wakeup call for me,” Bagert said.

“Enigmatic Stream” is available for purchase at The Shop at The Collection. Admission to the exhibition is free. Both the museum and the shop are open to the public Tuesday-Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. More information about the book, exhibit and HNOC online at www.hnoc.org.

This article originally published in the October 14, 2019 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

This article originally appeared in The Louisiana Weekly.

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