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Border Patrol Condemns Secret Facebook Group, But Reveals Few Specifics

 

Long known for its insular culture and tendency toward secrecy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is saying little in the aftermath of news reports exposing a vulgar and hateful Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents, including supervisors.

While CBP officials have publicly condemned the offensive social media posts, they’ve disclosed few details about the steps the agency has taken to identify employees who behaved inappropriately online and hold them accountable.

The agency, which is responsible for policing the nation’s borders and official ports of entry, declined to say how many employees CBP has disciplined or how many remain under investigation.

In response to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson would only say that “several” employees had been placed on restricted duty as a result of postings in the three-year-old Facebook group, and that so far no one had been suspended from the patrol, a more serious disciplinary action. The agency would not say whether the agents now on restricted duty are allowed to have contact with the public, and it refused to answer questions about specific agents who appear to have made posts celebrating sexual violence and demeaning migrants and women.

The “majority of employees who have been positively identified” as being active in the Facebook group have been issued letters instructing them stop posting objectionable material, said the spokesperson, who declined to specify how many people had received the letters, described as “cease and desist” notices.

“This secrecy is unacceptable,” said Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and representative for San Antonio. “This secrecy is dangerous to human life. CBP is perhaps the least transparent law enforcement agency in the country.”

ProPublica last week revealed the existence of the secret 9,500-member Facebook group, called “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the Border Patrol code for “alien in custody.” In the private group, current and former Border Patrol agents, including supervisors, mocked dead migrants, called congresswomen “scum buckets,” and uploaded misogynistic images, including an illustration of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a harsh critic of CBP, engaged in oral sex with a migrant in a detention facility. A later story by The Intercept published additional graphic posts from the group and information about its members.

CBP policies bar employees from making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures” about any person or group on private or public social media.

Among those who apparently made egregious posts is Thomas Hendricks, a 20-year veteran of the Border Patrol who serves as a supervisor of the Calexico station, a desert outpost in Southern California’s Imperial County. Hendricks — or someone using his Facebook account — uploaded a photo illustration of President Donald Trump forcing the head of Ocasio-Cortez toward his crotch. The image was accompanied by a cryptic message that appeared to refer to prior issues within the patrol: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned.”

Hendricks did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.

An agent at the Alamogordo station in New Mexico, Mario Marcus Ponce, apparently described Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Texas, both Democrats, as “hoes” in a discussion in the Facebook group. Ponce did not answer calls and text messages from ProPublica.

CBP would not discuss the current status of Hendricks and Ponce or two other agents identified by ProPublica. “We cannot comment on individual cases,” the CBP spokesperson said.

Unlike many big city police departments, the Border Patrol generally divulges little information about agents found to have engaged in misconduct or those involved in shooting incidents. At times, the agency has refused even to reveal the names of agents facing trial on criminal corruption charges.

“They are not used to being questioned. They are not used to be scrutinized,” said Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has been studying the border since 1982.

The Facebook group, he said, is “an indicator of broader problems” within the Border Patrol. “There is an attitude within CBP and Border Patrol that everybody crossing the border is invading the United States and coming to do bad things,” he said.

While Heyman noted that there is little solid statistical data on the views held by Border Patrol agents, he pointed to a survey of approximately 1,100 migrants who’d been deported to Mexico. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they’d been verbally abused by U.S. government employees, primarily Border Patrol. “It is an enormous number,” said Heyman, director of the school’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies.

In a statement issued last week, Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said the Facebook images and comments aren’t representative of the patrol as a whole. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out,” she said. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

At least two oversight bodies are now looking into the conduct of Border Patrol agents on social media. One inquiry is being led by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, essentially an internal affairs unit staffed with professional investigators.

In Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, led by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings has opened an investigation and committee staffers are currently gathering facts. Cummings has requested that Kevin McAleenan, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security — CBP’s parent organization — testify before the committee this week about “racist, sexist, and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents,” as well as reports of inhumane conditions and severe overcrowding at CBP detention facilities.

The congressman has also instructed Facebook to turn over digital evidence related to the group. “The Committee requests that you preserve all documents, communications, and other data related to the ‘I’m 10-15’ group. This includes log files and metadata,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.

At the House Homeland Security Committee, chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, has called on the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security to mount an investigation into the Facebook group.

The inspector general’s office would not comment on whether it has opened an inquiry.

For his part, Castro said he intends to ask some questions of his own. “I am going to set up a call with Secretary McAleenan to have a conversation about the discipline and accountability process within DHS,” Castro, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know if there is any accountability. I don’t know if there is any discipline.”

 

 

Civil Rights Groups Long Warned Facebook Of Hateful Private Pages

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 FreePress 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.”

 

IMAGE: Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland January 20, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/Files