Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

On Facebook Deactivations

Update/note: Since writing this a few hours ago, I’ve been flooded by e-mails from Facebook users who have also experienced this. Those users include gay rights activists, Jewish activists, activists for a free Palestine, and activists against the Venezuelan regime (among others). Clearly this is happening to many users across the board. I will follow up with more “case studies” soon.

Over the course of the past week, I’ve gotten reports from a number of people whose personal Facebook pages have been removed or deleted from the Facebook platform. At first, it was a male friend in Morocco. Then a female, Moroccan friend in Boston. Then an Indian woman in the UK. And then even more.

Once I investigated a bit further and spoke to each of them, I discovered what each of them have in common: All of them are critical of Islam (some are atheists, others ex-Muslims, still others reformers) and post frequently articles and status updates about the religion.

And then someone told me that a group was created on Facebook (in Arabic) for the sole purpose of reporting, and thus having removed, Facebook profiles of atheist Arabs. The group, which appears to have also been removed, was entitled “Facebook pesticide” and its sole purpose was to “identity Atheists / Agnostic / anti-religion in the Arab world and specifically in Tunisia …” Once identified, the group members would then attempt to report such users.

Of course it’s problematic that there’s a group of people seeking to destroy the online identities of users of a certain group, but that’s not the issue I’m going to address in this blog post. Instead, I will address why Facebook’s strategy toward dealing with situations like this is so problematic:

  1. The Facebook platform makes it all too easy for users to get other users’ accounts removed. Any user can report another user by the simple click of a button.  Facebook has not spoken publicly about how this process works, but my suspicion is that when a number of users report the same user, their profile is automatically disabled.  What happens next I can only speculate about, but from accounts I’ve received, Facebook does not contact users, rather, users may write to “disabled@facebook.com” to request their account be reinstated.  Sometimes it happens, other times it doesn’t.
  2. A screenshot of Facebook's "report" function

  3. Facebook’s Terms of Service (TOS) require users to use a real name for their profile.  This gives would-be attackers a simple way to report a person’s profile.  In the case of Arab activists in particular, many tend to use pseudonyms because of the risks they encounter in their home countries.  Therefore, it is simple to effectively report and have someone’s profile removed if that’s the case.
  4. Facebook does not inform users that their profile has been removed, nor does it tell them why. Unlike YouTube, Flickr, and other social media platforms, Facebook does not inform users that their profile has been removed (or why); it simply deletes them.  The only method of recourse (sending an email to “disabled@facebook.com”) does not guarantee a response, and in many cases, users report never receiving one.  Sabina England, whose profile was recently deactivated, says she was never given a reason, nor has she received a response to her many emails to Facebook.
  5. Facebook requires people to show government identification to prove they are who they say they are. Recently, my friend, activist Najat Kessler, had her Facebook profile deactivated.  She wrote to “disabled@facebook.com” and received a prompt reply, the text of which read:

    On Mon, Apr 5, 2010 at 5:23 PM, The Facebook Team <appeals+0pmdmcp@support.facebook.com> wrote:
    Hi,

    At this time, we cannot verify the ownership of the account under this address. Please reply to this email with a scanned image of a government-issued photo ID (e.g., driver’s license) in order to confirm your ownership of the account. Please black out any personal information that is not needed to verify your identity (e.g., social security number). Rest assured that we will permanently delete your ID from our servers once we have used it to verify the authenticity of your account.

    Please keep in mind that fake accounts are a violation of our Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. Facebook requires users to provide their real first and last names. Impersonating anyone or anything is prohibited.

    In addition to your photo ID, please include all of our previous correspondence in your response so that we can refer to your original email. Once we have received this information, we will reevaluate the status of the account. Please note that we will not be able to process your request unless you send in proper identification. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

    Thanks,

    Dominique
    User Operations
    Facebook

    So basically, we’re supposed to trust Facebook to handle our identities with care?  Facebook, of the notoriously sketchy Privacy Policy?  No thanks!

The rest of this I’ve written about here.  Effectively, the problem is this: For activists, Facebook’s terms of service are simply not clear enough, and its methods for profile removal and reinstatement not transparent.

My recommendations to Facebook?

  • First and foremost, offer transparency to your users.  Yes, Facebook is a private, free platform, but users expect to be able to use it.  It is your right to create whatever Terms of Service you want, but be clear, consistent, and transparent when enforcing them.
  • Be consistent…There are multiple profiles for Jesus Christ on Facebook that have been allowed to remain, yet “Sabina England” (a very public pseudonym representing a real person) is not allowed to stay?  Furthermore, why is it so important that users use their real names, anyway?  Don’t you realize the risks people must take in certain countries?
  • Change your TOS.  Telling us that we must not use Facebook in manner that “infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law” is too vague–are you referring to United States law?  If yes, then say so.  If not, then which law?  Saudi Arabian law, for example, would require that women cover their hair.  German law would ban Holocaust denial (which Facebook famously allows to remain on the site).  Be clear with your users.

Any other recommendations you’d make to Facebook?

35 Comments

  1. I’m still outraged that my profile was banned last night without a warning. I really have no idea if I was reported by conservative Muslims who were offended by my very liberal views on Islam– but if that’s the case, then they should be questioned on their Islamic “faith.” If their so-called faith in Islam is strong, they shouldn’t feel threatened by me !!

    Facebook should change its name to FASCISTBook.

    • Just for other readers, I’m not implying either way that those were the people who reported your profile; that said, it is still my suspicion that the method used was reporting of your profile, putting the onus on other users, rather than Facebook staff.

      Either way, it’s despicable.

  2. At the very LEAST, people should get a warning, and be allowed to argue their case if they feel they’ve done nothing wrong.

    OR AT THE VERY VERY LEAST, be allowed to retrieve their documents.

    This is in facebooks best interest, too, as if people know that they can be deleted without warning, they’ll stop using facebook to store their content.

    I know people who have lost important notes and photos because they never realised this would happen.

  3. This article would have been stronger had their been a link to the ‘Facebook pesticide’ site, even a Google cache or screenshot. Still, Facebook is mishandling all this, and coupled with the proliferation of marketing apps, is in danger of heading into a steep decline like MySpace, if for different reasons.

    • I wanted to include it, but couldn’t find the link myself (I was actually sent an email about it in French, translated from the original Arabic, so my own translations back to Arabic weren’t sufficient).

      That said, even if that group doesn’t exist, something is undoubtedly going on behind the scenes.

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  5. We have also experienced this problem:

    Political Censorship in Topics Related to Hong Kong and China
    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=68310606562&topic=13807

  6. Someone has created a Fake Profile in my name, and perhaps even more. I have reported it and so have many of my friends but it has remained and has not been taken down. I don’t understand why innocent people have their profiles taken down on one complaint and yet this impostor stands, sending out insulting emails in my name to my friends and business associates. I would like to see an article on this form of cyber-bullying and intimidation.

  7. It boggles my mind that someone can have your account blocked/reported and deleted simply because they don’t like your opinions, or simply because they don’t like you! I responded to a group that had a lot of misinformation posted on their info page, misinformation that basically boiled down to discriminatory speech against certain groups/types of people…so I sent the admin a message asking them to re-evaluate their information. I cited facts and reputable sources and was not rude at all. I received a message back cursing me out and telling me that they were going to report me/have my account deleted because I was “against their group” and that I should just “F–k off”…Now I’m living in fear that I’m going to be removed from FB all because someone who was posting discriminatory speech didn’t like me disagreeing with him/refuting his words with actual facts. A solution for some people (but certainly not all people, like activists who want to get their words out to the public) might be what I ended up doing. I made all my posts, comments, groups, photos, profile info, etc. private except for friends, I added the admins of the offensive group to my block list, and I made myself so no one could find me through the search feature…and just as an added precaution I deleted all my former profile photos and added a non-descript picture that didn’t show my face or person. So hopefully these people will not even be able to find me to delete my account just because I disagree with their discriminatory speech (you need to actually go to the person’s page to click on the “report” link or find them through the search option). But it sucks that I was basically forced into “hiding” because of all this.

  8. this just happened to me. someone posted a vid that was filled with disinformation.

    i sent them a message pointing this out and she had an entire group of people who i never contacted send in reports on me

    had i known that it would be so ez to get banned, i wouldnt have bothered

    now im effed, as i lost all my contacts

  9. Facebook are pathetic they really are. As soon as a viable alternative comes up (and they will) I will be joining them.

    I just had my account disabled for reasons unknown, with no warning whatsoever and trying to get a response out of Facebook is ridiculous! I did get a reply to an email that I sent. The reply was in German ffs! I am not German.

    I haven’t heard anything since.

    The very least that facebook can do is to message people when they see ‘what they deem’ to be inappropriate behaviour, either via the facebook page as a personal message or by email.

    There should also be an effective and transparent appeals process, rather than this clearly ad-hoc approach that they have to ‘customer’ care at the present.

    Facebook if you are reading this, because of the way that you have treated me, I will never, ever give any money to you or any organisation that you are affiliated with and I will actively encourage others to do the same!

    Wankers!

  10. Really intriguing story. This has recently happened to me; I suspected it had to do with spammers who had gotten into my email, but who knows.

    What’s amazing is that one is de-activated w/o even knowing your crime: summarily judged. As a legal principle, it’s lacking.

    I think I’ll write a letter to the legal department….

  11. My account was deleted immediately after I uoloated 3 pictures to the Draw Mohammed Day page. Another person I know had their account suspended after uploading one, and then it was reactivated. The email they sent him said he had received 32,000 complaints. So, I figure these organized muslim complainers must have hit me with around 90,000. Just a guess. Anyway, FB is run by a douchebag, Mark Zuckjerberg, in a childish, arbitrary and capricious way. It starts from the top down, and I refuse to put up with an overgrown boy fiddling with something that took me hours and hours to create. I had everything on my page, favorite links, pics, funny pics, a nice group of friends. I would have to rebuild that, and I’m not willing to. Not with Mr. Douchebag running the site.

  12. My account is disable, and i don’t know why , can someone help me !

  13. Interesting. This is something that I can modify to use during our brainstorming sessions for story development. Thanks…

  14. I’m writing on behalf of the Atheists fan page & all 40,000 fans of it. All admin accounts were disabled yesterday (12/07/2010) at roughly 12 noon, due to alleged “possible” fake identities. Sunny Hhc, the lead admin of the page has already contacted FaceCrook to get started getting the issue resolved. He has sent multiple emails to facebook, and has received nothing but automated replies at this point. Updated 12/8/2010 @ 6:30am (cst -6)

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  17. Facebook has got to figure some other way to handle complaints because that’s just plain messed up and it can be easily gamed. Knowing what I know about programming a bot could easily be created to mass create accounts and use them to ban people en masse. All it would require are proxies and a bot that could do it(this could easily be created). I would think that a company as big and as profitable as Facebook would have thought of that by now…

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