Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

More Facebook Deactivations

Call this my quarterly (or thereabouts) post on the issue.

Since I began tracking instances of Facebook deactivating user accounts and deleting content from existing profiles and groups, I’ve found that the practice has not waned at all; if anything, it has increased.

I first wrote about this in April, when I reported on Moroccan atheist activist Najat Kessler’s Facebook account being deleted for “using a fake name” (guess what?  Najat Kessler is her real name).  In the three months since, I’ve received countless e-mails from users, some of whose stories I’ve further publicized or talked about at events such as the Global Voices Summit and the Al Jazeera Global Media Forum.  Rebecca MacKinnon has also been blogging about these issues, but aside from the two of us, it’s mostly been crickets…until now.

Late last week, things hit a fever pitch when Facebook deactivated a group calling for the boycott of oil giant BP.  The deactivation caught the wind of media, likely because a) BP is a hot topic right now and b) the group had 750,000 members.  In any case, CNN reported it, with a statement from Facebook which said, curiously, that the group was likely “disabled by our automated systems.”

Interestingly enough, in a comment on Rebecca’s blog, Facebook rep Barry Schnitt previously claimed that Facebook uses automation only to disable accounts of spammers.  Then again, Barry Schnitt also claimed that Facebook offers an official appeals process (hint: no, they don’t).

The BP story isn’t the only one gaining traction in the blogosphere.  In a recent blog post, Greg Butterfield outlines the various ways in which Facebook goes after progressive groups.  Though I strongly disagree with that particular premise (as there’s plenty of evidence that Facebook “goes after” well, anybody), Butterfield’s post enumerates other recent examples of groups deactivated from the platform, such as:

  • A group advocating for the release of FARC member Ricardo Palmera
  • A PFLP solidarity group based in New Zealand
  • The Boycott BP group

I can add various others:

  • The group of a performance artist, because it happened to contain the word “Hamas”
  • A Hong Kong based group set up for remembrance of the Tiananmen Square Massacre
  • A group calling for the separation of mosque and state in the Arab world
  • The personal accounts of activists Sabina England and Najat Kessler, for not using their real names (even when they did)

Meanwhile, Facebook allows groups like “Draw Mohammad Day” to stay up for weeks at a time.  Mind you, I support all free speech and thus did not advocate for the removal of that group, however, a number of the comments on the page quite clearly violated Facebook’s TOS, even to my non-legal eyes.

There are numerous problems with Facebook’s processes, some of which I’ve noted before.  I’ve thought through recommendations various times, and each time come up with at least something new.

First and foremost, Facebook’s appeals process needs some serious work.  I understand that they’re a huge company that hosts thousands of groups on their platform, but that’s no excuse for not developing a streamlined appeals process that can accommodate their broad user base (read: multilingual).  Users who attempt to appeal are currently met with an automated message telling them that they cannot appeal.  Even if, in the end, some of these users are able to get their accounts back, the e-mail is misleading at best.

And how about a warning system? I’m all for clear rules, and for deleting users who can’t adhere to them, but in many cases, users don’t realize they’re violating the TOS (Rebecca’s example of Rafik Dammak is a great example).

Facebook would also be wise to set up a human rights department, as Google and Yahoo before it have done.  They could then build clear standards around the consideration of context when policing content on the site.

Of course, no site will get it 100% right, but some (read: YouTube) have come damn close.   Based on various conversations and bits of intel, it doesn’t seem like Facebook is doing all that much to solve these problems (and if they are, they’re doing it very opaquely).

8 Comments

  1. There was a facebook group showing support for freeing a leftist political prisoner that was recently removed, and a friend of mine created a new one in protest. What I see a lot more are Youtube suspensions. Last year, a youtuber whom I subscribed to had his account (along with two of his personal accounts) deleted for criticizing the policies of youtube’s biggest Canadian sponsor. The fact remains though that youtube and facebook are both businesses and will behave as such.

    • Yeah, I think I may have unfairly praised YouTube. I should pay more attention to the activists having content removed there; Just, having been walked through their appeals process, I find it to be far more just and meaningful than Facebook’s almost non-existent one.

  2. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how to construct a streamlined appeals process for a site comprising over 70 languages and over 400 million users – it seems like this is probably more an issue of scale than an issue of Facebook targeting any one group in particular. If they’re automated systems, I also wonder how much is being removed erroneously versus how much is being removed rightly. If one Hamas-the-performance-artist group is being removed for every 100 legitimate Hamas groups, that’s probably not unreasonable, especially given that they presumably have to operate under American laws, where it would behoove them to be slightly overaggressive. I guess the question is – do we as users require perfection? If not, isn’t it OK for Facebook to restore groups and accounts later on if they were indeed disabled in error? Sorry, I guess I just don’t understand this particular crusade in the scope of larger issues.

    • If not, isn’t it OK for Facebook to restore groups and accounts later on if they were indeed disabled in error?

      Yes, of course. But if they’re going to operate that way, why send users a message telling them that “you cannot appeal this decision”? Why not send an automated e-mail instead with a link to an appeals process? A simple change, but one that most certainly sends a different message, don’t you think?

      The Hamas example is probably a bad one in this context, as it is understandable that an automated system would pick up that word. Let’s instead use the example of the group from Hong Kong which had a group to remember the Tiananmen Square Massacre. There are numerous reasons why this example is problematic: First, the group was in Chinese (how much do you want to bet Facebook’s employees don’t speak it?). Second, there’s no keyword like “Hamas” to pick up on in that instance.

      You don’t understand this in the scope of larger issues? That’s probably because you’re in the US, where using communications platforms like Facebook is almost never going to be a life or death situation. Granted, most instances will not be, but I think you’re underestimating the ways in which Facebook is used by activists in other countries.

    • As for how to create an appeals process? Anything would be better than what currently exists. Again, look at YouTube’s process. They have just as many, if not more users, and their process continues to be improved upon, whereas Facebook ignores the problem entirely.

  3. …my facebook account was disabled after I joined the boycott bp group and became moderately active in it…and I was requested to send in government issued id….I think there would have been many others like me who chose not to fight to have their accounts reinstated…..and like me be very suspicious of giving identification to facebook who may have some link to bp…..this may be paranoid…..but nevertheless this idea was successful in silencing me….I wrote back to facebook politely but firmly declining their request…..I know I could just open up another account but I feel so violated I refuse to have anything further to do with facebook……the problem is facebook is where everyone is…..nobody uses email anymore…..and I have vanished without a chance to say goodbye and explain why I am gone…..and I suppose people think I have deleted them or blocked them….the only way around this is to open a new facebook account and add these people again…..which forces me back to facebook…..which I will not do……keep up the great and very important work…..you are the only person I have found who has identified and written about this exact problem…..which may be more widespread than it appears…..and hints at corporate alliances which have no place in a social network…..

  4. My daughter got de-activated last Friday, the same day she was leaving for Palestine. I don’t know if there is any connection, but the crazy thing is that she has lot’s of friend who live in Palestine who are on FB. The fact that they wrote and said that there was no recourse is extremely upsetting. Has anyone successfully appealed and if so, how.

  5. My Privacy advice page was deleted without warning two days ago for violation of terms. Ironically it is an extremely pro-Facebook privacy advocation page. It ran in sympatico with my Group of the same name which is still running niceley (though I have chosen to deactivate it myself to avoid a similar situation) This is the group url which clearly shows my warm feeling towards Facebook on the info page (the Page had the same content and info) (http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=126955527332923&ref=ts). As I don’t have an explanation, I can only assume it violated terms because it had the word Facebook in it, and I am not a representative.

    There seems to be a double standard across the board. Spammers and trolls are endlessly allowed to spread their nude photos, hate filled comments, chain letters all over the place, yet genuine members who may or may not have violated terms are deactivated and left wondering why. One member is being harassed by someone they have blocked, yet they are still being plagued by email from them somehow. After countless reports, this member is still active. Pages are everywhere, and most definitely 90% don’t represent a real business or person. Yet they continue. There should be an explanation as to the specific violation. The url link to ask for the removal to be assessed was active for 2 hours, after which it became obsolete. I haven’t shouted or ranted about this removal, it would be pointless.

    If Facebook wishes to be known as the leading communication method of this and the next decade, they need to start applying themselves better in how the members they make their money off are treated if things go wrong. Facebook don’t inform all members about new terms changes, you have to join their Site Governance Page. There are 1.5 Million page members, and 500 million in total. Most of which don’t know about the Site Governance Page because members were only told of it and the change of notification procedure in an Update email, which doesn’t prompt notification upon arrival. Most members don’t even know they have an update email folder. Facebook has a notification function, yet they don’t use it to its full capacity and inform members about proposals to change their terms, or glitches which may have allowed their information to be compromised. They need to start taking their responsibility seriously and provide assistance, support, and information correctly.

    Mark Zuckerberg’s own Bill of Rights and Responsibilities Group of which he is one of 5 admins has been totally taken over by spam. These are terms violators flaunting themselves under the CEO’s very nose, and yet they continue. Only a few dedicated members try to fight this ongoing onslaught of spam and terms violation. You can find Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘Facebook’s Bill of Rights and Responsibilites’ Group here, the wall will show their many terms violators: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=69048030774&ref=search. You may also note, none of the admins have shown any interest in their own Responsibilities Group for some time…

    As I said, double standards. I guess the spammers and trolls make up the big numbers don’t they….

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