Anti-Russia Hysteria Leads To Increased Censorship Of Americans On Facebook

Facebook has received a lot of criticism for the selling of ads to Russians under the belief that the $100,000 in Facebook ads had an impact on the election results. Regardless of how much effort should be made to prevent such Russian activities, the unfortunate result has been an increase in the restrictions on Americans expressing their political views on Facebook.

There have always been problems with “Facebook jail” in which people have their accounts restricted, but I’m finding that the number has increased tremendously recently. The biggest change appears to be with restricting posting to Facebook groups, with automated algorithms erroneously flagging legitimate posts as spam. Others have been restricted due to complaints, which are often politically motivated, with punishment administered with no form of due process.

Besides the material not meeting any conventional definition of spam, there are other issues with this assessment. Many groups approve posts on a post by post basis, suggesting that any approved posts must not be spam. Administrators of groups can also remove members who they feel are spamming a group. It hardly makes sense to call a post spam when approved by the administrator. In addition, I have frequently received messages of thanks from administrator of groups for sharing material with the group, along with many Facebook Likes from members.

Last week I had this post flagged as spam by Facebook and I was prohibited from posting to any groups for one week. Note that the post cites sources including the Brookings Institution and major media sources, also making it hard to call “fake news” or spam. Ironically, the same day as this occurred, I had listened to an interview with Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, on NPR in which she claimed to support the rights of users to express their political beliefs, including beliefs she disagrees with. This contrasts with the experience of myself and a large number of others on Facebook who have had political posts restricted.

It gets even more bizarre. I am the administrator of one of the groups I was prohibited from posting to. I have also encountered administrators of other Facebook groups who have been prohibited from posting to their groups or pages. Facebook’s claims that they are spamming their own pages sounds rather illogical.

In one case,  Mark A. Di Carlo was prohibited from posting to his own campaign page. Di Carlo said, “I was prevented from posting for about 5 days on my Di Carlo for Mayor page, during about 5 crucial days during my campaign for Mayor. What is really bad, is they do not tell you what your violations were, nor who complained against you.”

It gets even worse. Di Carlo also me that “many of these were ‘boosted’ posts, and were paid for by me as advertising.” Facebook did refund the payments, but it is just unbelievable that they would prevent these from being posted.

Many of us have also had the same frustration in never receiving an answer as to what the violations are. The decisions are often done by computer algorithms which appear to be quite faulty. Facebook might use verbiage such as “violation of Community Standards,” but the posts they take action against usually do not violate any of their posted rules. Actions which are acceptable on Facebook one day might get a user restricted the next.

There is a box to click to say that a post is not spam, but clicking this does no good. The response I received from Facebook was: “Thanks for letting us know about this post. We’ll try to take another look to check if it goes against our Community Standards and send you a message here in your Support Inbox if we have an update.”  Of course they never respond further and it is doubtful that a human ever looks at the posts.

There is also technically a way to request an appeal, but again there are no signs that what anyone writes is ever seen by a human. After filing an appeal I received this response:

We received your report and appreciate your patience as we work to fix technical problems on Facebook. Though we can’t update everyone who submits a report, we’re using your feedback to improve the Facebook experience for everyone.
To contact us about non-technical issues, please visit the Help Center.
Thanks,
The Facebook Team

It is unfortunate that actions intended to respond to alleged threats from Russia are resulting in restrictions on so many Americans. Facebook is the digital equivalent of the town square, and restricting posting of people’s opinions on Facebook has a deleterious effect on freedom of expression. People following links from Facebook is also a major source of traffic to blogs such as this these days, and Facebook’s actions have been deleterious to blog traffic.

Facebook states they are planning to hire more people to monitor posts, including some with national security clearance. The question is whether hiring more people will result in humans making better decisions than computer algorithms, or whether this will lead to more people finding more material to restrict.