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.

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11 Comments

  1. 1
    Mike Hatcher says:

    As a somewhat tangential story, I know of a bank that once has a special phone number reserved just for congressional inquiries, so congressmen and senators, or their staff, could skip right over customer service and straight too…. a voicemail that accidentally was not being monitored by anyone. Thus giving congress persons worse service than what regular customers got.

  2. 2
    Bob says:

    According to Pew research 67% of US adults get at least some news from social media. Until now Facebook and others could take money from anyone to post anything without the inconvenience of being held to any journalistic standards whatever. It’s high time the irresponsible gravy train be examined.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    The fact that 67% get some news from social media has no bearing on this. That does not change the fact that the alleged Russian activities on social media have been extremely trivial compared to all the other news and advertising on social media. Facebook receiving $100,000 in ads did not alter the results of the election as Clinton and her supporters claim.

    If Facebook broke any campaign finance laws that should be handled, with the legality of foreign ads being quite ambiguous. The current suppression of political speech by Americans on Facebook is a far more serious matter than what Russia did.

  4. 4
    Ron Chusid says:

    It is also dangerous to promote suppression of free speech based upon whether or not it meets journalistic standards or whether there are accusations of Russian involvement (especially when many of the accusations have not held up on further examination). There are no exceptions to the First Amendment for “fake news” but we have now had both Trump and Clinton promote censorship of speech critical of them by calling it fake news. Plus that doesn’t even apply to the cases of censorship now occurring on Facebook as discussed in the post.

  5. 5
    Bob says:

    The first amendment is not absolute nor is it a suicide pact for democracy. For now Facebook is being given the opportunity to adjust its algorithms that determine news content. There’s no reason to be particularly optimistic about them policing themselves given their history:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/30/technology/facebook-tinkers-with-users-emotions-in-news-feed-experiment-stirring-outcry.html

  6. 6
    Ron Chusid says:

    While the First Amendment is neither absolute nor a suicide pact for democracy, in most cases allowing free expression is healthier for democracy than suppressing free speech. The attacks on the First Amendment by Trump and Clinton are not healthy for democracy. While technically not a First Amendment matter, the restrictions on free speech at Facebook are also not healthy for democracy.

    No, we cannot be very optimistic about Facebook policing themselves. Any adjustments should be based upon allowing free expression without censorship, or other manipulations by Facebook.

  7. 7
    Bob says:

    Too late:

    “Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act is a bipartisan bill which was introduced by the United States Congress on 10 May 2016. …

    In both the House and Senate the bill was included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2017. It passed the House in this fashion in a conference report vote on 2 December 2016. The Senate then passed the measure in a conference report on December 8 by a tally of 92–7.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Countering_Foreign_Propaganda_and_Disinformation_Act

  8. 8
    Ron Chusid says:

    From the ACLU’s response to the law. The problems discussed above further show how trying to use Facebook to fix “fake news” has turned out badly.

    But for Facebook to assume the burden of trying to solve a larger societal problem of fake news by tweaking these algorithms would likely just make the situation worse. To its current role as commercially motivated curator of things-that-will-please-its-users would be added a new role: guardian of the social good. And that would be based on who-knows-what judgment of what that good might be at a given time. If the company had been around in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, how would it have handled information about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, gay rights, and women’s rights? A lot of material that is now seen as vital to social progress would then have been widely seen as beyond the pale. The company already has a frightening amount of power, and this would increase it dangerously. We wouldn’t want the government doing this kind of censorship—that would almost certainly be unconstitutional—and many of the reasons that would be a bad idea would also apply to Facebook, which is the government of its own vast realm. For one thing, once Facebook builds a giant apparatus for this kind of constant truth evaluation, we can’t know in what direction it may be turned. What would Donald Trump’s definition of “fake news” be?

    The ACLU’s ideal is that a forum for free expression that is as central to our national political conversations as Facebook has become would not feature any kind of censorship or other interference with the neutral flow of information. It already does engage in such interference in response to its commercial interest in tamping down the uglier sides of free speech, but to give Facebook the role of national Guardian of Truth would exponentially increase the pitfalls that approach brings. The company does not need to interfere more heavily in Americans’ communications. We would like to see Facebook go in the other direction, becoming more transparent about the operation of its algorithms to ordinary users, and giving them an ever-greater degree of control over how that algorithm works.

  9. 9
    Bob says:

    Facebook probably can’t solve the problem at all. It is not a news organization and should probably be legally prohibited from pretending to be one. Perhaps you missed the mentions of “gullibility” and “epistemic closure”. Facebook can be used as an outlet for personalized, self-deluding propaganda. The article doesn’t represent the entire ACLU, only Jay Stanley, who admits to being “ambivalent about this part of the fake news controversy” and “that a number of demonstrably false news items” have appeared in Facebook Trending News.

  10. 10
    Ron Chusid says:

    How exactly does one legally prohibit Facebook from pretending to be a news source.

    Freedom is messy. People will say things you don’t like. People from all over the world, including Russia, will post on line. People will be gullible and believe things which they should not. The alternative to freedom is even worse.

    While worrying about gullible people falling for fake news, don’t forget that many have already been getting lots of fake news from Fox and right wing talk radio, with MSNBC and CNN not always being the greatest sources either. Plus the two of the most prominent sources of false information are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

  11. 11
    Bob says:

    Apparently Facebook and others are discouraged from irresponsible behavior through regulation and lawsuits:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/09/business/media/google-facebook-news-media-alliance.html

    An interactive environment that targets “news” and advertising to individuals and that can be flooded by bots and fake accounts is different from traditional outlets. The fact that nothing is perfect is axiomatic and irrelevant.

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