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Social media is increasingly the new playground for social activism and political campaigns. When it comes to general knowledge of online PR, outreach, and data mining, there seems to be more hype than perspicacity. One thing is certain: both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are dedicating more resources to online outreach than ever before.

One barrier to effective political or social activism has to do with the predominant online medium. While newer social networking apps are chipping away at Facebook's dominance, Facebook is approaching one billion users worldwide. But Facebook has serious issues.

Facebook has struggled for years to strike a proper balance between suppressing "inappropriate content" and spam, and inhibiting appropriate use. The long running conflict between enforcing community standards and allowing free speech has not been pretty. Facebook may offer a cryptic explanation for blocking or censoring: "posting spam is prohibited and against the Facebook Community Standards", or this page/group/account has been deleted because of "posting multiple images which violate copyright laws." But Facebook's automated process for managing content is widely regarded as broken, and has been considered such for years. For anyone attempting to exercise Facebook's considerable social media possibilities in any sort of organized fashion, the company's predominant characteristic may seem nothing short of pathological. Facebook's enforcement mechanisms operate in secret. Its penalties for transgressions are applied without warning. Punishments seem arbitrary and are frequently harsh, yet are apparently open to manipulation.

Facebook mostly relies upon automated processes to enforce its requirements, yet its blocks, deletions, censorship processes, and enforcement of DMCA Rights are bungled frequently enough that at any given moment, one group or another is outraged.

Last week, Facebook deleted two popular pages associated with the Addicting Info blog. Because of my own Rush activism, the loss that was of more concern to me was a page called "Boycott Rush Limbaugh's Sponsors". As a fan page, "Boycott Rush Limbaugh's Sponsors" (BRLS) was used to share information; to coordinate actions; and, as a thread-based discussion forum. In these circumstances, entire communities of users may be disenfranchised; BRLS had garnered 18,000 LIKEs.

With the election approaching, others may be concerned about the loss of the other page associated with Addicting Info, called "Americans Against Mitt Romney". Unfortunately, with the page no longer available, I have no information about its popularity.

Of course none of this should be a huge surprise:

Facebook Pages Terms

We reserve the right to reject or remove Pages for any reason. These terms are subject to change at any time.

  — Facebook link: Facebook Pages Terms

[Facebook link, American Peace Cooperative Page]

Other sites are also at risk. The page manager account for the American Peace Cooperative page was shut down without explanation. Procedures that Facebook algorithms automatically suggested for recovering the account failed. With its main account deactivated the page, while still visible, is almost useless to its nearly 75,000 users. For readers with Facebook accounts, the dilemma is recounted here.

[Facebook link, The Conservative Hammer Review]

Something similar happened to the liberal page, The Conservative Hammer Review. The page administrator told me, "I was doing some posts and was alerted by Facebook that they wanted a phone number confirmation, which I gave, but the returning code is not accepted. I figure this is their perverted way of saying bye-bye."

Some are convinced that Facebook censors political speech. A website called Demand Progress has existed for more than a year asking activists to "Tell Facebook: Stop Censoring Political Speech".

In the summer of 2011, Facebook was accused of political partisanship by committing a purge of fifty user profiles just before the UCL Occupation, which was a group of students protesting against government cuts. One tentative conclusion was that Facebook's mechanisms for reporting spam or abuse may have been "gamed" by political opposition groups in order to thwart activism at a critical moment. (See Roger Ebert's similar experience, below.)

Others are concerned about Facebook's tendency (as in the "Boycott Rush Limbaugh's Sponsors" and "Americans Against Mitt Romney" pages, above) to "Close Pages Because Of False Copyright Infringement Claims". In 2011, HuffPost noted:

Facebook has shut down at least a half-dozen legitimate Facebook pages due to what appears to be a dysfunctional copyright infringement claims system.

Affected sites, which include popular tech blog Ars Technica, were given no warning that the page would be shut down and received no description of the offending content. Anybody with an email address, real or fake, can make a complaint to Facebook without having to validate the claim, effectively giving anyone the ability to shutter any page without proof.

  — HuffPost Tech, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/...

Facebook subsequently acknowledged the challenge of DMCA abuse administration, apologized, and restored four pages that had been erroneously deleted. It seems, however, that a significant level of negative publicity is necessary before Facebook backtracks on any given action.

More recently, many Facebook users have expressed irritation with Facebook's "nanny" tendency in which perfectly normal comments may be blocked, with Facebook delivering a mini-lecture, as recorded by TechCrunch:

“This comment seems irrelevant or inappropriate and can’t be posted. To avoid having comments blocked, please make sure they contribute to the post in a positive way.”

  — TechCrunch: Is This Censorship? Facebook Stops Users From Posting ‘Irrelevant Or Inappropriate’ Comments

It is impossible to know what triggers such restrictions, let alone what bad Facebook karma is tallied against a user's good reputation. To be sure, Facebook tracks behavior, and may suddenly impose bewildering penalties. TechCrunch continues:
This could be similar to what happened to film critic Roger Ebert back in January 2011, when Facebook temporarily disabled Ebert’s blog because of allegedly “abusive comment.” It turns out that Ebert’s blog never actually contained objectionable content — a number of Facebook users had flagged his page as “abusive” after he wrote a critical tweet about Ryan Dunn, an actor who died in a drunk driving accident.

  — TechCrunch: Is This Censorship? Facebook Stops Users From Posting ‘Irrelevant Or Inappropriate’ Comments

On Facebook (as well as Twitter), gaming the system to get the political opposition blocked or suspended is a cottage industry.

The New Civil Rights Movement complained about egregious Facebook behavior that has likewise put me (author of this diary) in the Facebook Gulag for the same thing:

On October 15, I attempted to share a link to a piece I had written about the Occupy Wall Street Movement — on Occupy Wall Street Movement Facebook pages, like Occupy Seattle, Occupy Miami, Occupy San Francisco...  

With no warning, and for no discernible reason, after posting a link to the piece on a very few “Occupy” sites (perhaps three?), I received a notice (image, right [at linked page]) from Facebook that claimed I was posting “spam and irrelevant content on Facebook pages.” The notice also came with the note that my account was being disable for fifteen days from posting any content on pages that were not mine.

In other words, Facebook had “decided” that the content I was sharing wasn’t content, that it was “spam,” or “irrelevant,” despite the very clear fact that it was neither.

Facebook offered no opportunity to challenge its decision, no option to protest, no option to appeal. Almost as bad, Facebook did not offer a credible reason as to why it deemed original news information as spam and irrelevant. And quite frankly, censoring a report of questionable police actions is a chilling notion.

  — The New Civil Rights Movement: Has Facebook Censorship Gone Too Far?

 My account has been penalized with a 60 day revocation of commenting privilege on Facebook pages, likewise for posting non-controversial Occupy content to Occupy pages. I likewise have no option to appeal. (Note that sixty days extends right up to the U.S. presidential election — a period during which I should like to have the ability to exercise free speech.) To be fair, I was able to post to far more than three Occupy pages before I encountered my surprise restriction. However, the rest of the scenario played out in precisely the same way — no warning, no appeal.

The examples that I've offered are merely the tip of what is undoubtedly a very large, disfunctional corporate iceberg. I decided to write this diary primarily because I happened to hear of three very recent such incidents, just this Friday afternoon. I expect that if one were to research the number of incidents of disenfranchised Facebook users, groups, and pages, the actual numbers might astonish.

Facebook's oversight bureaucracy is concealed behind a Kafkaesque facade of menus that seem to address everyone's problem except yours. You may discover an email address such as info@facebook.com and, hopeful that you've discovered a path around the menus, receive a reply that directs you back to the menus! Many such email replies include the sentence, "if you contacted us through this channel about another matter, you might not receive a response."

As a practical matter, appeal of discipline is nearly impossible. But perhaps Facebook's worst characteristic is a tendency to severely punish behavior that you or I might consider entirely appropriate and normal.

Another aggravation: Facebook (absent after-market software) does not provide a simple means to export membership lists, or lists of users who have "LIKE'd" a page. The same mentality has apparently prompted Facebook to block links to potential competitors; for example, to Google+. Thus, there is no simple way to export data as a precaution against a page or group being lost through deletion or loss of an administration account.

Because Facebook relies upon computer algorithms to enforce its fickle morality on users, we might expect that there would be glitches. Computers are imperfect at adjudicating human interactions, and will remain so for the forseeable feature. The problem, then, is Facebook's unwillingness to offer users any reliable mechanism for appeal. Presumably, Facebook foibles affect the major campaigns, as well as the smallest peace and justice organization. I expect that resource-wealthy political campaigns are able to get through the Facebook user firewall, to get assistance for any Facebook issues that they might encounter. Perhaps smaller campaigns, not so much.

But why should any user find it necessary to hire a lawyer, generate massive publicity, or create a petition, in order to recover possibly years worth of invested effort and contact information? When it comes to so much social media power in one corporation, how do we know that implementing policy, and ameliorating problems isn't conducted in a partisan fashion?

And what of the built-in bias of hierarchy? If I create an organization and spin out two hundred pages for two hundred chapters across the country, presumably I might enjoy the benefits of page ownership, and therefore would not be penalized for communicating to all of these in a timely fashion. Yet there is probably no person in the world (other than Mark Zuckerberg?) who could communicate any sort of on-topic message to every Occupy page without promptly losing their posting privileges, simply because Occupy is a horizontal and diverse entity.

One aspect of Facebook's hidden power is a result of its near-monopoly share of the social media space. Other popular websites — Huffington Post is a good example — require a linked Facebook (or Twitter) account prior to granting privileges on their own, non-Facebook website:

If you're among the most-connected users in terms of friends and followers, and if you've connected your HuffPost account to your Facebook or Twitter account, we make you a level 2 Networker, upgrade your Badge, and feature your comments in red.

  — Huffington Post: Huffington Post | FAQ | Moderation

By such mechanisms Facebook's injudicious and arbitrary disciplinary prerogatives tend to permeate much of the blogosphere, well beyond the Facebook.com domain. Facebook login privileges are likewise extensible to many newspaper and blog websites. Loss of a Facebook account (for whatever reason, justified or not) may therefore impact an individual's commenting rights across the web.

In conclusion, I'd like to share the final paragraph written by David Badash, author of the New Civil Rights Movement article linked above:

Facebook’s censoring arm has gone much too far. When the town square is the rectangle of your laptop or smartphone, and the local sheriff is an algorithm trademarked by an unregulated and unabashed Mark Zuckerberg & Co., there’s no doubt trouble ahead for people who “like” free speech.

  — The New Civil Rights Movement: Has Facebook Censorship Gone Too Far?

 


UPDATE Sat Sep 15, 2012 at  9:23 PM PT: The City of New Haven, Connecticut, was recently in a flap with Facebook and their Facebook page was shut down. According to CW56 News, New Haven Mayor John Destefano commented, "Fighting Facebook is harder than fighting city hall.”
"So Facebook has put us on double secret probation, which is to say we're not the city of New Haven and that's confusing for me because when I voted for myself last time, I was voting for myself as mayor of the city of New Haven,” said Mayor Destefano.
When a social media corporation can tell a city how it must identify itself, is it possible that corporations have too much power?

 


Originally posted to Richard Myers on Fri Sep 14, 2012 at 07:48 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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