Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged
On Thursday, Facebook announced it had removed more than 800 political pages and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and spamming.
This week, the people behind the pages Facebook purged for being inauthentic are angry. They feel they have been unfairly targeted for practices they say are common across the entire social network.
And those who have built their livelihoods around the power of Facebook to drive traffic to their websites are wondering what to do next.
The controversy highlights the challenges Facebook and other social media sites face when attempting to police the content their members freely provide.
In a related move, on Tuesday, the company announced a way for members to report inaccurate information designed to suppress voter turnout, such as providing the wrong dates or methods for voting. Facebook has been removing this form of misinformation since 2016.
As a private entity, Facebook can enforce its terms however it sees fit, says the ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman. But this can have serious free speech consequences, especially if the social network is selectively enforcing its terms based on the content of the pages.
“Drawing the line between ‘real’ and ‘inauthentic’ views is a difficult enterprise that could put everything from important political parody to genuine but outlandish views on the chopping block,” says Eidelman. “It could also chill individuals who only feel safe speaking out anonymously or pseudonymously.”
Standard operating procedures
In a statement posted to its online newsroom, Facebook says it purged these pages because their owners were using fake accounts, sharing the same content between multiple pages, and linking to ad-supported websites it calls “ad farms”.
But what the social network calls spam, the owners of these pages call standard procedures for operating on Facebook.
Nearly all the page owners contacted by the Guardian say they use “backup” or fake accounts along with their real ones. They do it in part to protect themselves from being targeted by political opponents and having their real accounts end up in “Facebook jail”, says Edward Lynn, the editor-in-chief of Reverb Press, a left-leaning news site whose Facebook page disappeared yesterday.
Lynn says he discontinued the practice of allowing writers to post under pseudonyms when he became editor-in-chief earlier this year.
Matt Mountain, who operated six leftwing pages and shared content between them, says “99% of the people I worked with have backup accounts”. (“Matt Mountain” is a pseudonym; he declined to provide his legal name.) Each page had its own particular liberal niche, he explains.
“Lock Him Up was for people who liked funny stuff,” he says. “Proud Snowflake was for people interested in social justice issues. Angry Americans was full of economic stuff. When a post did really well on one page, and it fit the theme of one of the other pages, I’d share it across them.”
Facebook removed his pages a month ago. Until yesterday’s news, he thought his banishment was an isolated case.
“The problem with language like ‘inauthentic coordinated behavior’ is that everyone in this space coordinates,” says Chris Metcalf, who operated nine pages that were purged, including Reasonable People Unite, the Resistance, and Snowflakes. “We swap each other’s best-performing content. I shared content from many of the biggest, most reputable political pages, and they shared mine. But I’m not a bad actor. I’m a legitimate political activist.”
Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project for the Center for Democracy and Technology, says Facebook is playing a dangerous game trying to differentiate between legitimate political dialog and spam.
“I absolutely believe savvy spammers realize that polarizing political views drive a lot of traffic,” says Llansó. “But there are also a lot of people who fervently believe their political views and are trying to drive traffic to their posts and ideas. They’re probably also running ads on their sites to make money off doing so. The line between spammer activity with a financial motive and spammy-looking political advocacy is incredibly hard to draw.”
‘A complete shock’
For many, the most frustrating aspect of the purge has been their inability to reach someone at Facebook to make their complaints heard.
Mountain, a disabled veteran, says he stood outside the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters for a day last month holding up a protest sign, trying to get someone to talk to him about why his pages were taken down. No one did.
Brian Kolfage, another disabled veteran who administered the Right Wing News page as well as three other conservative pages that were removed, says his organization worked closely with Facebook. He shared copies of emails with a Facebook executive, in which he tried to set up a meeting to talk about how his pages could adhere to the network’s evolving policies regarding political content.
The meeting was abruptly cancelled. A week later his pages were gone.
“I’ve talked with Facebook maybe 50 times in the last few months,” he says. “Not once did they ever say we broke any rules or did something wrong. If they had an issue, they could have brought it up. We had a really close working relationship. That’s why this whole thing is a complete shock.”
Lynn found out Reverb’s page was gone after reading about it in the Washington Post.
“They know who I am, I have a profile on their services, it’s my real name,” he says. “All they needed to do was reach out. I would have taken Mark Zuckerberg’s phone call. But I guess they’ve decided that they just don’t want to.”
Metcalf says he has no problem with Facebook taking down pages peddling disinformation and conspiracy theories, but that his don’t fit that description.
“I was happy to see Alex Jones go,” he says. “But this isn’t about enforcing violations of Facebook’s terms. This is about Facebook repeatedly moving the goalposts with vaguely worded standards and then arbitrarily enforcing the rules because they’re fearful of congressional oversight.”
Under intense scrutiny from regulators, and with the midterms coming up, Facebook may have simply wanted to rid itself of another potential headache. Instead, it’s created a new one.
“I don’t think Facebook wants to fix this,” says Mountain. “I think they just want politics out, unless it’s coming from the mainstream media.”
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment.
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