Facebook jail

In the 15 years since Facebook opened its services to the general public, the site has grown massively, today boasting more than 2 billion active monthly users. Its sheer scale, reach and cultural significance makes it all but a necessity for business owners, community organizers and government entities alike.

Public message board groups hosted on the platform act as a forum for discussion, commerce and self-promotion. Small businesses rely on the site to reach and engage with both prospective and existing customers, promote new offerings, and directly manage sales. Government entities also use it to communicate with the public during fires, blizzards, and yes, even pandemics, to share up-to-date information in a timely fashion. 

RBC’s Public Health Department is one example of this modern phenomenon of direct government-to-citizen communication, especially in the last two years. They used their Facebook page as a hub for updating the community on COVID-19 case counts, outbreaks, vaccination clinics and general information about the disease and what it meant for the local community. 

As a general rule, FB’s tools worked well for these tasks, up until the point that they didn’t. The department’s original page, started years ago by former county employees, was the first to experience problems with the platform. After sharing an informational video that received significant engagement, page admins found themselves unable to post new content, an issue that was never resolved. To this day, RBCPH’s first ever Facebook page sports a banner directing residents to the new public health page. The one that also doesn’t work anymore…

Approximately one year after the first public health page was rendered useless with zero explanation, the problem happened again, and that’s where this saga gets even stranger. It is more than strange, actually, it’s concerning for anyone who relies on Facebook (or any other big tech giant) for accessing information.

In late October 2021, the page disappeared from view entirely for all but page admins. The Public Health department’s primary direct-communication tool was again rendered useless and officially “unpublished.” Operations went on nonetheless, but ongoing information campaigns stopped, up-to-date information for the community stopped, and there was no way to fix the problem.

To the more “adventurous” among us who like to play on the edge of Facebook’s content moderation and/or community guidelines and “meme too close to the sun” this may not be a huge surprise. After all, Facebook regularly suspends/restricts accounts, demotes content and even permanently bans accounts/pages that violate its policies.

Its massive user-base also leads to automated content flagging systems making mistakes, and placing rule-abiding pages and personal accounts in the proverbial “Facebook jail.” 

To mitigate this problem of false-positive content flags, Facebook offers an “appeal” process, for anyone who believes their content has been falsely flagged as being in violation of the rules. 

So, that’s good, right? Doesn’t this mean that so long as you follow the rules, your page/group/account will be safe? If you are falsely flagged, you can get it worked out, right? Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it does not. RBC Public Health demonstrates a perfect example of this problem. One where Facebook, notorious for its terrible customer service apparatus (if we can even call it that), can implement restrictions and/or bans with zero justification, and skirt any accountability due to its power, size and influence.

RBCPH’s last post before being un-published in October 2021 shared factual information related to local vaccination clinics, their time, location and more. Previous content shared on the page included more clinic dates, videos, graphics and other content, promoting vaccinations, debunking myths, addressing misinformation and answering general questions from RBC residents.

So why did the page get unpublished? If rules were violated, shouldn’t said violation be explicitly listed? Perhaps, but in this case, it wasn’t. To this day, no content violations have been indicated by Facebook.

Should the appeals process offer recourse for mistakes in automated systems? Yes. When the appeals process is actually available. But when no violations are listed, how do you appeal? Answer, you cant.

When all else fails, should people have the right to more than just some automated help form deep in the bowels of Facebook’s “Help” Center to get assistance? 

Of course giant platforms should have some level of accountability not just to their shareholders. But to the human beings whose lives they have forcefully inserted their presence into, they’re really not accountable. Turns out you can have influence over a quarter of the planet’s population, and fail to be accountable to those people. Turns out that one day, your page, the audience you’ve built, and any systems you may have come to rely on might just poof out of existence, with no warning, no recourse, and zero communication from the platform.

At least, that’s the way it looks so far. Perhaps Facebook will eventually resolve the issue for the public health department, or not. Who knows? Maybe one day, when 25% of earth is connected to the “Metaverse” we’ll begin to understand why Facebook does what it does.

Additional information about vaccine clinics will be shared on the county’s primary Facebook page.  And you can, of course, expect to find continued coverage of COVID-19, vaccines, boosters, and everything related in the HT’s Facebook feed. For now …

By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com