I’m writing to you from “Facebook jail.”
For those not familiar with the term (I just learned it myself), Facebook jail is when Facebook’s faceless algorithms, or perhaps an unknown Facebook worker or contracted employee, makes the determination that your account should be crippled in some way. Currently, I can log into Facebook and read what’s on Facebook but I cannot post to Facebook. I cannot send messages through Messenger though I can read messages sent to me. My sentence was for 24 hours. Sometime around 8 am tomorrow I will be released.
But you should know my prospects after release aren’t good and that what happened to me can just as easily happen to you because my circumstances are the outcome of poorly designed Facebook policies that let cyberbullies win the day. So you, too, might someday be left trying to appeal to Mark Zuckerberg’s more prurient interests with the following message:
“Mark, I’ve been a great and loyal customer. I’ve spent several thousand dollars on Facebook ads over the years. Yeah, I know, it’s a trifling amount for a company like Facebook. But pretty soon, people like me start adding up and making a real difference. I’m worth helping!”
So you’re probably wondering what I did to get thrown into Facebook jail. So let me tell you.
My crime was participation in my city’s local democracy. I dared to report about publicly available documents about four local elected officials and mentioned how they pointed out the hypocrisy of these officials’ public positions on fiscal responsibility. If you are interested in the gory details of the matter or just enjoy following the drama of small city politics in Westfield, MA, refer to these Facebook posts:
(There was a fourth post similar to these three, but in addition to getting thrown in jail, Facebook saw fit to censor my reporting.)
My posts caused a bit of stir among those who follow politics in Westfield. Known supporters of these politicians were not pleased. At first, I got the usual and expected juvenile, ad hominem attacks and other mild forms of harassment. Then, as it became clear that I could start having a consequential impact on the political reputations of these politicians, things got nastier. Using Facebook’s built-in reporting tools, attackers began feeding Facebook data points that said I had committed the crime of “fake news.” Though, as you can see from my posts, I provided clear, documented evidence for my case. Others told Facebook that I had violated the privacy of private individuals with private records even though, as previously stated, the documents I posted are records about public officials I obtained through a public records request. By law, anyone can get these documents simply by asking for them.
Normally, Facebook does not tell you who your accusers are or what, exactly, they reported. I only know because a couple of them were foolish enough to boast about making their false reports to Facebook. I created screen captures of their posts as evidence.
But the upshot was that enough bogus reports were filed against my posts to trigger a Facebook alarm, and the Facebook police carted me directly off to Facebook jail without a Facebook hearing. Facebook’s version of justice is that if enough citizens level accusations against you, no matter how grossly unfounded, the Facebook police assume guilt. Their decisions are final.
Thinking I could appeal the decision, I clicked the “This Is A Mistake” button (which really should have been labeled “This Is A Deliberate Attack”) that Facebook offers blocked users, but what I found there didn’t instill much confidence. “We aren’t able to review individual reports,” the documentation for the reporting form stated. I filed my appeal any way, hoping for the best but knew the more likely scenario was that my appeal would get round-filed into the large black hole on Facebook’s servers.
Now that I had a little time on my hands, I did some quick research on the Facebook jail phenomena. I found a post on another local politics blog, “Surf City Chronicles,” that provides an excellent, detailed summary of the Kafkaesque nature of Facebook jail and the negative impact it’s having on that city’s local politics and how false reports were undermining public dialogue. The blog post also points out that there doesn’t seem anyway to defend against a handful of dedicated individuals from continuing to file false accusations and if they are relentless enough, they can effectively silence the opinions of others on Facebook.
One of the big ironies of my story is a that I established my Facebook group and its companion Facebook page to be an alternative to another politically-oriented discussion group popular in our city where bullying runs rampant and juvenile commentary makes productive dialogue impossible. Facebook may now claim their renewed goal is to provide positive experiences, but it just sent a clear to a message to cyberbullies in my city that they can continue with their shameful behavior and get away with it.
This is yet more evidence of how Facebook can have negative consequences on our political dialogue and democracy. I’m sure my experience and the experience of the blogger from Huntington Beach, CA are not isolated. Exactly how widespread this problem is is impossible to say. But as these two experiences have shown, Facebook doesn’t seem to really care and it’s a problem that is clearly not on their radar. But we think it should be and we think they need to redouble their efforts to provide a platform that doesn’t permit such easy abuse. A platform that that has essentially become a public utility for connecting people and that can be used to indiscriminately punish individuals like me for participating in democracy should have no place in our democracy without carefully considered measures to try to prevent it from happening. If Facebook truly wants the responsibility of helping people connect and communicate in a positive way, they need to do a lot more to shoulder the responsibility of thwarting bad actors directly undermining that ability.
What will it take to get Facebook to recognize this clear problem? Perhaps foreign operatives or some powerful astro-turf organization will figure out a way to exploit this flaw in Facebook’s policy and weaponize a horde of fake accounts to silence local political forums of a particular political persuasion. Then maybe we can enjoy another “we-didn’t-take-enough-responsibility” apology tour from Mark Zuckerberg. But maybe, just maybe, Facebook will hear my story and be proactive and do its best to fix its policies.
And so if anyone can help me deliver my earlier jail cell message to Mr. Zuckerberg, I’d be deeply appreciative. For the sentimental types, it’s on behalf of all the people still care very deeply about democracy and the sacred right for every individual to participate in it.