Opinion

The Facebook Bug that Many Feared Was Censorship

FB glitchery (photo by Deanna Haggag)
Facebook refusing to allow posting this evening (photo by Deanna Haggag)

This afternoon we published a series of photographs from Baltimore, portraits of police officers and citizens on the streets by artist Nate Larson. The headline contains the hashtag #BaltimoreUprising. I posted a link to the piece on my Facebook page shortly afterward — and not two hours later, that link was gone.

I’ve had links on Facebook flagged and removed for allegedly violating the site’s “community standards.” But never before in my experience had a link been summarily removed from my page, without notice. That’s what happened, and not only to me but to other people too.

Larson’s wife, dramaturg LaRonika Thomas, had posted the link on Facebook “and at first it posted correctly,” she said. “When I returned to look at it after someone liked it, I found it had disappeared. It also will not let me re-post it (I get a completely blank window for the Facebook share window when I try to do this). I then noticed someone else commenting that Facebook seemed to be throttling posts about or deleting posts about #BaltimoreUprising and #FreddieGray.”

Yes. Mine are gone too. Two posts so far, also with hashtagblacklivesmatter,” said artist and Hyperallergic contributor Chloë Bass, when I asked — on Facebook, naturally — if this had happened to anyone else. Another friend, a journalist, said he’d tried to post a story about Baltimore and been stopped by the social media site. Ginevra Shay, program manager at The Contemporary in Baltimore, posted a status update saying, “FB just denied me access to two articles related to Freddie Gray,” and added that the same thing had happened to another friend. Her thread grew rapidly longer with people commenting that they’d variously had posts disappear from their pages or been blocked from posting stories or clicking through to them, many about Baltimore and Freddie Gray.

The whole thing began very quickly to look and feel like censorship, and people said as much. But was it actually limited to stories about Baltimore, or are stories about Baltimore just what many of us are sharing on Facebook right now? Some others soon chimed in with reports of being unable to post pictures of their kids, wedding photographs, and “completely unrelated science articles.” Social media company SocialFlow tweeted: “Facebook confirmed API issue starting at 5:15 EST. Looks like it’s now resolved and publishing is going back to normal. We are monitoring.” So, it wasn’t censorship after all — just Facebook being extremely glitchy. And lo and behold, by the time I finished writing this, my post with #BaltimoreUprising had been restored to my page.

I contacted Facebook for an explanation, and a spokesperson wrote back:

An error in our system that helps block bad links on Facebook incorrectly marked some URLs as malicious or inappropriate. As a result, some existing posts were hidden, while other posts were blocked completely. We’ve resolved the issue and the remaining affected URLs are being unblocked. We apologize for the inconvenience this has caused.

Still, the episode is a scary reminder of just how much we rely on Facebook and just how little control we have over it — especially as the company increases its push toward keeping news and media content in-site. One friend’s comments prompted me to revisit Facebook’s “community standards,” which include this part about “Criminal Activity”:

We prohibit the use of Facebook to facilitate or organize criminal activity that causes physical harm to people, businesses or animals, or financial damage to people or businesses. We work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.

It’s notable how much protection businesses get there, right alongside people and animals, especially in light of so much hand-wringing about looting in Baltimore. And for anyone who fears and mistrusts the police — with good reason — knowing that Facebook “works with law enforcement” isn’t exactly inspiring.

On the one hand, given how ineffective Twitter has been at dealing with threats and abuse, it’s inspiring that Facebook wants to try to enforce some standards. On the other, Facebook has a long legacy of overzealous censorship, not to mention collaboration with the NSA. Given that as well as the chaotic state of Baltimore right now, it’s hardly surprising that so many of us were quick to believe we were being censored. It’s also telling.

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