Yesterday, I got logged out of Facebook and when I tried to log back in, I was informed that some content posted on a political satire page, which I launched but haven’t touched in a year, violated Facebook “Community Standards” and therefore I am being banned for 24 hours. This means I can log on to Facebook (though not on my phone), check and send messages, but I cannot post anything. Shortly after, I received an email from a person with whom I ran that political satire site. He was banned from Facebook for even longer than I was. Much longer. This makes little sense unless you take the bigger picture in consideration:
There are these two women in Wisconsin. One’s name is Stephanie and the other one, we’ll refer to as “X”. They, with help from others, run some of the most popular political news Facebook pages on the left side of the political spectrum in Wisconsin. All in all, over 100,000 people reportedly follow these Facebook pages, where readers can find the latest political news about Wisconsin, and political humor (not all of it in good taste). Since the beginning of the Wisconsin Uprising in February 2011, the co-admins of these websites have been engaged in a silent warfare with the right-wing “Knots” as they are sometimes called, a group formed originally to support Governor Scott Walker during the period leading to and including the failed attempt to recall him from office. Knots, in turn accuse the left-wing Facebook site publishers of trying to do the same thing to them, which is to wipe them out of existence. The fact that both sides call the opposition “trolls” only serves to muddy the waters and to rally supporters.
What is it that these Knots do to take down progressive pages? They find ways to attach themselves to various protest sites – become fans, leave comments, share posts, become friends with the page administrators, if it all possible, and then report some or all of the content produced and shared, to Facebook claiming that this content violates Facebook’s “community standards”. Facebook asks some qualifying questions and then issues a decision, but what has become evident, is that Knots gained an upper hand by figuring out how to navigate Facebook standards in order to effectively shut down progressive news pages, affecting how tens of thousands of people receive information and communicate with each other.
All of this may seem somewhere between “someone else’s drama” and “geek warfare”, but I find the situation deeply disturbing.
As a way to bring spotlight to this, I recently contacted Stephanie and “X” and asked both women to appear on Discover Janesville, in order to perhaps attract some “main stream media” attention to this situation. Here’s the link to the podcast Spotlight on Internet Activism: Persecuted by Facebook
The fact that this interview attracted attention of Knots, is not surprising. If I learned anything in my time serving on Janesville City Council, it is that the one group most likely to read the news story, is the group discussed in the story. And that’s what happened here. Knots even wrote about it here: The Girls That Cried Wolf? on the blog Knot My Wisconsin. Hi Knots, thanks for reading and listening!
Doing an interview and showing support for these women – private citizens attacked for questioning the job done by publicly elected officials and political appointees – appears to have placed me on the Knots’ radar. Naturally, according to the Knots’ own website, it’s the attacks by these women against the right-wing radio hosts, as well as having multiple Facebook accounts, (more on that later), that has really enraged the Knots. All of this is just another indication of how wrong things have gone in Wisconsin politics in the last few years. As payback for showing support for these women (or as some would “Solidarity”), the Knots decided to single me out for an attack, and found a way to get me banned from Facebook, (though for now it is only for 24 hours) for a content I may have posted on a political satire page over a year ago. Hey, it could’ve been worse.
If you have never been banned from Facebook, it is a weird situation because you can be there looking at posts, but you are not allowed to make any posts yourself or update any page you may be running. You can’t even “like” anything. Your friends don’t notice that you’re gone unless they expect you to make posts and you suddenly don’t. You become a ghost of sorts. This happens to people all the time and frequently for good reason, but it’s also clear that the system is in a strong need of recalibration as it is being exploited for political gain.
About the multiple accounts. Since this is an ongoing conflict, it is not unusual for people engaged in these battles to have more than one account, sometimes called “zombi” because it is what you use to get the information out and to share information with others, while your primary account remains in the Facebook “jail”. In my case, I chose not to go that route. Besides being a clear violation of Facebook rules, I see this as an opportunity to make a point and to hopefully attract some badly needed attention to this unfortunate situation. I also attempt to look at the bigger issue here, and what I see is that our elected leaders need to get involved in investigating this situation further though for different reasons than what you might think.
From a distance this may seem to be nothing more than a social media tiff gone too far, easy to ignore because it’s “just Facebook”, but this would be wrong. What is happening with Facebook bans does matter, and not only because people have a right to express themselves. For better or for worse, Facebook is a private company, and from the financial point of view, it is only their stockholders who suffer from the damage caused by a group of political activists exploiting Facebook “community standards” in order to gain advantage over their political enemies. Facebook management who has to be aware of this situation, may consider it to be nothing more then cost of doing business where from their point of view the benefits of deleting most questionable content and banning users indiscriminately, is better than risking turning off the advertisers who are the ones paying the tab for the whole enterprise. Welcome to Capitalism 101, right?
However, what our political leaders need to remember is that Facebook and other social media outlets are the Grassroots and this is how the information is relayed these days. If these grassroots are damaged or disappear, at some point in a not-too-distant future, when our leaders will need the support of the people, they may not have an important opportunity to communicate, engage and motivate their supporters if pages such as “I will get more “Likes” than Scott Walker” and others, are gone.
As anyone can tell from their names, these pages are not run by paid political staffers. These pages are run by volunteers passionate about keeping people informed. Losing these pages, would be a real win for the Knots and a loss for Wisconsin, social media and democracy. It is therefore that I call for our Legislators at all levels to examine this situation as a matter of public policy, and to hopefully approach it as a serious matter in need of public debate. Should Facebook executives be called on to explain their approach to maintaining these so-called “community standards”, which all-too-frequently result in a crack down on political dissent and free speech? Perhaps they should be.
I look forward to continuing this important conversation further this Friday, when I will guest host WORT 89.9 FM public affairs hour from noon until 1 pm. I hope you will tune in and call in if you got a story or a possible solution, you want to share.
UPDATE: I contacted Facebook requesting to have someone representing Facebook to appear with me on WORT 89.9 on Friday, and received an email back from Facebook PR department stating that “Unfortunately at this time, we are unable to participate”.