So you open up your Facebook account, all fired up and ready to check in with friends and family, comment on posts and basically use the social media platform the way its makers have designed it for you to use. But wait. Something is wrong. You have been logged off your account an ominous message is waiting for you.
“WE REMOVED SOMETHING YOU POSTED” Follow by this:
The offending comment(s) you are being punished for seems innocuous and forgettable. But it doesn’t matter.
Welcome to Facebook Jail. With each occurrence like this, your jail sentence will grow. One day. Three days. Seven days. 60 days. Two months. Forever.
Nobody is quite sure how it works. But an increasingly number of people are learning day by day that it is unfair, inexplicable and impossible to appeal.
There have been a number of articles about it in recent years, but not the sort of attention you’d think it would garner given how dependent so many have become on the social media platform. In many cases, people run businesses, family matters, maintain archives; store their entire lives on Facebook. And then boom. One day they wake and find that they have no more access or ability to communicate.
When something is removed from Facebook, it is not as if Facebook itself has some sort of on-line police force monitoring content. Those removals are prompted by reports that anyone can make when a comment or post bothers them. Reports are 100% anonymous and you can report anything. As you will see in just a bit, if people begin reporting in an organized, calculated way, even the simple word “whatever” may be enough to get you tossed in jail.
But when people file reports, what exactly happens at Facebook?
Some minor media attention
The New York Times wrote about it back in 2015. Sort of.
In the piece, the Times reported that:
Facebook will still rely on users to report violations of the standards. Ms. Bickert said that the company had review teams working at all hours of the day around the globe, and that every report was examined by one of them before a decision was made.
But Facebook wants to take into account the full context of a post, Ms. Bickert said. For example, a victim of a violent attack might post images on Facebook as a way of raising public awareness. “Sometimes the best way to share information about atrocities in the world is Facebook,” she said. “We recognize that is a very challenging issue.”
Facebook’s rulings can also be appealed. “If a person’s account is suspended, those appeals are read by real people who can look into the specifics,” she said.
So here, Facebook (which amazingly allowed someone to be quoted on the record- given their penchant for corporate secrecy) shares that there are actually “review teams” “ reading each complaint. But think about that. How much would they actually read? Would they go back weeks, months, even year to get the full context of what might have sent a discussion into the danger zone? Doubtful. And I can tell you from firsthand experience, the claim that Facebook’s rulings can be “appealed” for content branded as offensive or inappropriate is simply not true.
The Washington Post took on the topic to some degree and the Guardian also spent some time on this issue.
In their piece, the Guardian wrote: “When it comes to public figures, Facebook maintains that it allows “open and critical discussion” of celebrities and people featured in the news, while warning that it will remove “credible threats to public figures, as well as hate speech directed at them – just as we do for private individuals.”
Huntington Beach, we have a problem
“Open and critical discussion… of people featured in the news?” That’s when I had to chuckle. See, here in Huntington Beach, California, where I live, there is an elected public official that has sent a chill through a large swath of the community because mysteriously, critiques of her or her performance seems to mysteriously get removed from Facebook, resulting in dozens of Facebook jailings.
Her name is Gina Clayton Tarvin and she is the head of the Ocean View School District. She is very polarizing. Some support her rabid community organizing and frequent Facebook presence. Others find her political machinations and public attacks on private citizens beyond the scope of her elected duties. I fall into the latter category. I’ve blogged about the silencing of her critics on multiple occasions, posting the exact comments that resulted in people’s Facebook accounts being banned. You can read some of my coverage here, here, here and here. None of it has ever been formally challenged by either Tarvin or the district.
She is someone that has, on occasion called my editor at the local newspaper where I once wrote a column. In my editor’s view, she was applying pressure when she read something she took issue with on social media. It frustrated my editor to receive calls from an elected official regarding public expression, but he did cite some arcane Los Angeles Times social media guidelines (written in the 1990s) as a reason that I should not discuss her on Facebook. He didn’t want problems, but her calls made him uneasy. She was, in my editor’s own words, “Clearly trying to suppress opposing voices that disagreed with her.”
But was she now extending those same efforts to actually shut down Facebook accounts?
Here is a collection of some of the comments about Tarvin by a variety of critics that all had their accounts suspended. In most cases these are parents that live in the district and concerned citizens. There are no threats, no language I would describe as profane, and no personal information given out. I’ve masked the names of all private citizens, leaving only the names of Tarvin and other elected officials.
This first one is something I posted myself. There was a discussion with her supporters saying she was being “smeared” when people merely asked her questions. Ironically, this comment got me banned for one full month:
It goes on and on and on and on…
There are MANY more of these examples. All of them regard Tarvin. In some cases her name is typed out. But even when referred to by her initials, “GCT,” like in the last image, accounts are being taken down. How could Facebook possibly justify banning accounts over comments like this? Again, this doesn’t happen by accident. Those comments were reported by the public, Facebook did not go looking for them. It doesn’t work like that.
Locally, citizens (myself included) have attempted to ask Tarvin about what exactly is going on. I’ve sent these questions to her personally numerous times – each email has been ignored:
Ms. Tarvin: I’m writing a piece for my blog. surfcitychronicles.com, regarding a growing number of HB residents actually being banned from using Facebook after posting critical comments of you. I have approximately 8 people involved thus far, with several more being researched.
I have two questions for you:
- Are you involved at all in the campaigns against these people, either by directly reporting them or encouraging surrogates to do so?
- Would you care to make a statement as to your opinion of these actions and what is happening to these residents?
Again, zero response after multiple queries. What sort of elected official ignores questions as important as these?
I went to numerous school board meetings to speak at public comments about the Facebook situation (as others did, too). The topic was ignored, so I’d try to ask my question after the meeting as Tarvin would walk to her car. But by then, she was being escorted at meetings by an actual armed guard – ignoring all questions as she left (and who wants to challenge an armed guard? This felt like another intimidating tactic to silence critics).
At another public event, at a library, a citizen attempted to ask her about what had been with his account when he criticized her. Her supporters formed a human barricade around her, and the police were called. The man asked questions. That was it. The police told him he was being accused of trespassing, assault and, astonishingly, false imprisonment (he had cat-called his questions to her outside as she left, after being tossed, and evidently she felt unsafe leaving the building. I wrote about the incident here.)
Then this happened. One night after I spoke at a school board meeting, which was being live-streamed via Facebook Live, a viewer wrote the following in response to myself and others that questioned Tarvin:
This was something I wanted to report to Facebook. I mean, if accounts were taken down for gently critiquing Tarvin, surely this one crossed the line. So I reported it. I soon received this message:
That’s right. Facebook Community Standards had no problem with that comment. Under their review system, whatever that may be, it violated nothing.
With no way to actually reach a Facebook representative, I tried posting in one of their “help” forums. This was ignored.
But I did find this post in a Facebook “help” forum, and discovered a bit of Orwellian language that intrigued me:
“Facebook receives signals from the community and may establish limits to prevent behavior that other people on the site may find unwanted and annoying.” Really? What exactly constitutes “Signals from the community?” Perhaps an organized group that acts in tandem to erase comments (and people) that don’t fit their political narrative?
Some opinions about what is happening
All of the people I’ve spoken to that have had their accounts banned for talking about Tarvin ask the same question, “How does she do it?” Or “How do her supporters do it?” There are no easy or definitive answers. As I said, I have tried reaching out to Facebook many times, to no avail. A friend of mine who has worked with the company before reached out to a contact there in regards to shedding light on the company’s banning policy. They were told, “Nobody is allowed to discuss any banning policies. That is 100% off-limits.” When I learned that an old friend of mine had taken a job at Facebook, I queried them about the same topic. I was told essentially the same thing. “Don’t even bother going there. They will not engage on that subject.”
Someone requesting anonymity here in Huntington Beach shared with me that there is a group of locals that “mob reports” on behalf of the school board trustee president. My source was unwilling to say what the president’s involvement was because they weren’t sure. As it was explained to me, “There are no physical trails of this stuff for obvious reasons. It’s phone calls, private texts and in-person meetings. But they definitely figured out that if a “community” of people begins reporting something, then they can be very effective. It seems that once Facebook recognizes somebody as a culprit, they seem more apt to ban them no matter how innocuous their comments. And once Facebook decides that a term like “Crooked Gina” is offensive, it seems there’s no un-doing that action.” It seems clear that there is some kind of algorithmic formula that, once triggered, is hard to undue. Also, given that people can create as many false profiles is that like, exponentially, a handful of people can report something hundreds of times, setting off potential Facebook alarms. That’s the key – the “mobbing” – mass reporting against a comment or post, no matter how innocuous it may be ,
Another person within Tarvin’s network said to me, “Look, she may have some kind of tacit involvement here without getting her fingerprints on it. It’s hard to believe that the person named in many of the reports is not taking part. Facebook seems to respond strongest to complaints when the person reporting matches the name of the person being attacked. So draw your own conclusions.”
In my opinion, the bottom line is this: any elected official that sees this going on on their behalf, is not part of it, and refuses to issue any sort of public distance from this kind of silencing, is suspicious. People are being punished for voicing their opinions, period. If an elected official is involved in that, it matters.
If Tarvin and/or her supporters have indeed figured out how to game the Facebook banning system, I think the public deserves to know. That’s just my opinion. When elected official try to stifle dissent, I do think it becomes a first amendment issue. But voters here in Huntington Beach will have to decide what they think about this. We as voters have the power to remove her. The rest of the school board, I’m sure, could also force her exit.
How to fix the problem
All that said, this kind of free expression abuse takes two, and Facebook’s draconian, woefully inconsistent policies regarding being banned are 100% to blame. They created the system which is being abused, and I have two suggestions that I believe would fix these problems immediately:
- Remove the anonymity for people who report problems.After all, if you’re going to be placed in jail, are you not entitled to know who your accusers are? I know the anonymity is probably put in place to protect people. But when the rule ends up actually protecting the bad guys, what does that say about it the policy?
- Start suspending the accounts of those who abuse the “report” button. For instance, let’s say you report 10 things and none of them rise to the standard of punishment – I think that should result in some Facebook Jail time.
Facebook strives so hard to create “community” yet allows, even facilitates a chilling brand of speech policing and punishment.
Oh and lastly. This really happened. A local mom who has been critical of Tarvin had a terse but lighthearted exchange with one of Tarvin’s most vicious, vociferous supporters. She ended the chat with the words “(NAME), Whatever you say! Lol” – and was banned for a month. Mr. Zuckerberg, free these people.