Caption: Photo of phone with the Facebook login screen and Scrabble words spelling “social media” (Courtesy of Unsplash)
A week ago, on Thursday May 18, I went on Facebook, typed in my password for my personal account, and saw the screen below that told me my account was disabled. Not my official Facebook fan page, which is still fine, but my personal account.
Caption: Screenshot from my computer of my disabled personal account
Being sure it was a minor glitch, I went on the FAQ page, which asked me to submit my photo ID. After doing so, the following page informed me I would get an email shortly. Well, I’m still waiting for that email a week from submitting my IDs. I re-submitted them several times since then, and still no word.
Imagine if this happened to you – those of you who use Facebook, at least (over half of the population in North America). Being cut off from all those social contacts spanning the geographical divide, from your photos and memories, from the free-flowing discussions in Facebook messenger, from Facebook groups that provide a virtual community for you. How would you feel – sad, angry, anxious, frustrated?
I felt all those and more. My personal account on Facebook serves as the main source of my virtual social network. I post everything there, from my cat pictures and personal videos, to updates about my tensions with religious conservative family members and my mental illness. Facebook messenger allows me to connect with friends throughout the day, sending funny pictures or asking how they are doing or sharing about my life. I’ve been especially focused on a close friend who’s going through a major depression, and have been trying to keep tabs on him and support him through our Facebook communication. It’s devastating to be cut off from all of those, and I’m particularly worried about that friend.
More than that, I’m a power user of Facebook, which is key for my activism promoting truth and rational thinking in our politics, personal beliefs, and other life areas. If I just used it for my casual social network, I would have about 500 or so Facebook friends and belong to 10 or so groups. Instead, my personal account has over 3K friends, and I am a member of hundreds of political and secular groups.
I make several posts daily on my personal account, and also keep tabs on and interact with these groups in my role as the volunteer President of Intentional Insights, a nonprofit devoted to promoting reason and rational thinking in our society. I use my personal account to help manage my official fan page, and the fan page of Intentional Insights. All of my posts regarding my public activism are public, and many are widely shared by my Facebook connections.
Being cut off from all that is just as bad, and even more immediately pressing than my social network. I’m working on helping organize the March for Truth Ohio (Columbus) on June 3, and much of the organizing takes place through Facebook. So I failed to carry out a number of tasks that I committed to doing, and couldn’t even communicate about that to other organizers, at least those with whom I communicated through Facebook (and there are so many people who don’t check their email well these days).
Caption: Screenshot from my computer of “March for Truth-Ohio (Columbus) page”
Facebook messenger serves as the main tool I use to schedule secular podcasts, including four scheduled during the past week from May 18 to 25 – Ask an Atheist, Secular Stories, Secular Yakking, and Skepticality. With my account deactivated, all our Facebook messenger exchanges disappeared, including information about how to get in contact through Skype and other means. As a result, three of these podcasts didn’t happen. The list can go on and on of projects and activities that failed due to Facebook disabling my account.
As you can imagine, each of these failures caused additional distress and anxiety for me, exacerbating my mental illness. Fortunately, I was able to process the situation with my therapist, and take additional medications besides my regular ones to address my growing anxiety and depression.
Of course, I didn’t just twiddle my thumbs during this period. I spent time doing activist work outside of Facebook, and also did research on this problem of Facebook disabling accounts. What I discovered was a recent spate of Facebook disabling or banning secular groups, pages, and personal accounts, in the US and around the world. Such disabling or banning are part of a longer trend of prominent secular Facebook venues getting closed down.
My research also showed that plenty of people got punished by Facebook with bans or suspensions or restrictions for expressing political opinions, including state governors as well as activists. Such actions by Facebook are also part of a longer trend (1, 2, 3).
Apparently, what happens is that Facebook automatically blocks accounts when a number of Facebook users reported them. Reporting is pretty easy – it takes 30 seconds. Gaming the algorithm is simple, just get a bunch of people to gang up on someone and report them to Facebook. After a certain number of reports, the account gets disabled. It usually takes public prominence to re-enable an account disabled this way, through either getting a lot of people to complain to Facebook about an account being disabled, or through a personal connection to Facebook staff. Otherwise, Facebook usually sends you a message in a couple of days about the reason for your account being disabled, or re-enables it – and I haven’t heard anything from Facebook for a week.
Looking back, I would not be surprised if someone did organize a mass reporting attack on my account. I made all of my activist posts public, thus visible to be reported by anyone who may not like my activities. At the same time, I have been getting more prominence recently for my activism combining the two most triggering activities for Facebook bans, politics and religion. I appeared on a whole host of secular podcasts in recent months, including the Ra-Men Podcast, The Scathing Atheist, The Inciting Incident Podcast, Bi Any Means, Danthropology, Stark Truth Radio, The Gaytheist Manifesto, Investing Skeptically, I Doubt It With Dollemore, Cellar Door Skeptics, Sensibly Speaking, The Humanist Hour, and others. I got my own Patheos blog, and my publications appeared in The Humanist, Skeptical Inquirer, Free Inquiry, American Atheist Magazine, and elsewhere. My political activism led to publications in Time, New York Daily News, Psychology Today, The Conversation, Salon, Scientific American, Alternet, Truthout, The Plain Dealer, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post and elsewhere; appearances on network TV, such as affiliates of ABC and Fox, and radio stations such as NPR, WBAI, KGO, 700WLW, Sunny 95, KLRD, WNYU, AM980, and others.
My suspicion is that the Pro-Truth Pledge, which has been the focus of my recent activism, serves as the cause for the mass attack on me. This sub-project of Intentional Insights serves to reverse the tide of lies in our political sphere and uplift the role of truth through combining behavioral science and crowdsourcing.
Caption: Screenshot from my computer of my Pro-Truth Pledge home page
It’s triggered quite a bit of controversy both in comments on articles themed around the pledge, and in comments on podcasts and videocasts. Many of these podcast hosts, such as Aron Ra, took the pledge. So did plenty of secular activists who work behind the scenes, such as the Executive Director of the Secular Student Alliance August Brunsman and Andy Norman, Humanism Initiative Director at Carnegie Mellon University. It also had a clear impact on politics, with a number of politicians such as Jay Baumeister, Ed Albertson, Jordan Cooper, and Dan Epstein taking the pledge and posting a pledge badge on their website.
This likely did not sit well with many folks who did not want truth and rational thinking to prevail in our political system or in our personal beliefs in the divine, or the lack thereof – whether in the US or around the world, as the Pro-Truth Pledge project is global. I’ve received plenty of hate mail about the Pro-Truth Pledge due to my outreach. Seeing my extensive Facebook activism, it’s pretty reasonable for someone to organize a mass attack on me so as to impede this project by targeting my personal Facebook account. Another possible explanation is that Facebook is unhappy with my criticism of Facebook for not doing enough to combat fake news, but I give that a lower probability, as it would mean a deliberate decision to censor me rather than an automatic censorship apparatus due to mass attacks.
To be clear, Facebook deserves part of the blame for this situation. By setting up a system where very few reports are sufficient to get an account blocked, they enable unscrupulous individuals to abuse the rules. Facebook has a long track record of failing to address this issue. People have driven across the country to Facebook headquarters and sued Facebook to no avail.
At least I have other venues with some public exposure, like my Twitter account with over 15K followers, and my blog venues in prominent channels. What would happen to anyone who was targeted and did not have such resources? What would happen if your account was disabled and you did not have any such resources?
Facebook needs to change their system of monitoring so that secular and political activists – and ordinary people – are not vulnerable to mass attacks by haters who do not appreciate the work they are doing in the world to promote truth and rational thinking. If you support this message, please share this post widely (including, ironically, on Facebook), and if any of you have any contacts with Facebook staff, please bring it to their attention. Let’s take this viral and change the system!
**Update — thanks to complaints to Facebook by those who read this post and others, my account was restored!**
P.S. I took the Pro-Truth Pledge, and can attest that all statements in this post are accurate to the extent of my knowledge. If you find something incorrect, please let me know, and I’ll be glad to update my beliefs and retract that information. I hope you take the pledge, too and thanks!