When I checked Facebook Thursday morning, a huge, ugly warning had taken over the screen on the app. Thinking it could be glitch, I tried it on a web browser on my MacBook, but I got the same bizarre warning.
Facebook had blocked me from using my personal account — posting, commenting or taking any other actions — for the next three days. Why? The shocking explanation was that I had allegedly been posting content related to “child sexual exploitation.”
I was shocked and angry at such an ugly accusation.
The warning said that the content had been removed, but it would not tell me what the offending content might have been. I could ask for a review of the decision, but it said the review would take something like four or five days. When I pressed the appeal anyway, I found that it was useless, because it wanted me to explain why my offending post didn’t violate Facebook’s rules — even though it wouldn’t tell me what the offending post was.
My Facebook profile is public, so anybody can see what I post. Most of what I post consists of cat and dog photos. I make observations about things I see in the world. I post a few ridiculous jokes. But I’ve never posted anything even vaguely sexual, much less anything related to “child sexual exploitation.”
But because of an automated moderation system that apparently has the intelligence of a rather idiotic earthworm, I finally experienced what friends of mine have experienced before. I’m in “Facebook jail.”
It concerns me that we are turning over more and more of our public life and public discourse to companies which can control what we’re allowed to say to each other — and which have zero accountability for their actions and mistakes.
In the early days of the Internet, we were mostly posting on small and privately owned message boards. And when it came to the bigger services — such as CompuServe — there were human users who were chosen to make judgment calls about what should be allowed. (I was a CompuServe “discussion leader” and later a “SysOp” for various forums, so I knew the system well.)
Now that social media is controlled by a few major companies — most notably Facebook’s parent Meta, which operates Facebook, Instagram and Threads — everything seems to be on autopilot at the level of moderation. And there is zero accountability when the companies get something wrong, as they clearly have in my case.
I’ve had friends complain over the years that they had been similarly sent to “Facebook jail” for a few days, but with some of them, I’ve thought they seemed like the sort of people who might have posted something that crossed a line. I didn’t know for sure what they might have posted.
In my case, though, I know everything I’ve posted — and there’s been nothing that was even slightly objectionable. It leaves me frustrated and angry about a corporate bureaucracy that has no reason to care that it occasionally gets things wrong. As long as Meta is still selling billions and billions of dollars in advertising, why should Mark Zuckerberg care that he occasionally accuses people — falsely — of something vile?
I know from other experience with Facebook that the moderation is being done by very inept software. For instance, the software deleted a comment I made a couple of years ago (and warned me of more punishment) when I jokingly responded to a friend’s comment with the line, “Burn the heretic!” — or something very similar. The subject was something that nobody took seriously and we were joking about having different preferences about the matter. But the software claimed I made a threat of violence.
I’m annoyed right now that I can’t explain to my friends on Facebook why I haven’t posted for the last day and a half and why I haven’t responded to the many comments I had waiting for me. I’ve emailed or text messaged a few people to let them know. A couple of others have sent me emails to check on me.
In the long run, it won’t matter that I’m away from Facebook for three days. People will miss out on the cat and dog photos I’ve posted. They will be spared my inane thoughts about whatever crosses my mind. And they might be saved from a few ridiculous jokes.
But it reminds me that I’m at the mercy of a company which can throw me off its service at any point. (You might remember that Twitter blocked my account, then apologized for doing so — but never unblocked me — about two years ago. And since the folks at Twitter ignored every message I sent to support, I gave up on the account.)
I don’t like feeling as though I’m vulnerable to the whims and errors of a bureaucracy that has no reason to care about doing the right thing. There’s something deeply disturbing about the fact that we’ve turned over so much of our public discourse to these unaccountable giants — but I don’t know what we can do to change it at this point.