Tales from the Net

a work in progress

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

How to respond when Facebook censors your political speech: Part 1

Cross-posted on the Wired How-To Wiki.

Several now-deleted threads on public Facebook discussion groups, including Is anybody else getting spam warnings? and Everytime I post something here I get a “WARNING” from facebook.com discuss how Facebook’s automated filters mistake political speech for spam. When you trigger these automated filters, the system starts issuing repeated warning messages when you send messages, post on discussion boards, or write on walls:

Facebook warning: your account could be disabled

It’s really intimidating when this happens — as I found out first hand, especially once I started warnings continuously, even for checking my messages. And labor activists Derek and MiniMSFT, Hillary Clinton supporter Joanna, and Barack Obama supporters AJ and “deleted” (the now-anonymous deleted poster from one of the above threads), along with many others (1, 2, 3) have discovered that it’s not an idle threat.  Accounts are sometimes disabled, often with very little notice.

Facebook’s ‘Warning – Blocked from Using Feature’ page isn’t a lot of help. Basically, it

  • establishes the power vectors: “Facebook has determined that you were using a feature at a rate that is likely to be abusive”
  • lets you know you are in a Kafkaesque universe: “Unfortunately, Facebook cannot provide any specifics on the rate limits that we enforce. “
  • asserts omniscience: “Please know, however, that the speed at which you are acting and the sheer number of actions you have made are both taken into account”
  • reminds you that have no rights: “The duration of the block varies depending on the nature of the offense, ranging from a few hours to a few days…. Facebook will not lift this block for you until the entire penalty time has elapsed”)
  • and takes the opportunity to advertise:: “As a recommended alternative, we suggest you check out the Facebook Application Directory”.

Hopefully these threads-in-progress will be somewhat more useful.

In practice, things aren’t anywhere near as grim as Facebook paints them. When you trigger a warning, there are some simple steps to that usually keep things from getting worse, and protect you in case they do. And even in the worst case, most of the people who have had their accounts disabled have had them reinstated. Read on for more about Facebook’s automated filters; and see part 2 for What to do when you start getting warnings and What to do if your account gets deactivated.

Facebook’s automated filters

The goal of the automated filters is to cut down the amount of spam Facebook users have to deal with — something we all appreciate the value of. Unfortunately, sometimes legitimate political speech looks like spam; and the filters don’t understand the difference.

Facebook has not disclosed much information about its filtering policies. This section collects what we know so far, based on Facebook’s policy statements, responses by Facebook support, and experiences of various activists.

Update: 13 reasons your Facebook account will be disabled and facebook account disabled, on GetSatisfaction, both discuss this subject and go into a lot more detail

Making too many friends

Facebook has a limit on how many friends you can make. Union activist Derek Blackadder added too many friends too quickly, and when he continued after Facebook’s warnings his account was disabled. bwitai posted on Get Satisfaction:

haha, my account is deactivated just now. i googled about account disabled and found this forum. here’s my story: i have hit the warning twice already in 3 months and both hit what they called a “block” from adding friends. this history was few months back and i have stopped such activities. recently, i continued such action because i got bored at work. i recieved a pink warning message again and i stopped adding friends to prevent hitting a “block” or account disabled. a day later, i come back and i noticed the warning is gone. it was another boring working day, and i kept on adding people. all in a sudden, my facebook account asked me to sign in to view the page… and i realized my account was disabled this time without a warning this time.

Posting the same text in multiple places

Mail from Facebook has confirmed that this can trigger filters; the specifics and exact thresholds are unknown.

On having their account restored, some activists have received warnings “Please refrain from sending the same message or repeating the same post, as further violations of our Terms will result in your account being permanently disabled.”

 

Exact duplicates with links?

Jon documented a case where posting a “get out the vote” message with links to information for polling locations twice within an hour on a politician’s Wall immediately triggered a spam warning.

Bumping?

Facebook’s discussion functionality is very limited and does not allow for “pinning” a thread to the top of a board, but usefully does sort by time. In a situation where trolls are trying to disrupt communication with irrelevant or abusive threads, users often coordinate to put short comments at the bottom of useful threads to keep them at or near the top. Following a tradition in online music boards, this is referred to as “bumping”. A frequent convention is just to put in the word “bump”.

During the February 2008 primary season, several activists started receiving warnings about duplicate text that as best as could be determined were triggered by this. A useful workaround is to include some useful information as part of the bump — or at the very least, a short amusing message.

 

Cut-and-paste?

There’s some evidence that cut-and-pasting text makes it more likely to trigger warnings. Facebook’s comments that “the speed at which you are acting and the sheer number of actions you have made are both taken into account” are consistent with this.

Being “reported”

On discussion boards, Facebook allows users to “report” posts for violating the code of conduct: hate speech, abuse, advocating illegal activity, etc.

Joanna and AJ both had their accounts terminated by Facebook with virtually no notice in situations where ‘malicious reporting’ (by trolls, griefers, and/or political operatives engaging in dirty tricks) appears to have been the cause.

 

Posting too many links?

Several activists believe that they triggered the filters by posting too many links even though no duplicates were involved. Jon documented a couple of potential examples (1, 2) of this.

Continued in part 2.

posted by Jon at 11:33 am  

37 Comments

  1. [...] this was the last word on the Blackadder affair. But since then, other last words worth reading are here (Tales from the Net) and here [...]

    Pingback by johninnit » Blog Archive » Famous last words… — February 20, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  2. In previous discussion between Facebook Application Developers and the Core Development Group. Its been a issue in which Facebooks Staff will not disclose the filters it employs in its core API. This causes concerns that an application which invokes the message system might invoke the wrath of Facebook disabling it as spam.

    Comment by Devin — February 20, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  3. It’s a good point, Devin: this kind of behavior is very typical of the secrecy that Facebook and many other platform vendors want to keep. A typical argument is that they don’t want to disclose their algorithms so that spammers can get around them. Of course, this is a classic “security through obscurity” approach, and very often all party’s interests are better served via a more transparent approach, where at least some of the informaiton is shared — and reviewed — broadly.

    jon

    Comment by Jon — February 20, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  4. And John, thanks for posting — and good post of your own! Please see my reply there

    jon

    Comment by Jon — February 20, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

  5. This story’s starting to get some coverage. Shai Sachs has an excellent piece on MyDD:

    There’s been a lot of buzz lately about Facebook “censorship” of free speech. The Blackadder One case I wrote about a couple weeks ago was just an early warning sign of more trouble to come. Recently Jon Pincus has been posting a series of diaries at Tales from the Net and Liminal States about his encounter with problems very similar to those Derek Blackadder ran into when he tried to organize workers on Facebook. Pincus’s posts include a very good trail of documentation of the problems he’s encountering, which make this series one of the more interesting resources on Facebook censorship I’ve seen.

    And Elise Ackerman and John Boudreau phrase it nicely in the San Jose Mercury News’ Tech Notebook:

    According to Facebook, it can be as little as two "get out the vote" wall posts on a Web page maintained by the popular social-networking site.

    That's what Jon Pincus, a Seattle-based technologist, discovered when he posted information for Hawaiian and Wisconsin voters earlier this week on Obama's Facebook Web page.

    Comment by Jon — February 24, 2008 @ 9:01 am

  6. My favorite part of the MyDD article was referring to your work as “the Pincus guide.” Personally, this one seems more practical than the last Pincus guide I ran across — “Pincus Since the Civil War” which I was once offered for an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime price of $29.99.

    Comment by Gregory K. — February 24, 2008 @ 9:22 pm

  7. This happened to me once with Hotmail. I got completely blocked from accessing any/ all of my mail as a result. The only reason I was able to get the ban lifted was that I worked at Microsoft at the time and found a PM via the internal address book. There was NO way to get help thru regular customer service channels. Said PM reviewed my mail, determined there was no offense and lifted the ban, but would not disclose what had triggered the ban.

    Comment by Eve E — February 27, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  8. oops – hit post too soo..
    So the point of my story is that email we store on a service like hotmail or gmail is not treated as our “personal property”. We tend to forget that. And for good reason, MSN and other providers make it sound like we get space on their servers. But when it comes down to it – they control and find ways to capitalize on all that “personal” content.

    Comment by Eve E — February 27, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

  9. Eve, it really is an advantage having friends on the inside. And good point about how it’s not just Facebook; a friend of mine told me that her Mom got warned as a spammer on AOL!

    And Greg, I’m always happy to contribute to name recognition for Pinci. Pincii?

    Comment by Jon — March 3, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  10. Daniel Solove’s Facebook Banishment and Due Process (on Concurring Opinions) discusses David Lat’s situation: account terminated “suddenly and inexplicably”, no reply to his appeals. Lat is author of the blog Above the Law, and like a lot of people has valuable information in his Facebook account. Solove asks some provocative questions:

    As more of our lives become dependent on Web 2.0 technologies, should we have some sort of rights or consumer protection? Is Facebook the digital equivalent to the company town? …

    As more people use Web 2.0 applications, they are increasingly encouraged to invest an incredible amount of time and effort in them. Facebook wants and encourages people to put up information, to build one’s network, and so on. Given people’s investment in these applications, should they be granted any kind of rights or protections in using them?

    Solove also linked out to Thor Muller’s 13 Reasons your Facebook account will be disabled” on Get Satisfaction (“people-powered customer support”). There are 125 replies, many of which describe similar experiences; and there’s another thread started by Cupcake 23601 with 120 replies … so this is happening a lot.

    Comment by Jon — March 3, 2008 @ 9:57 am

  11. And repeating my shameless plug from the thread on Concurring Opinions: I’m on the program committee for this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, where we love talking about stuff like this. More here.

    Comment by Jon — March 3, 2008 @ 10:01 am

  12. Thanks Jon, This blog was extremely helpful. I presume I posted to many links. I will avoid this for a while.

    Comment by Classy Williams — March 12, 2008 @ 7:52 pm

  13. My pleasure, Classy — glad it was useful, and thanks for posting! Yes, you have been posting a lot of links … very useful ones, too! Like I said on the Facebook thread, it really sucks that this behavior is “not normal” [which is what Facebook support told me] and so you get threatened and accused of spamming. Ah well.

    See my comment above about Computers, Freedom, and Privacy … hopefully, there will be a chance to discuss this.

    Comment by Jon — March 12, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  14. In a sorta related situation, apparently Google Groups ‘flags’ you if you try to invite more than 10 members at a time. You then have to wait for approval from Google. Many convos about this in the Group help boards (here, for example).

    Solutions suggested largely include just inviting 10 at a time over many days….

    Comment by Gregory K. — March 19, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  15. The Where’s Gary? thread in the One Million Strong for Barack Facebook group has several other examples of this, including one person who was deleted without notice after not having gotten a warning for weeks.

    My and several other Obama activists’ experiences are described in the original thread on Liminal States. The Obama Facebook groups are much more active than other presidential candidates’, so it’s not surprising we’re encountering this more often.

    Comment by Jon — March 23, 2008 @ 10:20 am

  16. We just had that happen to a Huffington Post author on our Hillary board. I found him on friendster to find out what happened and he said:
    —-
    All I did was cross-pollenate really good Posted Items.

    If I saw a great article in one Hillary group, I’d bring it over into ours.

    That’s the closest thing to “Spamming” I’ve done.
    —-

    I created a Facebook group to try and get him back: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=12635696455&ref=mf

    Comment by angela — March 29, 2008 @ 2:57 pm

  17. Thanks for posting, Angela. Good thinking creating a group (I joined). Is he going to write about it on the Huffington Post?

    Comment by Jon — March 29, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  18. Will Bower (the Huffington Post author Angela mentioned) got his account restored after a couple of days. Here’s an excerpt from the message he sent out to the group afterwards, quoted with permission:

    I heard back from them just a short while ago, and they said that it was indeed the cross cutting-and-pasting… and nothing else.

    That said, I’ve heard of people who’ve had to wait over a -week- to get back to FaceBook. I think your petition made a big difference in speeding up the process! So THANKS again!

    Comment by Jon — April 16, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  19. [...] Why yes, now that you mention it, that is the same Will Bower who was mentioned in comments in How to respond when Facebook censors your political speech on Tales from the net.  Small [...]

    Pingback by Liminal states » Hillary Clinton Facebook group overrun by troll mob — May 15, 2008 @ 6:58 am

  20. At the social network workshop at Computers, Freedom, and Privacy, somebody from the ACLU said that their account had been disabled — making too many friends. Somebody else in the room also knew somebody this had happened to. We’re considering start up an activism campaign….

    In Robert Scoble’s Why Microsoft will buy Facebook and keep it closed, he commented

    @irinaslutsky (former employee of mine) was removed last week from Facebook. This is a scary company and if it gets in the hands of Microsoft will create a scary monopoly.

    Comment by jon — May 27, 2008 @ 5:11 am

  21. I got my facebook accoutn disabled last week. I wasn’t giving any warning by the company at all. I was disabled becouse a few users used the word harrassment. I never harrassed anyone. I never used foul language. But to not come out and don’t mention your accusers is dumb. The disable reply is vague and I wonder if the Facebook operators don’t exist at all. I’ve been reading on the web over other accounts that have been disabled. I believe one can make a case of discrimination against facebook on its vague disable policy,thier customer support needs real working on. But to delete innoncent users is wrong and in the end hurts the company.

    Comment by chuck — June 19, 2008 @ 5:24 am

  22. Several more examples here, from people who are clearly using Facebook for political activism. “Raise your hand if you’ve been FB-disabled!”

    Comment by jon — August 23, 2008 @ 2:30 pm

  23. How can Facebook censor people for supposed spamming (how can you make too many friends on a social networking site?) when they sell people’s information for capital gain. Facebook and in particular the little twerp that started the whole sorry company are hypocrites and against what they claim to stand for.

    Comment by Frank — October 27, 2008 @ 4:38 am

  24. The most likely reason is that many Conservatives disagreed with you, and have labelled your account as spam.

    The only way to tell is to try to have some feedback from Facebook: if they refuse to comment on specific case, you might want to make a long list (more then a 100 case) that would allow “statistical secret” and ask them a breackdown of what triggered those cases (repeated sentences, rythm or structure of the posts, user feedback) and try to leverage from there.

    Zuckerberg has a history of encouraging political debate and understanding in his interviews are keynote adresses: he is a idealist, and a bit naïve, so use that great *quality* of his to help his improve this tool. Facebook has a history of replying in a timely manner to articulate, massive protests — and they won’t be accused of failing that election. It might seem otherwise to you because users have grown far more demanding, much faster then companies have, but they really are.

    If it’s repetition, encourage “using your own words”; if it’s posting source, explain you need supporters to relay your message; if it is opponents, try to have a more acceptable message to send, and restrain the more assertive rethoric for a web site that you control. As always, the best is to leverage the difference between your operations and what spammers can be expected to do.

    Comment by Bertil Hatt — November 10, 2008 @ 7:04 am

  25. [...] behaves you should never trigger the algorithms that will get you kicked off.  Except in reality, most people don’t behave that way.  Robert is surprisingly sympathetic to arbitrary undocumented limits on speech: Of course, that [...]

    Pingback by Liminal states » Zuckerberg: Facebook to ratchet up exploitation, only bans outliers — February 1, 2009 @ 4:11 pm

  26. [...] without notification or discussion and ignore feedback fits in with their overall pattern (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 …).  Presumably other commercial social networks are taking notice of the [...]

    Pingback by Liminal states » Facebook: all your content are belong to us. FOREVER! Protest groups ensue. — February 16, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  27. Why do you care? Fuck them!
    Find somewhere else to post….

    Hank Roth

    Comment by Hank Roth — June 24, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

  28. just got banned for posting replies with links regarding healthcare reform on a group site of which i am the admin…these posts were not shared …copy of email i sent to facebook:

    To whom it may concern…

    my account has been disabled…i have reviewed your terms of use and fail to see how posting 5-7 posts (comments with links) in the disscussion section of a group i created and administer constitutes spam….rest assured i will be posting this message and subsequent messages on my twitter account, and i will be forwarding emails to all my facebook friends and twitter friends regarding this issues…also i will be contacting a local tv news reportor at KPHO (who has run stories on me in the recent past) to see if they are interested in covering this story under the topic of CENSORSHIP of FREESPEECH….i will also be forwarding info to the subsequent regulatory agencies, local and federal, national media outlets,and all interested parties………

    sincerely,

    william eric paulson (admin thoughtcrime forum for critical thinking and discussion)

    Comment by eric paulson — August 5, 2009 @ 9:14 am

  29. I had a message deleted and got warned about being offensive when posting a cynical message to a friend about my lack of religious beliefs. No profanity was used nor did I refer to a specific faith, group, or sect. The posting did not appear on my wall, but I was bombed by several comments from “born again ” types professing their beliefs.

    Comment by Ed — August 26, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

  30. [...] Slapped Me On The Wrist How to respond when Facebook censors your political speech: Part 1 This entry was posted in Facebook, Internet, Opinion. Bookmark the permalink. ← Heimskir [...]

    Pingback by The draconian Facebook control of users accounts | Jón Frímann Bloggar — September 7, 2010 @ 7:32 pm

  31. [...] Facebook Slapped Me On The Wrist How to respond when Facebook censors your political speech: Part 1 [...]

    Pingback by Yfirgengileg stjórnun Facebook á notendum sínum | Jón Frímann Bloggar — September 11, 2010 @ 9:52 am

  32. I just don’t do politics on facebook anymore. I’ve switech to a new site, Vote iQ. It’s designed for political discussion and I’ve not seen anyone flagged as of yet although there have been a couple of posts that I think should have been flagged. Facebook is great for friends and family chit-chat but, for me, that’s about it.

    Comment by ealan — October 2, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

  33. I got censored for making too many Chinese friends , I had 10 mutual friends ,with these Yovillers ,but after 3 invites got the sign in page that won’t let me in any Zanga game, without bowing to their warning facebook,Continue page. I’ll quit the whole facebook scene before letting their Communist censors dictate to me.

    Comment by keith — October 28, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

  34. No question that Facebook is censoring my private communications with friends and family. I deactivated my Facebook account yesterday after several of my posts denouncing Beck, Limbaugh and Palin for inciting violence were automatically deleted with no notification to me. Mark Zuckerberg has no business monitoring my correspondence with my friends and family. If they are offended by anything I might say they can choose to unfriend me at any time. Facebook is a fascist corporate monster with no respect for our rights as Amerians and I will never go back.

    Comment by Bill Porter — January 9, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  35. Whilst I don’t care about facebook at all, it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that people LIKE censorship. That sickens me.

    Comment by Ryan — June 1, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

  36. Update: Facebook censored the article, particularly in U.S. by deleting comments, wall posts and even forcing its user to enter security text code prior to posting the article link on their wall.

    http://www.ufo-blogger.com/2011/06/us-federal-reserve-admits-lost-9.html

    Comment by Skywatcher — July 1, 2011 @ 5:48 am

  37. Facebook changed their news feed format on 9/21/11. This afternoon, I put on my Wall a graphic that said “Hate the new Facebook News Feed”. Within hours, Facebook stripped it off my page (and the pages of other friends who posted it), without providing notification of any sort. Apparently, they are willing to censor content that contains an opinion not favorable to them. This is – simply – unAmerican.

    Comment by Dan — September 21, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

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