Facebook censors members after unjustly labeling them spammers

Summary:Facebook temporarily suspended one of its users from commenting on public posts. The "punishment" was supposed to last a week. It has now been two weeks. This can happen to any Facebook user.

Update - Facebook extends censorship ban to a month

Rima Regas is being censored by Facebook. The social network put her on time out after apparently getting complaints about public posts she has made, labeling her a spammer. Regas is no spammer. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be an isolated incident: it's a built-in Facebook feature that can be triggered automatically.

The "temporary" ban

Regas posted the following Facebook status today:

I'm getting very annoyed. Facebook punished me for what it claims are posts that are inappropriate. When they notified me, they stated that the punishment would last a week. It's now been two weeks. I don't see a way to file a complaint or defend myself. Seriously considering ditching.

I don't know Regas, but we have a mutual friend, my colleague Ed Bott. When I was told what had happened, I tried getting in touch with her via Facebook. That didn't work (see Facebook is hiding your messages from you) so Bott gave me her e-mail address and she agreed to give me more information.

"Two weeks ago today, when I tried to post a comment to one of the places I subscribed to, a message popped up saying that there were complaints about the appropriateness of my posts and that for the next week, I would only be able to comment on friend's posts," Regas told me. "Last week, I was still unable to comment on posts of people or organizations I subscribe to and got that same message with each attempt."

I asked her for a screenshot of both errors. As you can see above, she took a screenshot of the current one. Here is the corresponding text:

As we notified you earlier, commenting on walls of users you are not friends with is temporarily suspended for you. Our systems noticed your comments were being marked as spam or posted multiple times.

She couldn't get a screenshot of the initial message because she only got that one once.

This can happen to you

Regas just so happened to get on my radar, but there is no doubt in my mind that other Facebook users are hitting the same roadblock. I have reported on many similar incidents, and given Facebook's size, I'm honestly surprised these issues don't come to light sooner.

Last weekend, technical evangelist Robert Scoble saw his comment blocked because Facebook deemed it "irrelevant or inappropriate". When I inquired about the issue, Facebook told me the block was a false positive caused by an automatic spam filter. At the time, I also wrote:

Facebook's algorithms for comments made on Subscriber posts are apparently much pickier because anyone can reply to a public Facebook post. To be honest, I only find that slightly more comforting.

In other words, these errors are going to keep popping up. The Subscription feature that lets you interact with people who aren't your Facebook friends only arrived in September 2011.

Facebook has been getting complaints about spammers, so recently it has been upping the ante against them. Clearly the system still needs more tweaking.

Regas does not have Scoble's fame, so this problem might not blow up the same way, but I think her situation is much worse. It doesn't matter whether or not Facebook blames her case on a false positive again. This time, we're not talking about blocking a single comment. We're talking about temporary censorship for an unknown amount of time (remember, Regas was told the suspension would last one week, and it's already been two).

No way to fight back

In her original Facebook status, Regas said "I don't see a way to file a complaint or defend myself." She isn't the first to realize getting in touch with Facebook is very difficult. In some two years of writing about Facebook, I have received hundreds of complaints about the company's communication problems, both from members and journalists alike. Regas' story is just one of many I have written about publicly in order to get Facebook to respond.

Less than two months ago, Facebook launched Support Dashboard, which lets users track the content and issues they Report to the social networking giant. I applauded this move wholeheartedly.

While many users report content, they often complain there is no way of knowing where the report goes, whether it was handled, and if so, how. The Support Dashboard is supposed to address this criticism.

In this case, however, it would appear the social network needs the reverse functionality. Facebook users who have their content reported need just as much help, if not more, than those doing the reporting. They need more information about what they did wrong, as well as a way to appeal, to complain, and to make their case.

Room for abuse

Users have been abusing reporting systems since they first appeared on the Internet, and likely even long before then. Off the top of my head, the best Facebook example for this is the brouhaha caused by the company banning users posting breastfeeding photos. Users who found mothers posting this content offensive would report them, rather than just unfriending them or ignoring them.

This is a very common practice, especially in political circles. If someone doesn't like you, or content you post, they report you for spam or some other reason, tell their friends to do the same, and the automatic systems take your content down, ban you, and so on. This is likely what happened to Regas.

"One of the people whose posts I used to comment on frequently is Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post," Regas told me. "I asked him on Twitter if I somehow offended him and if he reported me and he said no."

The trouble with public Facebook posts is that anyone can see them. The person reporting Regas could have been someone who dislikes her, who likes Capehart, or simply anyone who stumbled on something Regas wrote. As I already mentioned, it could have also just been a bug in Facebook's systems.

Final Thoughts

Again, my problem with all this is not that Facebook's reporting systems screwed up or were abused. That is bound to happen with any anti-spam implementation.

The worrying trend here is that Facebook continues to add features like this without giving users an option to fight back. Whoever writes these error messages (the one Scoble got, the one Remas got, or the countless others that have yet to come to my attention) doesn't seem to realize they can be received unjustly, or if they do, they don't realize that users should be able to dispute them. There needs to be a due process.

I have contacted Facebook about this issue and will update you if I hear back.

Update - Facebook extends censorship ban to a month

See also:

Topics: Social Enterprise

About

Emil is a freelance journalist writing for CNET and ZDNet. Over the years, he has covered the tech industry for multiple publications, including Ars Technica, Neowin, and TechSpot.

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