Facebook censors members after unjustly labeling them spammers

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.

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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:

Topic: Social Enterprise

Emil Protalinski

About Emil Protalinski

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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

24 comments
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  • Oh the humanity ..... the world is going to end

    Somebody was annoyed enough with the person to label all his/her posts as spam.

    Facebook is a free service ... live with it.
    wackoae
    • Funny

      That's exactly how that works here - bad communication and all.
      NonFanboy
    • RE: [s]Fail[/s]Facebook is a free service

      This reminds me of a lesson I learned many years ago as a kid.

      `When you play in someone else's 'sandbox', you have to play by [u]their rules[/u]`. If you do not like the rules, then play elsewhere.

      If this woman is ticked off at [s]Fail[/s]Facebook, then stop using them; and tell your friends [b]why[/b]. There [b]used[/b] to be a dry cleaner in my neighborhood, well known for poor service, and an attitude; [s]un[/s]fortunately, they went out of business as a result of people taking their things elsewhere. Two years later, a new operator came into the strip mall. and made the mistake of hiring the manager that ran the now defunct company. The bad attitude reappeared with a vengeance, and it didn't take people long to find another place to deal with. Bad WOM will kill any business.
      fatman65536
    • Free service?!!

      Facebook is a messed up service. They have no regard for peoples privacy or anything else.
      cuulblu
  • Yeah . . .

    "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."

    I've seen this particular issue on ZDNet as well. If somebody really hates something, they'll flag it regardless of whether it's really spam or not.
    CobraA1
    • zdnet is worse

      zdnet will disable your account and give you no reason. the famous "banned". that's fine if some thin skinned blogger can't take criticism. but... they will still send you promotional emails to that account. and you can't go in and disable it now because... they disabled the account.
      sure, you can click on every frickin email and unsubscribe but me thinks there's something wrong in deciding someone can't post but they're still good enough to get promotional material.

      before going after facebook i'd check your own back yard. at the very least give a notification like facebook did.
      oneleft
      • ZdNet is 10 times worse.

        It only takes one email from Microsoft to get someone banned. I know someone that was banned for getting into a disagreement with a Microsoft employee on the thread. He asked if the other person was a Microsoft employee, to which the other person lied. The one poster found out the prson's name, look the other person up on the web, and it turns out the second person worked for none oter than....wait for it... Microsoft. Within 2 hours he was banned for posting information proving the other person was a Microsoft employee. Moral of the story, ZDNet will always side with Microsift, and never cross words with Microsoft employees, you'll find yourself banned. I believe the person as I've known the for the last 15 years.
        Jumpin Jack Flash
    • Flag to Rating

      Sine the rating system went in I seem to be seeing less flags. This is likely due to ticking +/- is easier..... :O
      rhonin
  • Reach Back

    Sooner or later FB will need to put a "customer service" service in place.
    Then again that costs money and us little audience folks are worth the effort .... at least not till something really bad occurs or we have a social rebellion.
    rhonin
  • So were just going

    So were just going to have to believe she wasn't spamming when you have posted everything she has done except what she posted on FB. Pretty poor reporting and no reason to not believe FB on this one.
    Stan57
    • On the flip side

      There is no reason TO believe Facebook on this one either. We do not know what the comments that were flagged as spam said, we do not know what she was commenting on, in short we do not have enough information to make any sort of judgement for or against the actions of FB punishing her.

      What we do have is a ban that was supposed to last for a week now extending into 2 weeks with no communication from FB or a way for her to contact FB to find out what she did wrong and how to correct it.
      NonFanboy
    • Did you read the article?

      Facebook only let her know she was banned from posting. They did not identify the offending post(s) even to the account holder. The poor reporting is from Facebook since they are the ones withholding the pertinent information from EVERYBODY!
      Bruce Epper
  • Its human nature to automate things

    So facebook has developed automatic censorship technology because they don't have the staff and desire to do it themselves. No big deal, the worst that can happen is users realize their life is being controlled by a for profit website. But when we try to automate our cars, the outcome of a glitch may be your death.
    lschw1
    • Done and done

      Our cars are already automated, to a point a grandparents would find shocking. Yet I don't see mounting casualties caused by failed automatic systems. I see casualties caused by idiot drivers failing to pay attention.
      dimonic
  • Wanting Privacy AND Public(ity)?

    So, if I understand this right, she's only being blocked from posting where she's subscribed, but has not Liked the page? If she would just Like the page, wouldn't that get around the block? Or is she not willing to give the page owner the option of seeing who she is and blocking her if he wants to in exchange for putting her posts on his wall?
    MichP
  • Provide a link...

    The popup window that informs you that you've been suspended should have a link to a process of redress where you can find out why and plead your case. Also, I noticed that the only link is "Okay". What if you think it's "Not Okay"?
    DT2
  • Who does FACEBOOK belong to

    Since we who use Facebook pay no fees, we have no options except to use or not to use it.
    douglas_john_ledet@...
  • other blocking devices being used without recourse

    I have a friend of whom Facebook demanded a mobile telephone number during log-in before allowing the person to use the account further. The friend had no mobile telephone, much less wanted to give it to the security insensitive Facebook. There is no alternative offered to the user (again) so that account remains in limbo in a Mexican stand-off situation and has been abandoned by the user. If you are going back to Facebook with questions, one about this might provide some interesting results.
    k.zdnetmember
  • My Own, "False Positive"!!!

    Last Year a few months after signing up for facebook, I logged in after a couple months absense and was "false Positively" accused of being a master mind of a group trying to "bring down" facebook. Which of course wasnt possible with my "premitive computer at that time, an 11 year old Compac series 5430us XP 32 bit piece of junk. I deleted all links to the idiots and havent even thought about looking back.....LOL
    sightsandsounds
  • www.facebookcensorship.com updated with another event 5-27-2012

    Update 5-27-2012 I again received the same harassment and threat as on 4-28-2012 from Facebook when posting a valid comment regarding a Bible posting. Maybe somehow some of the people who lost money on the Facebook IPO would like to get involved in a class action lawsuit against Facebook? Please spread the word about http://www.facebookcensorship.com
    Bro Steve Winter