Regions

Facebook accused of censorship after hundreds of US political pages purged

This week, the people behind the pages Facebook purged for being inauthentic are angry. They feel they have been unfairly targeted for practices they say are common across the entire social network.

And those who have built their livelihoods around the power of Facebook to drive traffic to their websites are wondering what to do next.

The controversy highlights the challenges Facebook and other social media sites face when attempting to police the content their members freely provide.

In a related move, on Tuesday, the company announced a way for members to report inaccurate information designed to suppress voter turnout, such as providing the wrong dates or methods for voting. Facebook has been removing this form of misinformation since 2016.

As a private entity, Facebook can enforce its terms however it sees fit, says the ACLU attorney Vera Eidelman. But this can have serious free speech consequences, especially if the social network is selectively enforcing its terms based on the content of the pages.

“Drawing the line between ‘real’ and ‘inauthentic’ views is a difficult enterprise that could put everything from important political parody to genuine but outlandish views on the chopping block,” says Eidelman. “It could also chill individuals who only feel safe speaking out anonymously or pseudonymously.”

Standard operating procedures
In a statement posted to its online newsroom, Facebook says it purged these pages because their owners were using fake accounts, sharing the same content between multiple pages, and linking to ad-supported websites it calls “ad farms”.

But what the social network calls spam, the owners of these pages call standard procedures for operating on Facebook.

Nearly all the page owners contacted by the Guardian say they use “backup” or fake accounts along with their real ones. They do it in part to protect themselves from being targeted by political opponents and having their real accounts end up in “Facebook jail”, says Edward Lynn, the editor-in-chief of Reverb Press, a left-leaning news site whose Facebook page disappeared yesterday.

Lynn says he discontinued the practice of allowing writers to post under pseudonyms when he became editor-in-chief earlier this year.

Matt Mountain, who operated six leftwing pages and shared content between them, says “99% of the people I worked with have backup accounts”. (“Matt Mountain” is a pseudonym; he declined to provide his legal name.) Each page had its own particular liberal niche, he explains.

“Lock Him Up was for people who liked funny stuff,” he says. “Proud Snowflake was for people interested in social justice issues. Angry Americans was full of economic stuff. When a post did really well on one page, and it fit the theme of one of the other pages, I’d share it across them.”

Facebook removed his pages a month ago. Until yesterday’s news, he thought his banishment was an isolated case.

“The problem with language like ‘inauthentic coordinated behavior’ is that everyone in this space coordinates,” says Chris Metcalf, who operated nine pages that were purged, including Reasonable People Unite, the Resistance, and Snowflakes. “We swap each other’s best-performing content. I shared content from many of the biggest, most reputable political pages, and they shared mine. But I’m not a bad actor. I’m a legitimate political activist.”

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