Facebook Thinks I'm Dangerous
Updated: Apr 22, 2020
April 12, 2019
Facebook banned this website for violating “community standards.” In what world does this make sense?
The world stopped making sense to me years ago.
Feeling dazed and confused by people, events and most aspects of daily life has become my new normal. But just when I think I’ve gotten used to the senselessness, I get another bitch slap — the kind that leaves a mark — reminding me that I’m living in a reality I simply don’t recognize anymore.
And it just happened again.
Recently, I published one of my blog posts, “Black and Gay In Montana — And Still Alive!”, on Medium, where curators selected it to be featured on the site's “Equality” homepage. I also posted a link on Facebook, where it garnered a surprising number of “likes” and “loves.”
The next day, one of my site visitors reached out to me on Messenger.
“Hello,” the woman wrote. “I tried to post the link to your website on Facebook, and they said it was spam.”
“Dang. Must be your browser settings,” I offered. Increasingly, I found myself spending more time troubleshooting the computers and devices that were supposed to make my life “easier,” so snafus like this were par for the course.
That’s when things took an eerie turn.
“They said it violates ‘community standards’,” she wrote back. “Have you seen this problem before?”
“I have not,” I responded, perplexed. I had just posted the link on Facebook without a problem, and I couldn’t fathom how anything in the article would be problematic.
Since I was sprinting to catch a plane and only moments from losing internet connection, I shoved the incident to the back of my mind. A few hours later I was chugging coffee during a layover and decided to visit Facebook.
Then things got weirder.
An orange triangle (the kind that clearly signals "danger") flanked the article, along with an ominous message: “This post goes against our Community Standards, so no one else can see it.”
I peered at the screen. WTF…? An essay sharing my positive experience as a gay black woman living among a sea of heterosexual white people in Montana went against “community standards”?
It had to be a glitch. Facebook’s algo-bots must have caught some stray word, out of context, triggering a standards alert. I re-read the article, wracking my brain for clues. Granted, I had mentioned that I live in a state where most people own guns. But surely using the word “gun” couldn’t justify a quarantine of the entire article?
I tried to post another article on a completely different topic — the recent college cheating scam — that I had posted on my blog (and on Medium) that morning, and got the same warning. Rejected. I scrolled down my wall.
That’s when the weirdness kicked up another notch.
All of my prior blog posts — on topics ranging from musings about how the class divide is growing faster than the racial divide in America to my dread and anxiety about the upcoming election — had suddenly vanished. Posts that had lived happily on my wall for months, and been well-received by many thoughtful members of the Facebook community, had been inexplicably purged.
I stared at my iPhone, trying to wrap my head around what was happening. It made no damn sense. Rapidly losing confidence that I was dealing with a mere glitch, I kept digging. It didn’t take me long to realize just how dangerous Facebook thought I was.
The gatekeepers weren’t just blocking links to specific blog posts. My entire website had been deemed so offensive that I was prohibited from linking to ANY page. I couldn’t even share links on Messenger.
Unplugged had become situs non grata, skulking along the rocky bottom of the online landscape, no better than click-bait or “fake news.” A website devoted to helping people understand how much we all have in common had suddenly become toxic to Facebook’s community.
This experience has led me to wonder what kind of “community” Facebook is fostering. And more importantly, what does it take to fit safely into that “community”?
At this point, you might be wondering what’s on my rogue website. I launched this site in an attempt to connect with people who, like me, are having trouble navigating a world that makes no damn sense anymore. I began with a simple premise: the world no longer makes sense to many of us because we are surrounded by illusions that divide us, distract us, and deceive us. I knew that might sound far-fetched to some, but as a lawyer, I also knew that I was well within the bounds of free speech.
Just to be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that Facebook banned Unplugged. Every community should have standards and should be free to set those standards, within constitutional limits. What I have a problem with are vague standards that are enforced arbitrarily and without due process. Because when that happens in any community, none of its members are really safe.
When that happens, the community, itself, becomes the danger.
The gatekeepers weren’t just blocking links to specific blog posts. My entire website had been deemed so offensive that I was prohibited from linking to ANY page.
So how do you know if you might be a threat to Facebook? And once you fall from grace, what can you do about it?
Facebook gives violators virtually no clues. It’s like being pulled over by a traffic cop and given a ticket for not obeying the rules of the road. So you have to hunt for an explanation. The first step is to review Facebook’s laundry list of “community standards.”
I combed through them to suss out which one I might have violated. Had I made cruel and insensitive comments? To the contrary, I advocated tolerance and headlined my homepage with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “It’s good to remember that other human beings are like us…We earn other people’s trust when we show a genuine concern for their well-being.”
I hadn’t violated any intellectual property rights and had taken great care to license all photos and images I had used. I hadn’t bullied or harassed anyone. I certainly hadn’t engaged in hate speech.
Had Facebook determined that unpopular opinions could somehow be misleading or inaccurate?
Was any of the material on my website violent? In one post, I had argued that the next revolution should occur in our minds, not the streets — a statement nowhere nearly as violent as those made by some of my Facebook friends, one of whom regularly calls for “that f**ker Trump” to be castrated and strung up by what he believes to be his exceedingly small penis (his posts are still on his wall).
And then I found my answer.
“We work hard to limit the spread of commercial spam to prevent false advertising, fraud, and security breaches, all of which detract from people’s ability to share and connect. We do not allow people to use misleading or inaccurate information to collect likes, followers, or shares.”
But what content on my website had been “misleading” or “inaccurate”?
Had Facebook determined that unpopular opinions could somehow be misleading or inaccurate?
My newsfeed linked to mainstream sources like Bloomberg and CNN. And the rest of the site contained my musings and opinions on socio-economic and political issues. I have, for example, opined that division keeps us from seeing the bigger issues that affect all of us. That the media distracts us from those bigger issues. And that control of money lies at the heart of most of our problems. Admittedly, this may not have been a perspective shared by most members of the Facebook community or the majority in any community, but why should that matter?
The implications were chilling.
Had Facebook determined that unpopular opinions could somehow be misleading or inaccurate? Were thoughts and ideas that went "against the grain” now considered a form of "spam"…?
If you think the biggest problem with Facebook’s “community standards” is the fact that they’re random and subjective, you’d be wrong. The bigger problem is Facebook’s “appeals” process, i.e. the fail-safe used to determine whether an offender has been expelled legitimately or in error.
After violating one or more standards, culprits are invited to submit a request for explanation or clarification, which sounds fair and reasonable — until you realize requests are sent into a black hole of support nothingness.
Over the course of one week, I sent nine separate inquiries — using the appeals link, pinging support, posting questions to admins on Help forums, and basically following any digital crumb on Facebook’s site map that had any chance of leading to communication with a live human.
All I got was radio silence.
Not even the obligatory automated response, dripping with insincerity (“Thank you for contacting us! We received your request and will get right back to you!”). I got nothing.
And then I saw a glimmer of hope.
I stumbled upon an exchange between a similarly confused offender and a Facebook moderator who instructed him to follow a “debug” link. “No problem! You can use this program to help you determine what aspects of your site are problematic.”
Excited, I clicked on the link and typed in my website address. Then my heart sank: “This url goes against community standards.”
It’s no secret that Facebook has seen better days.
It’s been hemorrhaging members for the past few years as its hip quotient has plunged into single digits, surrendering stature and marketshare to Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. The social media giant has also come under intense pressure from lawmakers following allegations that its lax advertising standards enabled Russian trolling that tainted the 2016 presidential election. After a series of embarrassing privacy breaches, Mark Zuckerberg & crew pledged to “ better,” implementing new and improved measures to protect users’ sensitive information. But it was too little, too late. The coup de grace came last year when Facebook experienced the largest single day drop in market value of any U.S. company in history.
Running scared, Facebook expanded its “take down” of webpages and groups that break its rules in an attempt to ensure “its platform isn’t overrun with fake news and propaganda.” Sadly, that’s when things seem to have gone completely off the rails for the stumbling social media giant. In its efforts to pacify government inquisitors and calm anxious shareholders, Facebook has created a prison platform where unsuspecting members frolic on hidden eggshells.
Its clumsy attempts to “protect” community members from vaguely-defined “fake news” and click-bait has fostered a Gestapo-esque environment that’s far more dangerous than the threats it purports to eliminate; a soul-less, schizophrenic place where members can chat about gourmet pizzas, share vacation photos, and even threaten to lynch the president by his genitals, but risk sudden excommunication — without any explanation or recourse — if they venture beyond the mysterious bounds set by capricious gatekeepers.
In other words, you’re safe on Facebook — until you find out you’re the danger.
Congress and Wall Street may not be troubled by these developments, but I suspect our Founding Fathers would be livid. If Zuckerberg had launched Facebook in colonial America, I’m pretty sure he would have locked those dudes out of their accounts. Thomas Paine’s feisty diatribe on “Common Sense” would have been flagged as spam or “offensive” to those loyal to the Crown. And if Patrick Henry had posted “Give me liberty or give me death!” on his wall?
Thank God the internet didn’t arrive for another 230 years. I have no illusion that venting here will change Facebook’s policies. History has shown this thoughtless behemoth serves only two masters: shareholders who can torpedo the company’s stock and a government that can put the fear of God in Zuckerberg. But if Facebook is a preview of coming attractions on other social media platforms, then we all need to sit up and pay close attention. NOW. Because what happens on social media may not stay on social media.
If Facebook — or any community — is offended by a website that attempts to bring people together by encouraging us to overcome our differences and to reject the division and distraction that are separating us, then we need to ask ourselves what kind of community we’ve made ourselves a part of. If non-violent opinions — however unpopular or far-fetched — can be deemed dangerous to any gatekeepers, then we need to consider very carefully the price we pay for their protection.
I haven’t deleted my Facebook account. While this may seem hypocritical, it actually serves two purposes. You see, I still enjoy a gourmet pizza occasionally and want to tell people about it. But maintaining my account also allows me to do something much more important: I can use Facebook’s prison platform to alert others to what’s quietly unfolding in their community.
Thankfully, platforms like Medium still give its members the freedom to choose what they read and decide whether it resonates with them (or not). Thankfully, Medium still allows me to link to my outlaw blog. And thankfully — so far— Facebook hasn’t forbidden links to Medium. So, I will continue to share my thoughts with my Facebook friends and family here.
But Facebook still thinks I’m dangerous. Will you be next?