Yesterday, a Facebook page I moderate was attacked by trolls. It’s a regular occurrence if your page deals with any topic that’s remotely contentious, and the recommended practice is to simply delete them without comment.
But I’m a reluctant bouncer, and ejecting people from a page without explanation leaves a bad taste in my mouth, especially when only one side of a conversation remains. So I posted a brief note explaining that someone had been removed from the page.
The next morning, I attempted to log on to Facebook, and discovered that I had received the Edmond Dantès treatment, unjustly cast into the Facebook dungeon and left to rot.
Sure, I was only banned for a week, but that didn’t stop me from voicing my displeasure with a few inventive epithets and some paint-blistering profanity. But when I calmed down, I realized that I have only myself to blame. Here’s why.
Facebook’s abuse reporting process is hopelessly broken. Much of it is automated, and those algorithms are terrible at identifying actual abuse. And when a report is reviewed by a live human being, it’s often an incompetent human being with an equally poor grasp of English and Facebook’s Community Standards.
There’s no appeal process. If Facebook arbitrarily decides that you have sinned against its numerous commandments, then into the dungeon you go. No trial, no jury, and no indication of which commandment you are being accused of having violated.
Despite stern warnings, there are no repercussions for filing a false abuse report on Facebook. Naturally, this is a delight to trolls, stalkers, and anyone seeking petty revenge for some imagined slight, as they can safely and anonymously harass their target without consequence. And thanks to the incompetence of Facebook’s screening process, there’s a significant chance of that attack being successful.
So why am I to blame for Facebook’s incompetence? Because I knew better. I knew the rules of the game, and I foolishly left myself open to harassment. I gave the bad guys an opening, and they took it.
If you haven’t experienced this injustice first hand, I’d like to spare you the same fate. Below, you’ll find some of Facebook’s written and unwritten rules, and tips for avoiding Facebook’s heavy, capricious hand.
1. Keep your comments neutral.
Facebook is as conducive to flame wars as any other internet medium, and it takes the patience of a saint to avoid responding in kind to the rocks thrown by trolls. Develop that patience. Keeping your cool in a debate not only gives you the upper hand in the argument, it deprives disgruntled opponents of ammunition to use against you.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a guarantee that Facebook won’t mete out arbitrary discipline in response to a false abuse report, but it does reduce the likelihood. Which brings us to our next rule….
2. Don’t refer to people by name.
No matter how innocuous a comment may be, if a troll reports it as harassment, and the comment contains part of their name, Facebook’s automated screening may remove it immediately and you may be penalized. This includes tagging someone’s name in a reply.
To work around this, do not respond to comments by first name, last name, or by tagging their account. If you must identify a commenter, use initials or nicknames; these will not trigger Facebook’s automated screening if the post if reported as abuse.
3. Images are always sent to (incompetent) human screeners.
Images reported to Facebook are automatically referred to a human screener for evaluation. And it’s clear from Facebook’s history of disciplining users for posting pictures of puppies, elbows, street signs, navels, and babies that these screeners don’t always look at the photos before rendering judgement.
Even when screeners do look at the photos, they react in wildly inconsistent and arbitrary ways. Photos of graphic violence and abuse are ignored. Photos of a child born with birth defects have resulted in the mother being disciplined.
So when you upload images to Facebook, be aware that they are more vulnerable to Facebook’s incompetence than other media. That factors heavily into the next rule….
4. Screenshots and quotes are considered bullying.
Repeating someone’s comments, either copied-and-pasted from Facebook or uploaded as a screenshot, is considered bullying and may result in disciplinary action. No matter the context, if an abuse report is filed and you get a bad screener, Facebook will apply sanctions against you.
This is in direct contradiction to Facebook’s Terms of Service, which state:
When you publish content or information using the Public setting, it means that you are allowing everyone, including people off of Facebook, to access and use that information, and to associate it with you (i.e., your name and profile picture).
So reposting what someone said in their own words should be fair game, right? Nope, not in that special world that the Facebook Police inhabit. Quoting someone is harassment, if they complain about it. Blurring out names is not a defense, and can actually make the post more vulnerable to false abuse reports.
However, there is a way around this unwritten prohibition on quotes….
5. Off-site links are not screened as rigorously as other content.
If you post a link to a screenshot, image, or website, Facebook rarely takes action against it. There are no guarantees, but hosting the content on another site thwarts many bogus reports, especially if a lazy screener must click through to view the content in question.
6. Always have a backup administrator for your pages and groups.
Every page and group should have a second administrative account. Without warning or cause, Facebook may block your account from posting, and that means you will be unable to post as your groups and pages. Appointing another account as a backup administrator ensures that even if your account is hacked, banned, or disabled, you will still have the ability to communicate with your fans. And if your personal account is temporarily disabled, your fans won’t even know there’s been an interruption, because posts can be made through the other admin account.
The second admin account should be someone you trust completely, because an administrator has complete control over your page and can remove other admins — including yourself. Some users create [fake] alternate accounts for this purpose, and while this violates Facebook’s Terms of Service, I wouldn’t fault anyone for sidestepping those rules to protect themselves from the misuse of the system.
If you choose to utilize an alternate account as a backup administrator for your pages and groups, only post content under your page name, never as the account itself. Why? Because….
7. Your Facebook account must be under your legal name.
Pseudonyms, business names, organizations, and statements disguised as personal names (e.g., “GoVegan RightNow”) may be disabled with a single report by a disgruntled person. Others go ignored by Facebook. It’s another area where enforcement is extremely inconsistent.
If your account is disabled as a possible fake, you can restore access by providing legal documentation of your identity — something that’s not possible with a pseudonym or a business name. Unless you’re Salman Rushdie, that is, who had sufficient clout to light a fire under Facebook’s backside.
On Facebook, trolls and incompetent enforcement of the rules are a fact of life. You can’t eliminate abuse of the reporting system, but by following these guidelines, you can minimize its impact.
And if you do find yourself unfairly imprisoned in Facebook Jail, take the time to reflect on your predicament while exploring a less dysfunctional social network, like Google+.