Commentary

Bots, Don't Fail Me Now! A Letter From Facebook Prison

One morning last week, I woke up, tried to access Facebook, and discovered that I had turned into a giant bug.

Oh, wait. That’s Kafka. Wrong literary reference. While this story is slightly Kafkaesque, I’m really going for something more authoritarian, with a side of dystopian censorship. I’m talking Orwell.

And OK, I realize that Orwellian has also become one of those numbed-out terms, like Fascist or Nazi, that has been rendered meaningless from overuse. But in this case, I’d like to think that even George himself might be amused.

So, going back to that morning. I got on Facebook via my phone, and while I could see my page, and all the private messages and comments on it, I could not respond to any of them.

It was a bit like being Tom Sawyer at his own funeral, updated for the 21st century. People were talking about me, wondering where I was, and all I could do was watch and scream from my soundproof booth. The horror! Wait, I’m getting mixed up again. Isn’t it the Grim Reaper, not Big Brother, who wears a hoodie?

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Still, I thought the problem might be with my iPhone, so I tried my laptop. No dice. Then I got this message: You recently posted something that violates Facebook policies, so you’re been temporarily blocked from using this feature. For more information, visit the Help Center.

The Help Center was, like most things, euphemistically named, and of no help at all, of course. I sent several emails. No response. Since I’m not in the habit of posting pictures of women breastfeeding (the biggest FB no-no I know of) or even worse, famous paintings of primal lady parts, I couldn’t imagine what I had done to provoke the banishment. (And we know that Facebook was recently taken to task for its liberal news bias, so it couldn’t have been anything I posted about Trump.)

It turns out that the censored post was something I had put up a full two weeks before (which is a lifetime in my Facebook use.) It had to do with the first formal response to the Erin Johnson vs. JWT, WPP and Gustavo Martinez suit, from the WPP attorneys.

In their motion to dismiss the case, the WPP lawyers  stated that after their own internal review, "virtually nothing supporting a hostile work environment claim” could be substantiated.

In my Facebook post, I listed some of the more outrageous phrases that Martinez was alleged to have said, like “fucking Jews” and “black monkeys” and “Come here I want to rape you.” Then I wondered how such statements could NOT make for a “hostile work environment,” as his lawyers’ response claimed.

So here’s the rub: While WPP's legal team was arguing that the language of JWT's former CEO was just business as usual for the office, merely Martinez’s way of making everyone feel comfortable, those same words were deemed a violation of FB's community standards.

So the Bot Police broke down my door at 2 a.m. to arrest me for even quoting those words. No one knows you're a dog on the Internet, and evidently bots have no sense of context in the middle of the night.

Certainly, the Erin Johnson case is a profoundly serious one, and the WPP response -- to  prosecute Johnson, dismiss her claims, and say she did it only to make a "media splash" -- has its own Orwellian and Kafkaesque aspects.

As for me, there are 8 billion stories about Internet censorship, and mine is just a teeny tiny little one, which hardly required Joan-of-Arc-like fortitude, since it lasted all of 24 hours. So that by the time my friends floated memes like “Je suis Barbara” and “Attica!” the solidarity was just a tiny bit overblown.

My biggest concern previously was about who could see my financial data and steal my identity. But surely, Edward Snowden showed just how much of the Web is a giant surveillance network, run by a couple of search engines and Facebook.

Now I have to worry about whether this little incident goes on my permanent record. And if so, if I am unfairly censored again, will I get the permanent boot?

Apparently, there is no appeal permitted.

Perhaps a wrongful incarceration lawsuit? I have no answer. I might not have turned into a bug, but certainly some creepy crawlers got to me while I slept. But I’m so glad I can now summon up that tear-faced emoji. Thank you, Zuckerberg!

14 comments about "Bots, Don't Fail Me Now! A Letter From Facebook Prison".
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  1. Elissa Moses from Ipsos, June 9, 2016 at 11:57 p.m.

    1984 is here but instead of us all watching one big screen, we are perpetually watching small individual screens and those screens are being monitored and adjusted based upon our perceived needs. We all need to be mindful of what we post but there is no way Barbara that you could have seen that coming other than the exploitive which was merely a quote. We have all learned from your example of what punishment lurks should we somehow upset the sensibilities of those unknown beings who are in charge.

  2. Frank Newcomer from Dystopian Empire, June 10, 2016 at 12:56 a.m.

    Interesting you're temporarily exiled for quoting offensive language and thoughts within an editorial framework by one media, yet the actual use of the same is considered common discourse within their environment. 

    I get the sense there's an offhand amicus curaie brief here, along with a profound sense of irony. 

  3. Ernie Mosteller from Fried Okra Entertainment, June 10, 2016 at 12:39 p.m.

    Skynet has become the language police. Brave new world.

  4. Tony Nino from PADV Pasadena Advertising, June 10, 2016 at 2:54 p.m.

    Thank you for turning your righteous frustration into a scathing and guffaw-worthy article. I really needed a laugh this morning, and even though you can hear it, I am applauding.


    I think I may have to have this quote bronzed: "The Help Center was, like most things, euphemistically named." 

    =)

  5. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, June 10, 2016 at 4:26 p.m.

    Another thing in the most dismissive motion to dismiss: "Plaintiff was fully aware that English was not Mr. Martinez' native, primary language."  Thus, it was okay to talk about "the sex," because it was in the French sense.  (And we Americans are such Puritans!) 
    Thanks, everyone, for the comments!
    Now I'm wondering if the censor was human or bot. What do you think? 

  6. Tom Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, June 10, 2016 at 9:22 p.m.

    Censorship, shadowbanning, selective shadowbanning, blocking and deleting of comments is rampant across social media, news sites and even Reddit. It's crazy and out of control and no one is much chronicling it or trying to stop it. 

  7. Don Perman from self, June 11, 2016 at 9:11 a.m.

    Wonderfully funny and literate. Kafka and social media...who else does this?  Many thanks.

  8. Frank Newcomer from Dystopian Empire replied, June 11, 2016 at 11:53 a.m.

    In Bell, California, a city famous for one truly great Mexican Restaurant and twelve of the most corrupt city officials in recent memory, the Mexican/American Mayor's defense, via his lawyer, for writing twelve million dollars in checks for personal use and distribution from the city's coffers, was that English was not his first language. Now, given Bell's median education level is somewhere between pre-kindergarten and a third grade reading level, and given the LA court, in an all too rare example of prudence and wisdom, rejected that claim -- how can a NY court accept the same claim from a defendant who is responsible for running a company whose raison d'etre is based on a superior intellectual capacity -- yet can't recognize his foul language could be construed as insulting in a "foreign" environment? (Yes, the use of a French term was intentional.)

  9. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund, June 11, 2016 at 12:25 p.m.

    Like an iceberg, most of the Zuckerberg is not visible.

  10. Joe DePreta from Launchpad, June 11, 2016 at 2:42 p.m.

    Well done Barbara. And for my little voice in this universe, given our current cultural climate, the term Kafkaesque can't be used enough!

  11. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, June 13, 2016 at 11:21 a.m.

    Okay, kids. What do we think? Human or bot? 

  12. Jim English from The Met Museum, June 14, 2016 at 12:17 a.m.

    Thanks Barbara. I might like to find a large video image of Mark Zuckerberg and toss a fair-sized hammer through it demolishing the new Big Brother.

  13. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 14, 2016 at 7:44 p.m.

    As still a persona non gratia MediaPost commentator, censorship is not only alive and well but growing by leaps and bounds by the fascist few. Bots are still given directions by humans so when it comes down to brass tacks, it was human from fbeast.

  14. John Capone from Whalebone, June 17, 2016 at 12:53 p.m.

    I'm really at a loss here in witnessing this chorus of nodding heads. Talk about a Brave New World. 
     
    Appreciate the hyperbole in the essay, but an automated Facebook failsafe to monitor abusive language among a billion users is hardly evidence of a police state. The panting about a facsist state is really overblown and insulting to anyone who lives in a place where they actually struggle against the threats of real violence for their words. 
     
    Barabra wasn't being censored for the sentiment she wrote about, she triggered a bot meant to protect users from bullying and abusive language and was quickly reinstated. 
     
    Imagine things were different and the post had been posted by a high school student directed at a classmate or the like. Would you all rush to string up the totalitarian dictator who so deemed to censor that lad's free speech?

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