The Cost of Facebook’s Thoughtless Censorship

Shortly after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, I created a Facebook group called Recovering From QAnon. Though I had never been a devotee of the QAnon conspiracy theory, I had been a volunteer organizer for Recovering from Religion, a support group for people who have left their churches, for several years (Recovering from Religion is not affiliated with Recovering from QAnon). I hoped that my experience in the one context would translate over to the other, allowing me to help people who might be trying to get themselves or loved ones away from what had become a dangerous cult, as the events of January 6th proved. I made it clear in the group’s rules that this was a space for people trying to leave QAnon or help others to do so, and that any posts promoting QAnon or other conspiracy theories would be deleted, and those who posted them would be permanently banned.

I believed that in the wake of Joe Biden’s inauguration, many former QAnoners would be questioning their beliefs, and friends and family of those still attached to the cult would see an opening to pry their loved ones loose. I was not wrong. The group grew to nearly seventy members within a month. Every week it seemed someone was posting their story about losing a loved one to QAnon, and asking for suggestions for how to talk to them. Other members offered ideas and emotional support. A community was forming.

Then, two days ago, I discovered that my Facebook account was disabled. I was given no warning, and no notice as to what post of mine might have violated the site’s Community Standards. I have always been political since joining Facebook more than ten years ago, regularly sharing articles on controversial topics and creating original content on hot-button issues. I typically shared my original content in many groups devoted to political or philosophical discussion. My comments on other’s posts also do not shy away from confrontation or controversy. Yet in all those years I had never done time in “facebook jail,” as some of my friends called it.

Most recently, in the day or two before my account was disabled, I had not shared any political articles at all, just some posts about my personal life, hobbies, and home improvement. I can only surmise that Facebook saw that I was an admin for a group with QAnon in its name and took decisive action. I have no idea whether the group is still active, or if it has been disbanded. I do not know if other members of the group have had their accounts disabled too, though I fear they might have.

I had been a regular critic of social media’s failure to police its platforms for hate speech and disinformation, but blanket targeting of groups and accounts on the basis of whether they come up in keyword searches isn’t what I had in mind. If my account was indeed disabled because it was associated with Recovering from QAnon, that would illustrate precisely what is wrong with the “driverless” model of enforcing Community Standards, in which algorithms and AI search platforms for offending content, and take action without the review of a human being who is capable of exercising more subtle and nuanced judgment.

I understand that Facebook and other social media platforms are under tremendous pressure to demonstrate that they are taking seriously their increasing responsibility for being arbiters of truth and decorum in public debates. But that is no excuse for thoughtless censorship. The cost will be the destruction of nascent communities of mutual aid and support, which might have been allies in the very war against disinformation, conspiracies, and hate that these platforms claim to oppose.

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