Many people believe social media is a human right. What most of us forget is that private companies run all of those platforms and can ban or censor any user they want. As it stands, thousands of people every day are blocked from various platforms, and, whether they are trying to get back on Facebook, Tinder or get unblocked from Zoosk, their struggle is real.
Social media services play a central role in many people’s lives today. Depending on local laws, anyone aged 13 or older can create an account on a social media platform and research suggests that more than half of teenagers have social media accounts. In fact, ask any parent – social media often dominates the lives of teenagers.
Although, there’s a good chance you don’t even need to do that because many adults organize their social lives through social media. We all know at least one person who seems determined to document their entire existence across their preferred social media channels.
In the early days, social media platforms were used to, well, socialize. However, the role that these services play in our lives has changed radically over the last decade. Today, people aren’t just using social media to communicate with one another and share photos, videos, and other media. Many people now get most of their news from social media, something that was bought into focus in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential elections.
The way that social media sites operate has changed a lot as well. They are no longer focused on providing an experience for their users. Instead, each one is now powered by a supermassive black hole sucking in user data and spitting out a cosmic jet of advertising.
The size and influence of social media platforms mean that they have a moral, albeit not legal, obligation to their users that most other private businesses don’t. If Facebook decides to ban you or remove your access to their services, there is no viable alternative that you can turn to. This is a market that doesn’t really offer users choice. Yes, if Facebook bans you then you can sign up for Twitter and still have a social media account. But the nature of social media means that moving from one platform to another means moving to an entirely different set of features and user base.
Because of this, we all expect to have universal access to the features of each platform. Of course, if someone misuses a platform and or engages in illegal or malicious behavior, it isn’t unreasonable to remove that person’s account. Most people would support removing racist, misogynistic and homophobic content from social media platforms, even though the platforms themselves are often all too happy to host such content under the guise of “free speech”.
Given how social media businesses have behaved with regards to their users’ wellbeing and their reluctance to engage in any kind of moderation that is not almost entirely automated, it might not surprise you to learn that users have found themselves banned from social media platforms without an obvious cause.
What will surprise you, though, is the scale that these bans are occurring on.
If Facebook suspects that an account is fraudulent, they may well ask the account owner to upload photographic ID to prove who they are. If the user doesn’t comply, Facebook can lock the account and refuse to restore access to it until the user complies. In doing so, Facebook is able to hold memories, messages, and even people’s friendships for ransom.
Not only is this needlessly coercive, but it is a pretty galling move from a platform that has demonstrated beyond any doubt that it absolutely cannot be trusted to look after its users’ data. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is still fresh in many people’s minds. In case you’ve forgotten, Facebook’s lax to non-existent policing of app developers enabled a seemingly innocuous app to harvest data not just from the people that used it, but from all of their friends as well. All told, at least 87 million users had their data stolen.
In September 2018, Facebook discovered another security flaw that meant as many as 50 million accounts were vulnerable to hackers who could have taken the accounts over and accessed the data of a further 14 million people. In December of the same year, Facebook admitted that 7 million users might have had private photos exposed to third-party app developers.
In the spirit of automating as much as possible so that they can do as little work as possible, and take as little responsibility as possible, Facebook updated its “authentic name” policy to enable any Facebook user to report any other Facebook user for using a pseudonymous name on their account. As soon as this happened, the verification process would be triggered and the account holder would need to prove their identity before regaining access to their account.
Facebook initially claimed it did this in response to the litany of fake celebrity profiles on the site, as well as novelty profiles and profiles made for people’s pets. These are no good to Facebook because they dilute the purity of their userbase to advertisers. Advertisers use Facebook to target their adverts at very specific groups of people. Real people.
But as with all things Facebook, their policy is vague and has been enforced haphazardly. Not only have lots of people lost access to their accounts, or even been banned, because their account name doesn’t match their legal name, but many of the people affected already suffer discrimination.
For example, one of the most common reasons people have an account name different from their legal name is because they are trans. Facebook’s easily abused system makes it simple for malicious actors to anonymously drive people from the platform.
Last month, Facebook-owned Instagram went on its own banning spree, banning dozens of accounts that had millions of followers for TOS violations. Instagram claimed that these accounts were involved in buying and selling usernames and “attempted abuse of internal processes” but gave no specifics.
Users who have found their accounts banned from social media have often had to resort to creating new accounts. Those who are able to let the account go will often make a new account rather than entrusting Facebook with copies of identity documents.
Using VPNs and proxies enables these users to appear to the platforms as completely new users connecting from the new IP address. Others have been forced to use a fake name because Facebook doesn’t believe them about their real name.
All of these issues could be mitigated if social media platforms weren’t so determined to automate everything. Of course, automated moderation is much cheaper and quicker than paying a person to do it. But the results speak for themselves. Automated support messages are not a substitute for a proper support system.