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February 15, 2011

Censorship on Facebook – Others can’t see your posts

Facebook seems to be employing a troubling, sneaky sort of censorship algorithm that is applied when people post to the pages of organizations, politicians, etc.  It appears to be a form of the “Tachy goes to Coventryignore function seen on vBulletin, by which I mean: your posts are visible to you, and all appears perfectly normal; however, nobody else sees your posts.  What makes this troubling is that it appears to happen via algorithm rather than human intervention, and there is no notification to the user that his or her posts are invisible to others.  In fact, like the vBulletin functionality, it seems intentionally designed to mislead the user into believing his or her posts are appearing normally.

When I first heard of this happening, I assumed it was a type of spam prevention.  Facebook must contend with the real problem of comment spam to preserve a positive user experience.  And indeed, posts that were being hidden on Facebook, at first, were apparently limited to those that contained outbound links.  (The algorithm has since been expanded to include even posts without links, which I find strikingly odd.)

As a link-spam prevention algorithm it is not a very good one, as there are many false positives.  I’ve heard about links to Youtube videos, popular image-sharing sites, and mainstream news sites being among those that were censored out of view.  One would expect URLs to known legitimate sites would be whitelisted, however it appears that Facebook is not analyzing the URLs themselves to determine spam probability.

Instead, what seems to be happening is that Facebook is profiling user accounts.  No doubt those little “report” links are feeding data into the censorship algorithm.  But that appears to be only one factor.  Age of account, number of friends, perhaps even the degree to which you’ve filled out your profile information may all play a role in the algorithm.

I’ve confirmed that creating a new account on Facebook and attempting to post on a US politician’s page triggers the censorship algorithm immediately: the post will be visible to me, but not to anyone else.  This is regardless of whether the post contains a URL.  It is not clear to me what I’d have to do with this account to escape the default, automatic censorship.  Perhaps add some threshold of friends?  Allow the account to age a certain number of days?

Again, there is no dispute that Facebook must combat spammers.  New accounts with no or few friends may indeed be more likely to be involved with spam.  However, if that is the default assumption, without analyzing any obvious factors such as whether the account is indeed posting spammy URLs, then this algorithm will result in numerous false positives.  Innocent, non-spammers will be (and are being) censored on Facebook. 

If the censorship algorithm were limited to new accounts, and individuals were told their posts are not going to show up until X, Y, Z thresholds are met, I would understand.  It is not unusual for a site to delay full functionality on new accounts.  GoToQuiz does this on our forums by disabling links until a certain status level is achieved.  

Facebook ‘s censorship algorithm (I keep using this term because the algorithm goes well beyond the scope of a spam filter) is not limited to new accounts.  People who have been on Facebook for a year or longer have had their posts hidden.  I can only guess at why.

Perhaps accounts are profiled for “abnormal” behavior; that is, if you are too far outside “normal” Facebook usage, you are subjected to post-hiding.  However, people use Facebook in different ways, and “different” is often still legitimate.  One possibility is that the algorithm gets triggered when you post too frequently on fan pages while making too few status updates.  Maybe this is taken to be an “abormal” (potentially spammy) usage pattern.  Yet, it is a legitimate way to use Facebook.  Indeed, one may only use Facebook at all just to communicate with one’s congressman, on that congressman’s page.

It is the impact on political speech that troubles me the most.  Because Facebook has become a popular platform for politicians to create dialogue with their constituents, I believe the censorship algorithm is doing damage to free and open speech.  Facebook, as current king of social media, finds itself in a position of great import vis-à-vis the national political dialogue.  Excessive false-positives in the name of fighting spam is not acceptable, nor is it acceptable to forgo alerting the user that their message to their congressman is in fact hidden from everyone but the user him/herself.  If and when a user learns that some or all of their posts have been hidden, the feeling is one of disempowerment and discouragement.  Social media was “supposed to” do the precise opposite.

It is frustrating and disappointing to me that Facebook has gone down this road.  I hope that they will correct this faulty and deceptive algorithm.  Spam must be aggressively fought, however not at the expense of legitimate speech.  Or else the platform itself is ruined as a medium for open communication.

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