Facebook accounts that challenge misinformation or sell 'Brexit' chocolates have become “collateral damage” as the social media platform tries to purge extremist content and lies online.
Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics, a science-led group that hosts meetings and talks with respected academics to promote critical thinking and debunk pseudoscience, said that their page and all the administrator’s personal Facebook accounts were shut down twice in two months.
He believes that keywords like ‘QAnon’ and ‘skeptics’ which they had used may have triggered Facebook to automatically disable the accounts.
Although Facebook reinstated the pages and said that removing them was “an error”.
“Our Facebook page had been up for about 10 years but over the past two months we have been hit by two Facebook bans,” he said.
“My suspicion is that we were banned because we hosted a talk on conspiracy theories and QAnon in an online lecture in December. We invited Dr Rob King from UCC to talk about the psychology of conspiracy theories, as it is obviously a very important topic right now.
“All of the admins had our private pages shut down too, it was as if our whole histories were completely erased from Facebook, a complete wipe.” Although the Cork Skeptics Facebook page and the admins’ personal accounts were restored in December, the same thing happened again just last week.
“They’re definitely out there trying to purge this misinformation content and close down networks that actively spread conspiracy theories. But this is a false positive. We’re actually the opposite of those types of groups but we were caught up because of their algorithms. We are collateral damage in this process.”
Dr Finn MacLeod, who lived in Ireland for 20 years before returning to his family home in Scotland, has also been hit by a Facebook ban.
He recently set up Chocface, a chocolate company that prints people’s own photos or quirky collections of images chosen by the company onto Belgian chocolates.
One of his products, The Brexit Box, featured a Union Jack flag, and images of Brexiteer leaders including Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings, Priti Patel, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove.
He designed a Facebook ad with the text: “Choose and chew your way through our political leaders for Christmas. The perfect way to halt any political discussion…with chocolate!” The ChocFace ad account was disabled as it ‘failed to comply with advertising policy or standards’.
“Not only did they ban the ad but they said that by essentially disguising a political campaign as a product we were deliberately circumventing Facebook policy,” Dr MacLeod said.
A spokesperson from Facebook said: “We review millions of ads and posts each week, and unfortunately we occasionally make mistakes as has happened here.
"We have reinstated the advertising account and would like to apologise to ChocFace for any inconvenience caused.”
The spokesperson also commended the work of Cork Skeptics on behalf of Facebook, saying:
“We commend the work of this group [Cork Skeptics] in trying to inform people about misinformation and we’re sorry that they were removed in error by our automated tools. We have taken extra steps to ensure this does not happen again.
“We use a combination of automated and human review to ensure content complies with our Community Standards. We sometimes make mistakes when reviewing content, which is why we give people the opportunity to appeal our decisions.”