Activists upset with Facebook
Posted | September 19, 2010 04:33 AM
Grass-roots activists organizing boycotts against large corporations like Target stores and BP now find themselves directing some of their ire at another corporate monolith: Facebook.
The boycotters turned to the popular social media site to spread word about their pressure campaigns and keep participants up to date on the latest developments, but those efforts became much more difficult last week when Facebook disabled key features on the boycott pages.
As the number of Facebook members signed up for the “Boycott Target Until They Cease Funding Anti-Gay Politics” page neared 78,000 in recent days, Facebook personnel locked down portions of the page — banning new discussion threads, preventing members from posting videos and standard Web links to other sites and barring the page’s administrator from sending updates to those who signed up for the boycott.
“It slices the vocal cords,” complained Jeffrey Henson, who ran the Facebook page, calling for a boycott of Target over its $150,000 donation to a group supporting a candidate some view as hostile to the gay community, Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer. “The page is now outraged” over the website’s action, Henson added.
Participants in the boycotts complain Facebook’s actions have created an uneven playing field in which ad hoc citizens’ groups face hurdles to online organizing — obstacles that corporations using social media have little trouble surmounting.
“Facebook is interfering with the function of a page dedicated to individuals organizing in response to corporate action to which they object,” said Nicholas Lefevre, a promoter of the Target boycott. “With the limited avenues for such expression and organization and the importance of the Internet to that ability, anything that threatens that expression is dangerous.”
Another Facebook page “liked” by even more people — a boycott of petroleum giant BP that attracted more than 847,000 fans — was also hit by a similar clampdown last week. Those who use the BP page to communicate about the gulf spill reacted angrily.
“It all smells fishier than the gulf to me,” said one comment on the page from a member called “Triple Bottomline.”
Organizers of the Target and BP boycotts quickly started new pages, but their followers have been slow to locate and join the new pages. By Friday, only 1,450 members had signed up for the new page from BP boycott organizer Lee Perkins and 2,507 had signed up for a new Target boycott page.
In response to a query from POLITICO, Facebook said the earlier pages were restricted because they ran afoul of the social media site’s terms of service, limiting so-called pages to individuals and entities that have some real structure in the bricks-and-mortar world.
“Facebook Pages enable public figures, organizations, businesses, and brands to share information, interact with interested people, and maintain an engaging presence on Facebook,” said a Facebook spokesman, who asked not to be named. “They're … optimized for official entities’ needs to communicate, distribute content, engage people and capture new audiences. To protect people from spam and other unwanted content, we restrict Pages that represent ideas or positions — rather than discrete entities — from publishing stories to people's News Feeds.”
“This policy is designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for the people who use it,” the spokesman said.
The written guidance published on the Facebook site is somewhat vague about who can sponsor a page. The official policy says pages “may only be used to promote a business or other commercial, political, or charitable organization or endeavor (including nonprofit organizations, political campaigns, bands, and celebrities).”
Officials from Target and BP told POLITICO they made no requests to Facebook to act against the boycott pages.
Henson said he got a notice from Facebook about a month ago that he needed to “authenticate” his page. He said he tried to answer every question the site asked.
“I never heard back. Next thing I know: I’m locked out of the page,” Henson said. “I’m hoping they do the right thing and unlock it.”
Some activists said that even if Facebook’s rules are not intended to favor corporations over anti-corporate campaigns, the site’s policy does seem to have that impact.
“We think democracy works best where every single citizen’s voice is weighed equally,” said Ilyse Hogue of the liberal grassroots group Moveon.org, which is backing the Target boycott but has no connection to the disputed Facebook pages. “The whole system is titled away from those individual voices.”
Hogue noted that in the grass-roots group’s earliest days, it probably couldn’t have met Facebook’s standards for authentication, and if the group had a Facebook page, it would have been locked down.
Several social media experts said Facebook’s policies and its enforcement of those policies are too opaque and inconsistent.
“They haven’t been clear about how the terms of service apply,” said Jillian York of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for the Internet & Society. “Their policy … it might be reasonable, but I don’t think it’s well disclosed.”
York also said the anti-corporate pages seem to get more attention from Facebook. “It does seem like they’re more careful with those pages,” she said.
A Facebook official confirmed that they don’t check who’s behind a page until it reaches a certain size, which he declined to specify. One social media consultant said that practice causes confusion.
“It really does have a big effect when 10,000 people or 100,000 people join a group, and they change the rules midstream,” said Dorian Benkoil of New York-based Teeming Media. “Then, they try to thread the needle by saying you can still have a page, but we’re not going to let the admin post … They say it violates their rules. Then they say, we’ll go halfway.”
Facebook has faced criticism recently for abrupt changes to its policies, particularly moves to expand public access to information on individual users. In May, in response to a public outcry and to complaints from several U.S. senators, Facebook rolled back some changes and made it easier for users to opt out of some public disclosures.
One group that has been critical of the policies of Facebook and other social media sites, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the boycotters have discovered the perils of relying on a website run by a private, commercial entity.
“They’ve set up this walled garden, and when people use these things for organizing in this context, they’re buying into the arbitrary rules,” said the foundation’s Richard Esguerra. “This is a risk or consequence of doing these things in walled gardens. … It’s important for them to decide what they might be giving up, what kind of overarching control they might be giving up, whether it’s on Facebook or any other social network.”
Some analysts said they understood the impulse Facebook felt about possible spamming or other disputes that could arise from a single individual with a Gmail address controlling a page with hundreds of thousands of followers. However, others noted that it’s just as easy to quit a page as to join one and that any page spamming people would probably lose followers.
One consultant who helps nonprofit groups building an online following said the puzzling part of the policy Facebook has applied against the Target and BP boycotters is that it goes against the prevailing Internet ethos which favors quickly formed “flash mobs”— whether they arrange mass pillow fights or rally around a political cause.
“It kind of deflates that,” said Kevin Dugan of Empower MediaMarketing. “It’s certainly not what you would think a social media site would want to do. Normally, they’re empowering things like this, not trying to stop them.”