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Facebook’s reporting algorithm abused by antivaccinationists to silence pro-science advocates

This is not what I had wanted to write about for my first post of 2014, but unfortunately it’s necessary—so much so, in fact, that I felt the obligation to crosspost both here and on my not-so-super-secret other blog in order to get this information out to as wide a readership as possible.

I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Facebook. On the one hand, I like how easily it lets me stay in contact with family and friends across the country, people whom I would rarely see more than once or twice a year, if even that. On the other hand, I have the same privacy concerns that many other people have with respect to putting personal information, as well as pictures and videos of myself, family, and friends, onto Facebook. Now that I’ve become a (sort of) public figure (or, as I like to refer to myself, a micro-celebrity), I’ve thought that I should cull my friends list to just real friends with whom I have a connection (or at least have met in person or had private e-mail exchanges with) and set up a Facebook page for my public persona, to prevent people whom I don’t know or barely know from divebombing my wall with arguments. As I tell people, I don’t want obnoxious arguments on my Facebook wall; that’s what my blogs are for.

My personal social media preferences aside, Facebook does indeed have many shortcomings, but until something else comes along and steals the same cachet (which is already happening as teens flee Facebook to avoid their parents) and even after, Facebook will remain a major player in social media. That’s why its policies matter. They can matter a lot. I was reminded of this about a week ago when Dorit Reiss (who has of late been the new favored target of the antivaccine movement, likely because she is a lawyer and has been very effective thus far in her young online career opposing the antivaccine movement) published a post entitled Abusing the Algorithm: Using Facebook Reporting to Censor Debate. Because I also pay attention to some Facebook groups designed to counter the antivaccine movement I had already heard a little bit about the problem, but Reiss laid it out in stark detail. Basically, the merry band of antivaccinationists at the Australian Vaccination Network (soon to be renamed because its name is so obviously deceptive, given that it is the most prominent antivaccine group in Australia, that the NSW Department of Fair Trading ordered the anti-vaccine group to change its misleading name) has discovered a quirk in the algorithm Facebook uses to process harassment complaints against users and abused that quirk relentlessly to silence its opponents on Facebook.

I’ll let Reiss explain:

Over the weekend of December 21-22, an unknown person or persons used a new tactic, directed mainly at members of the Australian organization “Stop the Australian Vaccination Network” (The Australian Vaccination Network – AVN – is, in spite of its name, an anti-vaccine organization – see also here; SAVN had been very effective in exposing their agenda and mobilizing against them). In an attempt to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook, they went back over old posts and reported for harassment any comment that mentioned one person’s name specifically. Under Facebook’s algorithm, apparently, mentioning someone’s name means that if the comment is reported it can be seen as violating community standards. Which is particularly ironic, since many commentators, when replying to questions or comments from an individual, would use that individual’s name out of courtesy.

Several of the people so reported received 12-hours bans. Some of them in succession.


The only common trait of these posts appears to be that they use the name of an AVN supporter, who then uses that use of her name as evidence of “harassment” to report the post. If you go back and look at the examples of comments that were used to trigger 12-hour Facebook bans, they are about as innocuous as one can imagine. For example:

We removed this from Facebook because it violates our Community Standards

Here’s another example:

Karen; a challenge for you: find a case where a judicial officer (judge, special master etc) has heard evidence for and against a link between vaccines and autism and then found in favour of a link. Give me a link to the judgment, not what what [sic] Mike Adams or others claim is in the judgment.

Antivaccinationists, being antivaccinationists, also can’t resist bragging about what they are doing, posting images of comments successfully removed and creating a Facebook page called “FB Time-Outs for Provaxers”:

FB Time-Outs for Provaxers

One notes that this must either have been taken down or that it is a private, invitation-only group that doesn’t show up on Facebook searches. This is still going on. Indeed, I received an e-mail on New Year’s Eve from Joanne Benhamu, who confirms that this has been going on several weeks and further reports that the individuals responsible for this campaign have been on a reporting spree. She also reports that a couple of days ago every administrator for the “Stop the AVN” Facebook page, including Joanne Benhamu and Rachel Dunlop, has become the target of such bans. The effect, as described by Benhamu, has been to disable their ability to run the Stop the AVN Facebook page and prevent supporters from engaging in debate about the topic. She also gave examples of the frivolous nature of the complaints and the innocuous nature of the comments singled out for complaint. One comment that drew a 12-hour ban was: “Tess, are you disputing that your only source is a blog penned by a known liar?”. Another comment that has resulted in Dr. Rachael Dunlop being banned is: “Karen is a sock, or appears to be.”

I can’t emphasize enough how hypocritical this is.

Reasonable Hank has also pointed out the brain-melting hypocrisy of the AVN and documented several instances of the AVN crying “Censorship!” to raise money and quoting Meryl Dorey herself saying “Censorship is NEVER acceptable!” It’s a viewpoint that I actually have a great deal of affinity for. Remember, I’m the same person who has lambasted laws criminalizing Holocaust denial when arch-Holocaust denier David Irving ran afoul of such laws in 2006.

Of course, government censorship is a different thing from the policies of a private company like Facebook. Facebook can do what it likes and set whatever policies it likes. It is Facebook’s policies that are problematic. As easily abused as Facebook’s policies appear to be, however, it is hypocritical in the extreme for Meryl Dorey to weep crocodile tears about “censorship” and then engage in the activities Hank documents, such as frivolous DMCA takedown complaints and intentionally marking unfavorable posts as spam. Reiss and Reasonable Hank provide compelling evidence that this is a deliberate strategy, most likely on the part of the Australian Vaccination Network and Meryl Dorey, designed to abuse the reporting algorithm used by Facebook in order to give pro-vaccine skeptical activists a “time out” from Facebook. During these 12-hour bans, they are unable to post or comment; they are, for all intents and purposes, locked out of Facebook. As Reasonable Hank explains, this is not a petty Facebook squabble. Remember that each of these reports means a 12 hour ban from Facebook for the user. It is also highly unlikely to be a coincidence that comments from months ago are found and reported at a time coinciding with the end of a user’s 12 hour ban. One user has reported multiple bans, one per day, so that he has not had continual access to his Facebook account for over a week. Just look at the list of comments that led to 12-hour bans based on frivolous reports of harassment and abuse. There is nothing abusive or threatening about any of them.

Again, the only thing these posts have in common is that they use the name of an AVN supporter, often only the first name. Apparently, yesterday Meryl Dorey herself finally commented, playing dumb in a transparent fashion:

DoreyDisingenuous-934x700

After a disingenuous bit about how this is the first time she’s ever heard of this and a claim that she has yet to see any evidence that AVN-affiliated Facebook users have anything to do with this and a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” urging that “we are better than this”, Dorey turns up the nudging and winking to the point where she probably has elbow bruises and corneal abrasions to conclude:

Oh, and honestly, pages and people who breach Facebook’s terms and conditions should be reported – don’t think that I am trying to stop you from doing that, I encourage you to! But please keep it to those types of pages and posts.

In other words, carry on what you’re doing, but please, just be a little less blatant about it and for heaven’s sake don’t publicly gloat about it when your abuse of Facebook’s reporting mechanism succeed!

Again, this is a deficiency of Facebook’s automated reporting mechanism. It’s a glitch that’s so transparently open to abuse that it’s a wonder to me that Facebook hasn’t fixed it already. As one of the commenters in Reasonable Hank’s post points out, it seems fairly certain that the name recognition is automated to the point that the person doing the reporting of abuse need only have an account with the same name or partial name as the name mentioned in the comment in order to report it for purposes of suppression, elaborating:

So if I happen to see some guy on a US politics site saying stuff I disagree with to some other guy named “Andy”, it seems I can get the abuser banned even though it’s not me he’s abusing. The target “Andy” would be none-the-wiser.

Gosh, if were a troll, I could just spend my days searching random FB sites for anyone who mentions “Andy”, and get the users banned for the hell of it.

The Facebook account most used to make these spurious complaints appears to belong to someone with the ‘nym Karen Little, who runs an antivaccine Facebook page in which she blatantly gloats about getting Australian skeptics banned, such as Peter Bowditch, and posts memes like this:

And this:

Unfortunately, Facebook has not proven itself to be particularly good at dealing with issues like this; its track record leaves something to be desired. However, with its more than one billion users, Facebook is still the 800 lb. gorilla of social media and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. It is a platform that can’t be ceded to the antivaccinationists without a fight. Moreover, if the Australian (Anti-) Vaccination Network succeeds in driving pro-science activists from Facebook with these tactics, other antiscience movements will be emboldened to do the same. As I’ve explained time and time again, attacking the person and trying to silence him is a feature, not a bug, of crank movements. As I discovered early on, they hate pseudonyms and would try to “out” me every way they could. I learned the reason, too, and that’s to target me personally in order to silence me. As I’ve experienced all-too-many times as various cranks have tried to harass me by complaining to my superiors at my job or even gone as far as to try to report me to my state medical board, which a misguided Stanislaw Burzynski supporter did last year. This is no different, except that it’s easier. My bosses know enough now to recognize crank complaints, and the state medical board rapidly decided that the complaint against me was bogus. Facebook has an automatic algorithm; human judgment appears to have very little to do with it.

So what can we do? First of all, this needs to be publicized. Whether it’s the AVN doing this (as seems very likely based on strong circumstantial evidence) or other groups of antivaccine warriors, this needs to be publicized. I don’t know whether complaining to Facebook will do any good or not, but it nonetheless has to be done at the Feedback link. It might also help to report this as a bug. The key is that we have to get a lot of reports; otherwise it’s unlikely that Facebook will notice. In the meantime, the only other suggestion I can think of is never to use the name of a known antivaccine activist, in particular the names above that were used to get people temporarily banned. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

Social media sites like Facebook are a very useful tool for community building and disseminating information. However, the can be abused, and that is what appears to be occurring here. There might come a time when Facebook ceases to be useful because its reporting algorithm is too easily abused. Here’s hoping that the management of Facebook can be made aware of that.

Posted in: Computers & Internet, Public Health, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (30) ↓

30 thoughts on “Facebook’s reporting algorithm abused by antivaccinationists to silence pro-science advocates

  1. Cairenn Day says:

    This same tactic was used then and recently, on old posts by those that sought to fight the flood of misinformation on the BP oil spill.

    Several folks got time outs for posts that were over 2 years old. They also managed to basically shut down one fact based page also with the same tactic.

  2. Stephen says:

    Thanks for detailing this reprehensible behavior.

  3. Ilijas Milišić says:

    Can I just add, as one of the admins on Stop the AVN page, that all the admins copped the 12hr ban, and others who are not admins but commented or liked the post.

  4. Kathy says:

    I’ll post this on my facebook page and on Feedback.

  5. ravingdesi says:

    So, if my name was “And”, would I be able to report the majority of all posts on FB?

  6. Mike says:

    Even after 2 weeks, the article that I wrote for a news site still comes up as “malicious” when you click on the link I posted.

    I get the following message and there is no mechanism to correct it:

    Please be careful

    This link might be malicious. Please follow it with care. Learn more about keeping your account secure.

  7. David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. says:

    We know that FB is a bag of shite … now we know how much of one it is…..

  8. Meleese Pollock says:

    Thanks for this post. I was the poster of the first screenie that earned me a 12 hour ban (my second) My first 12 hour ban which I didn’t screenie but copy/pasted, was for this“Karen I had a whooping cough booster 3 years ago. There are no babies or children even in the circles I move in. However, I use public transport and shop in supermarkets where there are little ones. Yes we vaccinate to protect ourselves but this is a community issue and my primary motivation for getting a booster was so that I wouldn’t inadvertently pass on the disease, if I got it, to someone more vulnerable than myself.”BTW Karen is over on the AVN, protesting her innocence. Right

  9. Alec Duncan says:

    I received two 12 hour bans by this method, Neither comment was abusive although they were strongly worded. Unfortunately I don’t have screen shots of the comments or the takedown notices from Facebook.

    What I do have is screenshots of one of the perpetrators boasting about their behaviour on the FB Time-outs for Provaxers Facebook page (that page seems to have been deleted now, or at least I can’t access it – and the link in your post doesn’t work for me either).

    It includes a shot of a list of 25 or so takedowns (not the comments or images themselves – just Facebook’s report that they had been taken down), accompanied by this comment by the person who did them:

    “This could become addictive. lol My only regret is I didn’t space out the reports, so they probably only got a 12 hour sentence for multiple offences. I just couldn’t help myself though. It was like I was under the influence of an addictive drug; a few reports wasn’t enough. I couldn’t make enough reports. I needed MOAR and MOAR and MOAR! lol”

    In a later comment the same person asks the rhetorical question, “Oh why oh why am I such an arsehole??”

    Good question. Natural talent seems the only possible answer.

    If the screenshots are of any use to you I would be happy to send them to you.

    1. David Gorski says:

      Please do, although I think the screenshot of the list of Facebook takedowns was included in Dorit Reiss’ post; so I don’t know if that one is needed.

      1. Alec Duncan says:

        Email and images sent.

  10. David Gorski says:

    Interesting. “Karen Little” has either taken down her page or changed its privacy settings, as the Keanu Reeves picture with the tag line, “What if I told you it wasn’t the algorithm,” doesn’t show up any more.

  11. AlisonM says:

    If you can’t beat them, beat them up. It’s the bully mentality in action.

  12. Unfortunately a large amount of Anonymous ‘hackers’ are anti-science nutters. So, who knows what type of internet related tactics they’ll employ. Obviously, they have plenty of technical expertise, but the whole critical thinking thing is an Error 404.

    :(

    1. Frederick says:

      A vast majority of Anonymous “hackers” are just people using the provided tools to do Denial off services attack. Flooding servers with request. they are not Pro hackers. They real Anonymous founders and coreare real hackers and probably IT workers, or DEV, i Doubt they are all about anti-science or in the conspiracy gambit.

      And since Anonymous are anonymous any group doing a DOS attack and shut down a server can claim to be Anonymous.

      1. A lot of engineers are global warming deniers, so it is not unlikely that there are anti-science nuts in the core group. However, I find it unlikely that they are anti-vaxx

  13. DJDenning says:

    Thanks for this; I have linked it on my FB wall.

    FB is notorious for its “blunt instrument” reporting mechanism, that has, for instance, resulted in photos of breast-feeding women getting taken down, their posters banned. With increasing competition from other social media, FB needs to step up its game if it wants to maintain its market share. I frequently post pro-science pro-vaccine content on FB, and if I started getting my wrist slapped, I might find FB too much bother. After all, FB is recreational for most of us, and if I’m going to spend my free time putting up content that only gets taken down, I’ll just decamp over to, say, Reddit.

  14. goodnightirene says:

    I got a comment rejected by the NY Times that said: Go away Mr. Troll (in response to an obvious and obnoxious troll).

    The screener wrote to me personally to “explain” my “rudeness”. I responded that this wouldn’t be banned anywhere else and pointed out that I had said “MR” Troll, to no avail. The word troll is not permitted at the NYT, while the very borderline and abusive comments of trolls are happily accepted (admittedly I don’t see the ones that get rejected).

    Using the word “breast”, in a comment to an article on say, breast cancer, will get you moderated at HP, although I don’t know if this is still true as I really don’t read it anymore. It’s The Guardian where I would love to see some of the things that get deleted with the rejection message intact!

    So whether its real interns or algorithms, people with an axe to grind will find ways to manipulate things in their favor. I guess the lesson is to stop using names in FB posts.

  15. Jerry Schwarz says:

    I’m active in the ACLU and this discussion reminded me of an incident from September where facebook took down one of the ACLU’s posts. The ACLU got it restored, but unfortunately the method probably isn’t available to any of the victims of this activity. “We’re a national non-profit with media access and a public profile. So we tracked down Facebook’s public policy manager, and emailed him about our dilemma.”

    The full story is at https://www.aclu.org/blog/technology-and-liberty-national-security/naked-statue-reveals-one-thing-facebook-censorship

  16. Alia says:

    What is really irritating about FB is that when you want them to do something that does not involve exploiting an algorithm, it’s very hard to make them react. For example, if you want FB to block a fanpage that promotes violence towards women or Holocaust denial, it can take hundreds of reports from different people and still you get a reaction “we haven’t found anything that violates FB policy”.

  17. Newcoaster says:

    As someone who doesn’t use FB or understand its attraction I am probably outing myself as an old fart…but really I am just a private person who has no interest in reading about what bare acquaintences had for lunch.

    However this just seems to be the way of the web. A few years ago I hung out for a time on Yahoo Answers mostly in the Alternative Medicine section, naively hoping that presenting facts and debunking nonsense would be appreciated. In fact, there were organized groups of Alties who would report violations in an attempt to get answers deleted and accounts banned. After my 3rd account suspension I realized there were more of them than us, and it was a pretty silly place anyway.

    I still have no interest in FB.

    1. Chris says:

      Newcoaster: “As someone who doesn’t use FB or understand its attraction I am probably outing myself as an old fart”

      Actually, youth are abandoning FaceBook in droves. Many because their parents are on it and basically don’t like doing the same thing as their parents.

      My college age daughter quit FaceBook while still in high school because she is also a very shy private person, and she was disgusted at FB for stripping many of the Pentagon level security measures she employed. She had it set that you could not find her name, and that you had to actually know her in person to be able to see her page.

  18. Aaron Fors says:

    I think this fellow could get you in contact with the right person to speak with?

    http://www.andrewnoyes.net/andrewnoyes.net/andrew_noyes.html

    andrew@andrewnoyes.net

    press@fb.com

  19. LIz Ditz says:

    A new banning just took place. There’s a Facebook page called “The Antivaccine Wall of Shame” (AVWOS) It has been taken down. Allison Hagood (one of the co-authors of ‘Your Baby’s Best Shot”) has banned from Facebook for 7 days.

    Here the message that Allison received from Facebook, relative to AVWOS

    “The group “Anti Vax Wall of Shame” has been removed because it violated our Terms of Use. Among other things, groups that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down groups that attack an individual or group, or advertise a product or service. Continued misuse of Facebook’s features could result in your account being disabled.

    Here is Allison’s reply to Facebook:

    “There is nothing hateful, threatening, or obscene about the group “Anti Vax Wall of Shame.” The fact that you have removed this indicates that you have been receiving fraudulent reports from the anti-vaccine movement, who are on record as coordinating and planning massive campaigns of such fraudulent reports in an attempt to censor those of us who recognize established science in this area. Several stories have been written about these campaigns:

    (she then gives the URLs for this post and others, which I need not give here to avoid moderation).

  20. LIz Ditz says:

    It is legitimate for Facebook to prevent harassment, and without context, the Anti-Vaccine Wall of Shame does look as if it might border on harassment.

    Dorit Reiss (who wrote the Times of Israel piece, “Abusing the Algorithm: Usinging Facebook Reporting to Censor Debate) suggests the following be publicly explained to Facebook as context:

    To understand the need for the Anti-vax wall of shame, and why it is not harassment, you need to understand two features of the fight against anti-vaccine misinformation. The first is that anti-vaccine sites censor debate. So if they encourage people not to vaccinate their children against polio or tetanus – leaving those children at risk – based on misinformation, you cannot correct that misinformation on the page: they will ban and block you. The second feature is that anti-vaccine activists, lacking facts on their side, regularly engage in personal attacks.

    (There is documentation of personal attacks by antivaccine advocates on Facebook, in the form of screenshots and a closed Facebook page that collects said attacks.)

    [Th]ose of us engaged in this debate regularly face personal abuse. (On Facebook and on websites outside of Facebook.

    The Anti-Vax Wall of Shame (AVWoS) does two things in this context: it allows us to call out the behavior, both the misinformation and the abuse – to publicly criticize and point out the problems, alerting people to it. And it allows those engaged in this fight, facing constant abuse, to vent their frustrations and cry out. This enables them to keep fighting.

    To prevent the critique from becoming harassment, AVWoS page rules require removal of names and pictures, except when discussing a public figure. This makes the critique not personal – and not harassment.

    Do individual commentators sometimes step over the line and into harassment? Possible. But that does not make the page a hate group or a focus of harassment. Its role does make it a target of anti-vaccine activists, unhappy with being criticized. But that is not a reason to remove it, and their unhappiness is not something Facebook should be a part of.”

    Anybody have any other suggestions?

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