Why We Should be Worried About Facebook Censorship

Media behemoth Facebook announced that it is expanding its fight against fake news to include business listings saying,

Organizations that link to news stories deemed to be false from their Pages listing will no longer be allowed to advertise on Facebook

I am definitely in favor of reducing the influence of fake news on the general public, but I am concerned about exactly how this is going being implemented. Who at Facebook is going to decide if a story is fake and whether a company should be banned? What are the criteria they are using to make the determination? What are the credentials of the decision-makers? What is their process for deciding if something is real or fake and is that process transparent to the public? Is there an appeal process and, if so, what are the credentials and criteria for making the final determination?

There is a fine line between thoughtful content curation and less than thoughtful censorship. The former is something we should expect of all media companies no matter their underlying biases. The latter is something that should concern us all.

Let me tell you about my personal experience with Facebook denying ads (also known as boosts).


Your photo is “shocking”

The first time one of our post boosts—actually the accompanying picture—got denied by Facebook, I was surprised. In August 2016, we published an article on reducing malpractice risk related to vaccinations on The Doctor Weighs In. It’s titled, Boost Patient Safety: How to Reduce Risks with Vaccinations and was written by Debbie Hill, RN, MBA, CPHRM and Lisa McCorkle, MSN, CPHRM, Patient Safety Risk Managers at The Doctors Company, the largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer in the country. The article provides guidance to physicians on how to reduce risks related to vaccinations. Examples of the suggestions are assigning someone in the practice to be sure FDA/CDC vaccination schedules are up-to-date and monitoring the storage and handling of the vaccines in the office. We bought a photo of a child getting a vaccine from one of the commercial stock photo companies. Here’s the photo:

We post a lot of our stories on TDWI’s social media channels, including Facebook. As we do with some of our Facebook posts, we decided to pay a small amount of money to “boost” the story in order to reach a broader audience. Shortly after we submitted the request to boost to Facebook, we got denied. When we asked why, here is what they said:

Your photo is “shocking, sensational, or overly violent”

The baby isn’t even crying! What is shocking about a child getting an immunization??? Of course, the post attracted the anti-vaccination crowd who left comments that reflected their opinions. Perhaps, someone complained about the photo or, perhaps, the person who handled our boost request is against vaccinations as well. That being said, I wonder if there really are legitimate grounds to censor an ad for an article about vaccination safety because it includes a photo of a kid getting a shot? We switched out the photo and the boost got approved (see below):


Is it really a taboo to talk about burning fat?

The following month, September 2016, Facebook again denied our request to boost a post. We are trying something new, making short videos out of the key findings from some of our articles. The first one we made was based on Dov Michaeli, MD, Ph.D’s very popular post on when is the best time to exercise. It is titled, Exercise Before Breakfast to Boost Its Benefit on Weight. The story explained, from a scientific point of view, how we burn calories with exercise and concluded that exercising before breakfast can result in,

“….preferential utilization of fat as a source of fuel”

The short video captured the most important points of the article. We posted it with the comment:

“Trying to burn fat? Mornings may be the best time to sweat it out.”

When we tried to boost the video, we were again denied. This time we were shocked. What on earth could be the matter with this one???

When we wrote to Facebook to find out why this one was denied, here is what Robin from the Facebook ads team said:

We wrote back several times to no avail. They closed the ticket and quit communicating—case closed:


Undesirable bodies and degrading people

Here are some more of our stories rejected by Facebook—added on the same day that Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying, “…I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.”

This was a story on psoriasis written by the President emeritus of the American Academy of Dermatology and Chair emeritus of the National Psoriasis Foundation Medical Board.

And this one, titled Got Knee Problems? Help May Be Up Your Nose,” was about an exciting innovation in the treatment of osteoarthritis (remember, we are boosting our story to get more readers, not selling a product and certainly not trying to “degrade people”):

Note, they also rejected the picture which shows a red knee because it would make people feel bad about themselves…they even asked us why not show a person running or riding a bike? They have got to be kidding. Hey, Pricilla Chan, you need to do an intervention.

Weighing scales are not allowed

In August 2017, we tried to boost a fun story about calories we forget to count because they are in condiments, instead of the main course. We were denied again. Here’s why:

“Your ad wasn’t approved because the image being used in the ad doesn’t comply with our Health and Fitness Policy. The image being used in the ad shows a weighing scale. Ads with scales are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike.”

You can see the offending picture here.


Should we be worried? You bet!

I realize that my examples are not nearly as egregious as when Facebook censored an iconic picture from the Vietnam war because it showed a nude child. The child was nude because she had had her clothes burned off by napalm and she was running down a road crying—that is hardly pornography.

Why I am so worried about this is that Facebook is now BIG MEDIA. This is where billions of people are getting their news. It is one thing to have algorithms that screen for things like childhood nudity. It is quite another when you act on those algorithms and then try to justify the resulting censorship by using nonsense like what they sent to us.

This is more than a slippery slope; it feels like they have crossed an important line in terms of free speech. Yeah, I know, we were trying to buy boosts from Facebook so they only prevented us from reaching a larger audience. They didn’t actually take our posts down. But nevertheless, it feels like the beginning of something very very big and very very bad.

Have you experienced similar censorship by Facebook? If so, drop us a comment. We would love to know just how big this problem is.

This post was first published on 09/25/16. It has been updated on 08/28/17 to include our latest offenses. We will continue to update it as more rejections come in.

Tags: social media

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