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When Facebook silenced me

/ 04:05 AM December 22, 2020

“We apologise for any distress caused.” This was Facebook headquarters’ rather pithy response (in British English apparently) when I decided to make public the abrupt and unfathomable deactivation of my public page account almost exactly two months ago. The social media behemoth, in response to a critical essay on the Nikkei Asian Review, was quick to clarify that my “Page was restricted in error and we reinstated it as soon as we became aware of our mistake.”

I was surely grateful for the prompt and seemingly sincere response from the Facebook’s Asia-Pacific policy communications chief, Kate Hayes, to my desperate plea for corrective intervention. After all, I was handed back the keys to one of my biggest platforms for authentic and unalloyed self-expression—a direct and indispensable bridge to the public, bereft of all those editorial inputs or production-level standards.

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Yet, I couldn’t shake off my lingering anger and profound frustration with the month-long suspension of a deeply-cherished platform of self-expression by a seemingly unaccountable and nontransparent corporate behemoth.

I also wondered about other victims, countless other Facebook users, who may have suffered a similar fate but lacked the necessary means to seek redress from the top management of social media platforms.

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Come to think of it, the “error” was corrected only when I decided to raise the issue among the upper rungs of the corporate ladder and, crucially, through an influential global affairs magazine. More than a dozen complaints filed via Facebook’s internal channels, a formal letter and direct message to Facebook Manila’s leadership, and repeated follow-ups through friends who happened to work in the company in the past proved fruitless. The only notice I initially got from Facebook was that the page was “unpublished,” because it apparently “goes against our Community Standards.” No explanation whatsoever.

But this was preposterous, since neither my personal ethics nor my professional obligations would ever allow me to engage in any online behavior, on my verified public account no less, that would cross the threshold of tolerance of libertarian platforms such as Facebook. Besides, Facebook can “unpublish” any potentially inflammatory post, not an entire page, on a case-to-case basis.

Still, I waited for more than a month before I decided to go public. First, I gave Facebook benefit of the doubt, knowing it has been struggling with algorithmic reconfigurations to clamp down on disinformation ahead of the US elections.

Moreover, there was the suspicion that this was likely a case of organized sabotage, namely mass reporting by trolls, who detest sovereign minds and those with political conscience, as to trigger an automatic deactivation by Facebook’s Artificial Intelligence.

Above all, presenting myself as some sort of victim runs against my nature. So I kept quiet about the issue, week after week. But the ghostly silence gradually turned into liminal anxiety and half-repressed panic.

It took years, not to mention immeasurable energy and inspiration, to transform my public page from a dull springboard for self-advertisement, as most public pages tend to be, into a relatively sane and fruitful public square where fans and trolls could thrash it out without descending into the absolute dark depths of the earth.

If anything, I gradually managed to inject an element of humor and playfulness into the page, despite the constant trolling and, at times, stubborn digressions by usual suspects. Political discourse, once again, became fun.

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My Facebook public page was a place where I felt one could be both silly and highbrow, playful yet able to partake in the all-serious struggle for freedom, sincerely humble yet unashamed of displaying aesthetic preciosities. In short, it was one platform where I felt one could unfurl one’s being beyond tired templates.

Most importantly, Facebook has been one of the last refuges for those of us who still believe in the promotion of human rights, the inviolability of individual dignity, the importance of political sanity, and the value of pluralistic and rational discourse.

Exactly 10 years ago, social media platforms such as Facebook turbocharged popular revolts against bankrupt autocracies in the Arab world. Today, defenders of democracy could wake up one day, or an evening in my case, and find out they no longer have control over their main platform for democratic discourse. Should we fear a Digital Dark Age?

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TAGS: censorship, digital dark age, facebook, Nikkei Asian Review, page block, social media
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