Social media censorship: now there's a phenomenon that is bound to get worse before it gets any better. Hardly a day goes by without revealing another questionable “moderation” decision made by one of the giants, with Facebook undoubtedly being the industry's flagship.
This time, says an article published by Forbes, the casualty is a book dealing with the niche topic of military headgear that has somehow been flagged as – too political.
Peter Suciu writes that he tried promoting the book – “A Gallery of Military Headdress,” of which he is a co-author – by using Facebook's “boost” feature.
Although the book describes this type of military gear along with providing illustrations, and steers altogether clear of politics – and guns – Facebook rejected the ad. But not as one might expect on the grounds that the subject is related to military history, and therefore indirectly to weapons. Instead, the book was found to be – too political.
Suciu says that this is not the first time he's encountered problems in trying to promote his work on Facebook since it was published in the spring. But when he asked why, the company never provided a clear explanation.
“Facebook would only refer me to its policies on weapons, including a ban on the sale of any post that encourages the sale of guns,” he said. Considering that the book features no weapons whatsoever, the author speculates that “overzealous algorithms” are the likely culprit.
But this time, Facebook stated the reason for rejecting the ad as follows:
“We require people to complete an ID confirmation to run ads about social issues, elections or politics.” A request for review saw Facebook double-down:
“The text and/or imagery you're using is about social issues, elections or politics, based on the definition we're using for enforcement.”
That's the problem with massively broad definitions: anything can fit inside them. As Suciu found out, the company bundles guns, security and foreign policy all into “social issues.”
Behind this conundrum, it slowly transpired, is Facebook's fear of making any missteps on political advertising, a topic that has kept it under fire in the US for months. And so, Suciu was told he would be allowed to “boost” his post if he provided some personally identifiable information, necessary to comply with Facebook's “transparency on political ads.” Eventually, this is what he did.
That the book and the ad are not political at all, and that flagging them shows that the system is obviously not working well, appears to be of no concern to Facebook.
Computer science professor Jim Purtilo's verdict is that the case revolves around “Facebook being caught with its biases showing.”
“Algorithms used to classify content sent to Facebook must be ‘trained' to distinguish acceptable traffic (…) Facebook has a business interest in tuning its models to achieve dominance in the marketplace; apparently the company has an interest in tuning its models to achieve specific social outcomes too,” he said.