Everyone I know, including my family and my best friends are blocked at home in coronavirus lockdown, most of them in Italy, while I am stuck in my London flat. In this dramatic situation, many people are using Facebook and Messenger to stay in touch, share news, thoughts and updates, but I can’t.
More than two months ago, Facebook de-activated my account, without giving me any explanation or warning and without providing a clear reason. Since then all my attempts to have it reinstated failed miserably, in what has been so far a Kafkian process so frustrating and disappointing that I feel compelled to share it.
It started on Friday 7th February. As I did every morning, I went to check Facebook but I was denied access. Instead of seeing my usual feed I received a laconic message “Your account has been disabled”. I was offered two options: 1) Download my information (ok, thanks for that). 2) Go to Help Centre, where I learned that my account was disabled for “violating the Facebook Terms”, with no further details.
This looked strange. I am (was) a very passive and boring user, who never shares any controversial or sensitive content, and I don’t see how I could have violated their Terms and Conditions, whatever they are. My last post, arriving from my linked Instagram account, was a harmless picture of a Keith Jarrett vinyl with some ecstatic comments about the second part of the Koln Concert. Surely this kind of things don’t offend anyone.
There must have been a technical mistake, I though. According to MIT, Facebook closes 2 billion (fake) accounts every three months thanks to an automated machine-learning system. A shocking number that tells a lot about the type of fishy activities that happen on the network and the hard work Facebook has to do to keep it free from invaders. But it’s hard to imagine that such a sophisticated system would not be able to realise that my account is legitimate.
Perhaps, I thought, someone cloned my account and used it in a fraudulent way. Or maybe someone that doesn’t like me (but who could that be?) has reported me to the Facebook Police accusing me of something I didn’t do.
Whatever the cause, those seem things that could be easily sorted out, if I had the chance to speak with someone. And here is the problem. Facebook offers no chat or call centre to its users. The only option is to send an online request to the aptly named Help Center and ask for a review of the account. I did it in the same day, uploading an ID as requested.
Hoping to put more substance to my case, in my message I pointed out that I use Facebook as a professional. I am an academic, a journalist, holder of a Press Card issued by the UK Foreign Press Association and owner of popular news website LondraItalia.com whose Facebook page has more than 15,000 direct followers. A page of which incidentally I am the only Admin, which means that without my personal account I am effectively unable to manage it and do things like adding or revoking privileges to my editors.
Several weeks later, having received no answer from the Help Center despite various follow-up requests, I tried to contact Facebook via other social media (Linkedin and Twitter) and personal contacts to no effect. A further email sent to five Facebook executives that are regularly involved with media went also unanswered.
Is my case being reviewed? I have no clue. Previous stories suggest there is no actual review process in Facebook and the only people that got attention are the one that sued the company. A route I am not keen to follow. But as things stand it’s highly unlikely that my account is being reviewed or will ever be reviewed by a sentient human being.
Over the last two months my feelings have moved from frustration to anger to a strong desire to say “the hell with Facebook, I can live without it“. This is true, of course we can live without Facebook and there are other social media and communication tool that work just fine. Or I could simply open a new account and rebuild my network from scratch. But I think we deserve to be treated better.
Despite being less fashionable that some of the newest social media like Snapchat or TikTok, Facebook is still the biggest one, used by 2.5 billion people globally. It is the true global village, and being out of it is a loss, both at a personal and at a professional level.
In recent years Facebook has pledged to use its power to play a positive social role, introducing features to stop fake news and help people during emergencies. But all this is irrelevant if we are treated so opportunistically, like uninvited guests that can be kicked out of the party at any moment without having to provide a reason. I truly hope that Facebook stops closing accounts in this way and ensures better support to their users. In the meantime, my story is a stark reminder of how little power all of us have towards the internet giants whose solutions we use for free and give for granted.
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