One of the tools Facebook employs to keep law and order in its vast social network is the “Report” feature. Facebook users can report other users or pages that break Facebook’s many rules, and the offending content may be removed following these reports.
But the feature, which should be used to prevent all sorts of online abuse, has allegedly been abused itself for the wrong reasons. Apparently, Facebook users and pages in Romania found themselves to be banned during the recent wave of protests against corruption in the country.
The protests are a continuation of similar events that took place in the country in early 2018, making worldwide news for the creativity of the crowds that gathered in various cities to combat a series of legislative initiatives that would have made it easier for allegedly corrupt politicians to avoid answering for their crimes.
The civic unrest worked at the time, as the Sorin Grindeanu government had to withdraw a controversial emergency ordinance days after issuing it. A few months later, even though it still holds a comfortable majority in parliament, the PSD-ALDE coalition felt compelled to replace the Grindeanu government with one more willing to reintroduce changes to laws that would give the government increased powers over the judiciary system.
Romanians took to the streets for days, culminating with a more significant protest on Sunday in the capital and other prominent cities of the country. Some 45,000 people took to the streets to protest the Mihai Tudose government, the leaders of the coalition, and the proposed law changes.
The people used social networks like Facebook to organize the protests throughout the year, but on Sunday they noticed several users and pages that called for anti-government demonstrations were blocked.
Did Facebook just help the Romanian government censor anti-corruption protests? That’s hardly the case. But reports from local sites like DorinLazar.ro and Mariciu.ro allege that government supporters may have been working for weeks on a targeted “Report” attack to temporarily block those pages and prevent coordination between people in different cities and stop news, including live-streams from these various events, from spreading online and becoming viral.
For the past weeks, several accounts of prolific, influential social media personalities have been suspended for various reasons. People […] have been suspended for up to 30 days for posts that apparently don’t respect the Facebook Community Guideline, although some were penalized for posts made in 2009 – that’s 8 years ago. For some reason, it seems that Romanian Facebook users community has been put under the microscope lens and a sweep of „unruly elements” has been performed.
Ironically, reports about this alleged censorship tactic soon emerged online and were widely shared on social media.
Rather than trolling their targets with spammy comments from fake Facebook users meant to incite the spirits, the government supporters seem to have found a much better weapon. Reporting users or pages is a free tool available to all Facebook users. Better yet, it’s completely anonymous, therefore safe. The target will not find out who reported a post, comment, or page update, although Facebook will list the reason why an account or page is temporarily banned. This anonymity is what makes it harder for anyone outside Facebook to prove these allegations.
Facebook still faces plenty of criticism for the spread of Russian-financed fake news online especially during last year’s US presidential election and is already working hard to prevent similar attacks from happening again. But the social network may soon have to take steps to make sure that its “report” system can’t be easily abused by governments that want to censor their citizens from expressing dissenting views online without actually cutting access to social networking sites in their countries. The latter option, blocking access to social media, is actually a more successful tactic.