Opinion: Facebook wrecked this news outlet’s account. It’s hard to trust social media

The Kansas Reflector Facebook page had all of the links to their website removed without notice or explanation. Not only that, but it also applied to every other user whose content they had shared. — Dreamstime/TNS

On Thursday morning, the staff of The Kansas Reflector got a jolt: Without warning or explanation, every link to their website was erased from their Facebook page. And it wasn’t only them – the same went for every other user who had shared their content.

Just like that, one of the primary conduits for the nonprofit newsroom to reach its audience was cut off. “We’ve been flooded with instant messages and emails from readers asking what happened, how they can help and why the platform now falsely claims we’re a cybersecurity risk,” opinion editor Clay Wirestone and editor in chief Sherman Smith explained on their site.

They assured readers their electronic devices weren’t in danger, but wondered: Did Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, take such draconian action because the news site had just shared on its page a commentary by an environmentalist documentary filmmaker critical of the social network’s advertising policy?

By the end of the day, the links had been restored. Meta communications director Andy Stone tried to allay the Reflector staff’s concerns that the block wasn’t because of what had been shared. “This was an error that had nothing to do with the Reflector’s recent criticism of Meta,” Stone wrote on X. “It has since been reversed and we apologize to the Reflector and its readers for the mistake.”

Comforting words, perhaps, but Meta hasn’t given users and content creators a lot of reasons to trust it. Its Facebook and Instagram social networks still teem with fake accounts, scammers and ridiculous amounts of misinformation and deliberate disinformation.

A sobering recent study from three academic researchers looked at more than 13 million Facebook political image posts – the most potent type of social content. These are often called “memes”, combinations of photos with text laid over the top. The study found a shocking 23% percent of them contained misinformation. And it wasn’t evenly distributed by ideology: Bad info was in 5% of left-leaning content, but in 39% of posts from the right.

Scammers identify, target unwitting victims

The fraud on Facebook is hardly limited to politics, though. As an experiment, go make a comment on a post by a major public figure – someone like Paul McCartney. In no time, you’ll get replies from accounts with names such as “Paul Mc Cartney” (with an extra space) or “Paul McCart,” using a profile picture of the man himself, usually with flattering words for you.

These hoaxsters are often playing a long game: They’re trying to identify people who are gullible enough to believe an international superstar is sifting through his own comments. When they get a bite, they’ll take it to private messaging – where it often turns into a financial con: “If you’ll just give me your credit card number, I’ll send you a special copy of my new album ahead of everyone else.”

Facebook isn’t the only Meta product with a credibility problem. Its Instagram announced earlier this year that it will push less political content into people’s feeds. Creators who run popular accounts have long suspected that Instagram and the other social networks suppress their posts when they get political – “shadowbanning” them.

There’s plenty of evidence it does exist there and also on YouTube, TikTok and more. And who knows which views are tamped down?

Spotify deleted, didn’t ask questions

Big Tech is terribly opaque. Unilateral deletions like The Reflector’s aren’t uncommon, and good luck finding someone who can help you out when something nonsensical happens. Just ask Georgia-based musician Benn Jordan, aka The Flashbulb.

In February, he realised that his entire huge catalogue of albums – hundreds of hours of music – had disappeared from the major streaming services: Spotify, iTunes, YouTube Music. After many frantic inquiries about what had happened, he learned Spotify thought it found “abnormal streaming activity” on his account – and got the centralised streaming service distributor to delete it without so much as an email or phone call. (Jordan got his albums restored, but he’s working on a more artist-focused alternative to that big distributor now.)

It’s not just big national creators, either. The Kansas City Star’s opinion editor Yvette Walker recently found her Facebook account, which she used for both personal and professional purposes, was deleted. She’s still not been able to get it back.

So what Facebook says, goes. But 18 years after it opened up to the public, it still wants to have it both ways: It wants all the revenue it can get as a publisher, but also wants to deny responsibility for its users’ misdeeds. (“We’re just a platform.”)

This potentially existential threat for organisations that produce legitimate journalism puts convenience at its core. Facebook organised the confusing, wide-open Internet and put its best features all in one place – keeping up with your high school friends, playing games, messaging. Facebook takes great advantage of traditional journalists’ work to fill users’ timelines with things to look at – but the company sells its own advertising and doesn’t prioritise sending people off to follow those links to outside websites. Facebook wants and needs what reporters, editors and photographers produce, but doesn’t always act like a good partner.

If you care about responsible, verifiable news, we suggest that you directly visit the websites of the news organisations you value. Cut out the social media middleman.

And if those sources you like sell subscriptions, buy one. – The Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service

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