"I contributed to Facebook's success and growth!" Jason Bassler said with some frustration this morning, a day after the social media giant unpublished the page for a media site he founded, The Free Thought Project. "I decided to create content day after day. Now they piss on us."
Facebook announced Thursday that it was deleting 559 pages and 251 accounts that it claims were breaking Facebook's rules against spam and "inauthentic" behavior. The Free Thought Project was one of the demolished pages, along with another of Bassler's efforts, Police the Police. Both pages that produced content—stories, memes, and videos—that focused on government behavior and were shared widely among fans, particularly libertarians.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of cybersecurity policy, and Oscar Rodriguez, a Facebook product manager, have explained the purge by writing that they don't think these sites were really trying to engage in political debate but were in fact spam factories trying to make money:
Many were using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names and posted massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages to drive traffic to their websites. Many used the same techniques to make their content appear more popular on Facebook than it really was. Others were ad farms using Facebook to mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate.
Bassler says that's not what was happening. Bassler has editing privileges on a bunch of pages that were affected by the ban, and he shared a picture on Facebook on what it looked like to see all these pages depublished:
Bassler explains though that this was the result of networking between pages of similar interest, not a handful of people trying to artificially inflate their own popularity. He has made five pages himself, and he was assisting with these others.
"When we first started these pages in 2012, we started networking with different page owners realized we could do more to benefit each other by helping each other," he says. "What we did and what we've done for the past six years is help each other out by giving each other information."
Bassler isn't the only one confused. Over at the Washington Post, James Reader, who runs a progressive site and page called Reverb Reader, complains about Facebook "changing the rules as they went." Many of them, like Bassler, used networking to build a community to reach a larger audience—a normal sort of organizing that Facebook now deems "inauthentic."
The Free Thought Project had 3 million followers and Police the Police nearly 2 million. Some of the stories highlighted and shared on their website will be familiar to Reason readers, like the recent case of the Kansas man handcuffed on his own property by police who had confused him with a burglar. Bassler says he also got stories from people reaching out to them, upset when the general media reported only the police's side of the story. Bassler describes himself as a libertarian anarchist, but he says he's tried hard not to push an ideological agenda onto his pages, focusing instead on government accountability.
But The Free Thought Project also ran afoul of fact-checkers, particularly Snopes, which has accused them of misrepresenting stories on several occasions and which frequently describes them as a conspiracy site. The Free Thought Project provided coverage of veterans group in Arizona that claimed to have found a "bunker" being used for child trafficking. It was actually an abandoned homeless camp, and there's no evidence that there was any sort of human trafficking happening there.
After Snopes and the Associated Press reported that the claims were fake, The Free Thought Project defended itself by saying it never actually said the child trafficking claims were true in the first place. And it has struck back at Snopes for "debunking" claims from The Free Thought Project that it didn't actually make.
Bassler says he's had four stories pulled from Facebook after fact-checkers deemed them inaccurate. He has had two of those decisions reversed. He claims that Snopes has a grudge against them after The Free Thought Project delved into the site's finances. Snopes, meanwhile, has put up a page debunking claims from the Free Thought Project that Snopes is trying to "shut down conversation" about child sex trafficking.
It's all very messy, but even though Facebook is turning to Snopes to assist with fact-checking what gets shared on the platform, Facebook's latest round of page deletions makes no mention of fact-checking problems as a justification. Reason has reached out to both Facebook and Snopes to see if this fact-checking fight played any role the decision to shut down The Free Thought Project's page or any others affected by the purge. We have not yet gotten a response.
In the meantime, Bassler says he's going to "fight tooth and nail" to try to get his Facebook pages restored. The Free Thought Project has officially responded to having its Facebook page deleted here.