Facebook’s Change of Heart: A Banished Israeli Columnist Gets an Apology

facebookOn Friday, I published a column in these pages about my trials and tribulations surrounding repeated suspensions from Facebook.

It took two months of experiencing intermittent bans from the social network–due to ostensibly “inappropriate material” on my page–before I finally took any measures to extricate myself from the situation.

Each time I received a warning and a temporary ban, I would wait impatiently for my punishment to pass, and enlist the help of friends and family members to share my pieces.

But then it got to be an annoyance. Facebook is a key tool for writers, present company included. As someone once admonished me prior to my entry into the world of social media, “If you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist.”

This was not a philosophical statement, but rather the advice of a well-wisher who was looking out for my career. He was right, of course, a fact I have come grudgingly to acknowledge. I had been hesitant about taking the plunge; but once I did, I understood why I should have swallowed my pride and done so years earlier.

So when I began to be barred, it was not personal rejection I felt, but rather a form of ill ease–as though I were being watched. This is a pretty ironic, if not an almost irrational sensation, considering it was I who opted to put my views and thoughts on display for the world to see in the first place.

Nor did I automatically chalk up the nuisance of being prevented every so often from “joining the club” to discrimination. Indeed, if there’s one thing I can’t stand as a political conservative, it is right-wing conspiracy theories born out of paranoia–a symptom of megalomania.

I didn’t feel important enough to be targeted by anyone, certainly not for my worldview, no matter how politically incorrect. I mainly felt stupid–with the help of my sneering kids–for being less than savvy where my use of the Internet in general and social media in particular are concerned. I made sure to follow my son’s instructions and change both my settings and the way in which I post my articles.

When that didn’t work, and I was still informed by Facebook that if I persisted in publishing material that violates its standards, I would be kicked off permanently, I felt I was being treated unfairly. But I did not see grounds for doing anything other than trying to reach a human being at the company with whom I could plead my case. After all, I told myself, Facebook is a free service and it is within its rights to exercise discretion about its users. I simply couldn’t fathom why I was receiving warnings, while the postings of all kinds of fanatics and borderline pornographers were continuing to crop up unhindered.

The clue–as I discovered and subsequently wrote about–was at the bottom of Facebook’s “community standards” page: “If you see something … that you believe violates our terms,” it read, “you should report it to us.”

It was clear, then, that some individual or group was lodging complaints against me, and Facebook was taking their word for it that I was a hate monger. I was put on the defensive, but nobody was interested in hearing my case. Though I tried to send Facebook a message about this, I got no reply.

It was just like what Israel goes through in the international community: It is guilty until proven innocent, and once epithets are hurled by its enemies along with missiles, it remains merely guilty.

My piece about this in Israel Hayom seems to have touched a nerve. It was reprinted by The New York Observer, then got picked up by the Drudge Report, and began generating comments on–where else?–Facebook, Twitter and Google.

Meanwhile, Katie Harbath, manager of policy at Facebook, became aware of the situation. Ms. Harbath saw the Observer version of the story and reached out to New York Observer editor Ken Kurson; at the same time, Commentary Magazine social media associate Bethany Mandell had also contacted Ms. Harbath. Immediately, Ms. Harbath sent me an apologetic e-mail, with an assurance that if I ever ran into any trouble in the future, I should not hesitate to get in touch with her directly.

Several hours later, I received a more formal explanation from the folks at Facebook, which was posted on Monday afternoon as an update to my story on the Observer:

“As our team processes more than one million reports each week, we occasionally make a mistake. In this case, we mistakenly removed content from Ruthie Blum’s profile, and worked to rectify the mistake as soon as we were notified. We apologize for the inconvenience cause due to the removal of this content, and we have already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future. Additionally, we have removed any blocks on associated accounts.”

Though the removal of content from my page was never an issue (a political stalker trying to silence me was the problem), it is gratifying to know that the might of the pen sometimes works to my camp’s advantage. This definitely deserves a “Like.”

Ruthie Blum is the author of To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ Facebook’s Change of Heart: A Banished Israeli Columnist Gets an Apology