Is Facebook deleting history?

Two years ago, in a letter to potential investors Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, wrote:

"By giving people the power to share, we are starting to see people make their voices heard on a different scale from what has historically been possible. These voices will increase in number and volume. They cannot be ignored ...

"Through this process, we believe that leaders will emerge across all countries who are pro-internet and fight for the rights of their people, including the right to share what they want and the right to access all information that people want to share with them."

That was a fine aspiration and one that has been especially relevant to the conflict in Syria – a conflict which has been documented through social media in a way that no conflict has ever been documented before.

Facebook, which celebrated its tenth birthday yesterday, has played a major part in this. Besides giving a platform to voices that were previously unheard, posts on Facebook provide contemporaneous views of the Syrian conflict. Many of these may be rubbish and some may be offensive but they are all part of a multi-faceted public record of the war.

Among them, some contain valuable evidence that is (or could be) of interest to researchers, journalists, historians, etc – both now in the future – and it's not always easy to sort the wheat from the chaff. A post that might seem insignificant today can become very significant tomorrow, or years hence.

Unfortunately, though, Facebook has been deleting some of the Syria-related material in what seems to be a rather arbitrary fashion, and possibly as a result of complaints that are politically motivated. An article published by The Atlantic yesterday looks at this in detail.

There's no doubt that Facebook sometimes has to make difficult judgments. It acknowledges in its community standards document that may people want to share "experiences and issues" involving "graphic content that is of public interest or concern, such as human rights abuses or acts of terrorism". However, it adds that "graphic images shared for sadistic effect or to celebrate or glorify violence have no place on our site". 

The rules also say that "organisations with a record of terrorist or violent criminal activity are not allowed to maintain a presence on our site".

Commenting on Facebook's Syria-related deletions, Felim McMahon of Storyful writes:

"From a journalistic point of view, Facebook pages that helped Storyful corroborate some of the most important content from Syria have been removed from the public domain. Most alarming of all is the suggestion [in the Atlantic article] that there is little scrutiny of complaints that lead to the closures, and little recourse for those who find themselves censored."

Blogger Brown Moses, who specialises in researching weapons used in the Syrian conflict is also complaining about deletions, especially in relation to the chemical attacks near Damascus on August 21 last year. In a series of tweets, he said:

"Regarding @Facebook wiping out opposition Facebook pages. This is something that I've really noticed during my recent research 1/3

"I've been looking into the August 21st Sarin attack and thanks to @Facebook, nearly every Facebook page reporting on the attack is gone 2/3

"This means that key information about the initial reports of the attack and photographs are gone. 3/3"

McMahon adds:

"Pages that helped Storyful pinpoint the chemical attack on Eastern Ghouta have disappeared. Indeed, we noted the rapid acceleration of page closures in the wake of that massacre, starting with the pages closest to the epicentre of the attack."

This does look rather suspicious and the Atlantic article hints at foul play by Assad supporters:

Activists believe groups supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are gaming the system and reporting on their rivals. Facebook does not disclose information about who reported whom, making it impossible to confirm these theories. But the pro-Assad Syrian Electronic Army (SEA) – best known for its hacks of major news sites, including an infamous White House bomb hoax that sank the Dow 140 points – has publicly gloated about this tactic.

“We continue our reporting attacks,” read a typical post from December 9 on the SEA’s Facebook page. “Our next target is the Local Coordination Committee of Barzeh [a neighborhood in Damascus], the page that is a partner in shedding Syrian blood and provoking sectarian division.” It then provided two links to photos on the Barzeh page that could get the page taken down. Soon afterwards, the SEA removed its post as if it had never existed.

Though SEA campaigns aren’t always successful – Facebook says the “quality” of reports will always trump the “quantity” – activists believe the pro-Assad hackers have claimed some high-profile scalps in recent months. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 5 February 2014