How it all went horribly wrong with Facebook, and what ANDREW JOHNSTONE eventually did about it.
I discovered Facebook in 2009 and before I knew it I was engaged in all kinds of discussions with all kinds of people with all kinds of opinions. There were anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists, the obsessed, the angry, the fascist and the racist. There was the bitter, the disconsolate, the liberal progressive and the Green extremist. There were religious zealots, the similarly constructed atheist and the most outsized believer of them all, the hard-line libertarian. There were even some normal people who just wanted to do friendly stuff like connect and share stories about family, food, travel and work and even have a laugh.
“You used to be half useful before Facebook,” said former employer Dr Richard Swainson, motioning contemptuously toward the shop computer. He never joined, knowing his own weakness for idle chitchat would be his undoing. I admired his honesty but was in deep and a quickly fading cause. “Did you know that Auteur House has a Facebook page?” I asked. “Set up by a former employee,” he harrumphed. “Can I look after it?” I asked. “Do what you want,” he said, unaware of the shit trail of trouble ahead.
It went well and stories about the good Dr and his eccentric World Cinema DVD rental store rapidly transformed 250 followers into a thousand. There were pieces on new films, old films, links to scholarly and not so scholarly articles, news and gossip. Gaining confidence, I wondered if a little provocative opinion might stir up debate and drive interest in Auteur House, a marginal proposition given the rapidly changing times.
In 2010 the Government of then Prime Minister John Key bowed to pressure from Hollywood studio Warner Bothers and changed the nation’s labour laws to suit their requirements. “If you don’t we’ll take The Hobbit Trilogy somewhere else.”
Responding to criticism from the union, franchise captain Peter Jackson explained that he had nothing to do with any of it. In fact, he was just a wide-eyed yokel at large in a world of which he understood little. “Yeah right,” I proclaimed, arguing that a people as successful as Jackson don’t get to where they are without a hearty degree of political wit and business savvy. I even dared suggest that Jackson was being downright manipulative.
The first lesson – you don’t publicly criticise a national treasure like Jackson and walk away without consequence. After an avalanche of phone calls the outraged Dr Swainson demanded that I remove the post, only backtracking when I reminded of his historical opposition to censorship.
But the damage was done and for the next year I was hounded by three especially vocal trolls, one of who was certain that I was the sole reason for the business’s precarious financial position. “You are ruining my dear friend’s business with your lies about Peter,” he screamed at me as one screams on Facebook – with capital letters.
I checked his account. He had joined but had never rented. I pointed this out, suggesting that his money might go some way toward helping the cause. This only served to fuel the fire and the attacks became ever more vociferous. “You don’t know anything about me you dirty filthy pig vomit,” he screamed, and I imagined him lying writhing on the floor, tears of despair running down his cheeks, urine flecked with blood. (According to the Dr, the dear friend in question was actually more a passing acquaintance, confirming my growing suspicions about the strangeness of the digital social sphere).
I should have learned my lessons here but a bigger storm was waiting a couple of years down the line when I found myself the co-editor of the rapidly failing Rip It Up magazine. It was late 2015 and I had been to a preview of a movie called Dope, a nice if unremarkable little Californian film about what it means to be a ‘Nigga’.
With a sparse 250 words at my disposal I tried to deconstruct the word back to its roots in an attempt to remind the interested that for all its colloquial joviality, this word was drawn from an insidious past; and to make my point I dared use the root word itself.
The story sat on our social media feed for two weeks with nary a like or comment until it was noticed by a prominent journalist who shared the story with a by-line that accused the magazine of harbouring racist sympathies. All hell broke loose. There were comparisons to Adolf Hitler, speculation about KKK membership and death threats.
“Go back to South Africa you white racist c**t,” said one message (fourth generation Irish/Scottish/Polynesian Kiwi). Another said I was the most evil person alive in the world today (suck on that Kim Jong-un). Otherwise, I was the subject of numerous opinion pieces across the NZ media landscape, and quickly become the worst kind of poison. ‘Friends’ and associates crossed the street to avoid me and as for my position at the mag, I was a dog’s dinner.
On my last day at the office I flicked through some 950 emails relating to the matter, choosing to respond to the last of them. From a kid living in New York, it explained I was responsible for all the pain and suffering at large in the world today.
“Did you read the review?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by the claims he was making on my behalf. “No” he responded, “I heard about you from a friend who heard about you from a friend of a friend who read about you on Twitter.” And there you have it, the power of supposition and second-hand gossip in the social media sphere. Also an abject lesson in how the media works as it seeks to add spice to the daily news cycle.
It was bruising experience but the wounds healed, and before I knew it I was back in the swing of things and hard at work with my own liberal/progressive agenda, arguing the toss with the multitudes while forgetting how badly things can get out of hand if one is not careful. Looking back, I am aghast at how quickly I lost the important lessons of the recent past, but unlikely redemption was just around the corner.
On the 25th of September 2016, striding over a swamp of violence and bigotry, Facebook’s Decency Algorithm found me out and held me to account for my crimes – the possession an image of 1960s Burlesque band The Ladybirds. In this image, as in most others, they were topless, and on planet Zuckerberg nothing is more offensive than the female breast. I was banned.
All a little frustrating, especially since said picture had been sitting forgotten in my image folder for about five years. But there you go. I sucked it up and sat it out. Seven days later I was allowed to rejoin the family and logged back on only to find this message: “It has come to our attention that you might not be who you claim to be. Please provide proof of identity.”
As instructed, I took a photo of my driver’s license and sent it through. The faceless at Facebook explained that once I was verified they would unlock my account. Six weeks and numerous unanswered queries later my patience ran out and I decided to open a new account and by altering my last name with a hyphen hoped to claim some semblance of who I actually was.
As I constructed my new account I realised an opportunity to reinvent my online persona and decided upon a new strategy. No more of the ‘friend’ collecting business that seemed so central to the process, this time my correspondents would be a select few folks of similar disposition and the whole package would be as tightly wrapped as the security settings allowed.
No more open and frank debates with diametrically opposed viewpoints, no more getting worked up at people with marginal critical thinking skills and no more battling trolls. I was over all that. From now on I wanted nice.
And nice it was for a while but then things got crazy again. Facebook can be deceptive: one minute you’re standing on sure ground and staring up at azure blue skies and the next it has clouded over and you are knee deep in festering shite.
Saved by another week’s ban. My old account suddenly reappeared almost to a year after I was locked out. I signed out of my new account and logged onto the old one and the image of the Ladybirds reared its fulsome head again, and ‘hey presto’ – gone burger.
“Goddammit,” I railed, firing numerous and increasingly fraught messages to FB central. “I had deleted that image a year ago just like you asked, I mean WTF?” But there it was and because I had both accounts tied to the same email address I was totally locked out.
Once I got passed my outrage a surprisingly tranquil week unfolded before I signed back in, shut down my old account and settled into the new, improved and hyphenated version of myself.
This latest ban had been a freeing experience and as I cast my eyes about my timeline I felt uneasy about a lot of things, not least of which was the corporation itself. Let’s face it, ‘The Book’ is a monopoly with a stunningly successful method that means it can do and act as it feels fit while remaining strangely immune to the needs of the multitudes that make it all happen.
Unhappy? Feel misused and mistreated? The opportunities for redress are limited. The only forces that seem to be able to turn heads at Facebook Central are sovereign governments concerned about the Book’s penchant for tax avoidance and the platform it provides for those dedicated to the dark arts.
In protest of Facebook’s offhand manner and inability to get ahead of the nefarious I have turned off the advertising that makes it all possible (no easy feat). Besides, I am a lifelong vegetarian and the algorithm responsible has deciphered this as an interest in meat and meat-related products. Endless ads for BBQs, sausages, steak and bacon have been driving me to distraction. It’s nice to get my own back a little.
It has been three months since I last posted but I still manage a brief daily stroll across the timeline to check on the activities and well being of friends and to peruse news stories from the various media organisations I have ‘Liked’.
Messenger is also quite handy (I hate texting – large hands, little screen, exhausting) and what better way to promote one’s professional activities (aka this article)? Otherwise, I say nothing and totally ignore the comment sections least my gander gets the better of me. I’ll admit it, I am my own worst enemy, a conundrum of shifting emotions with an obsessive streak and penchant for provocation – a certain recipe for disaster.
With one foot outside the digital media carnival a new peace has descended upon me and I have more time for things like friends, family, gardening and daydreaming. It seems that for now at least, I have fallen out of love with Facbook and it feels great. I hope it lasts.
I Googled my name the other day and to my dismay discovered I am forever marked as a racist. Otherwise, the new government is preparing to repeal those dubious ‘Hobbit Laws’ and Peter is doing as he always done when he does not get his way – issuing threats. (Here I am referring to his recent reaction to the bureaucratic idling that is holding up his plan for a movie museum in Wellington).
As for Facebook, it appears to be working hard at being a better corporate citizen as it experiments with new measures to counter ignorance peddlers. The Book is also bowing to international pressure and preparing to be less of a dick about paying tax.