On June 6th I was banned from Facebook for 30 days because I shared a photo of American paratroopers with a captured Nazi flag.
Five minutes after the post, I was automatically disconnected from Facebook. My first reaction was, “they can’t be that stupid”, but I attempted to log in again and discovered that Facebook’s algorithm is indeed that idiotic; “your post violates our community standards and it was removed”. Apparently, the issue was the swastika depicted on the flag.
It is not the first time that I’ve had swastika related issues on social media. About a year ago, I was in Facebook jail for a week because I posted a picture of a Nazi flag from Wikimedia Commons in the comments of a discussion about the direction of rotation of the Nazi swastika. It was a very common symbol in ancient civilizations and today it remains a commonly used symbol, especially in India. It is also the symbol of Jainism. It still was a stupid ban, but what the hell, it was only one week.
I also thought that it was kind of my fault, as I should know better. This is because I have some idea of how Facebook’s content checking algorithm works. In this instance, though, I was pissed — very pissed. The photo is widely known and its meaning cannot possibly be misunderstood for support of Nazism.
What annoys me most in all of this is that Facebook is essentially telling us you can’t have a historical discussion about the WWII. Sorry Facebook, but WWII shaped modern history, and difficult to discuss this particular conflict without mentioning Nazis or their symbols. It also makes me wonder if some pictures I have from the Imperial War Museum Duxford would be allowed, as they contain captured a Bf109 and the tail section of a downed Heinkel HE 111 with — you guessed it — swastikas on them.
While I understand that the blanket ban on swastikas is an attempt to curb neo-Nazis, I wonder if nothing can be done to make the algorithm better in understanding the nature of a post.
One other funny byproduct of the algorithm’s shortcomings is people believing they are being persecuted. “Facebook bans my post honoring heroes” would be a very possible reaction, if I was a bit more paranoid.
Facebook’s algorithm has had many fails, from banning a picture of a Robin as sexual to showing to people at the end of their year videos their deceased loved ones, and while one can understand the technical weaknesses. What I don’t understand is the lack of human oversight.
While social media is by no means real life, it remains important to people for various reasons. Imagine how a ban would affect a guy that uses Messenger as his SMS app who is not so knowledgeable enough about technology to change his SMS app, or someone that runs a small business and has Facebook as means of communication with their customers — in those scenarios a ban could be terribly disruptive.
These real life implications of a digital ban means that the social media companies should always strive for improvement of their content checking methods.
Featured image: The image responsible for the author’s Facebook ban. It shows American paratrooper James Flanagan (2nd Platoon, C Co, 1-502nd PIR), among the first to make successful landings on the continent, holding a Nazi flag captured in a village assault. Marmion Farm at Ravenoville, Utah Beach, France. 6 June 1944. Post-processing by User:W.wolny (US-Army history images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.