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Why We Should be Worried About Facebook Censorship

The first time one of our posts — the accompanying picture, actually — got censored by Facebook, I was surprised. The second time, I began to worry. Here’s a company with massive reach and influence making decisions about what can and can’t be boosted to reach a larger audience based on what seems to be flawed or at the very least flimsy rationales. Here’s what happened.

Your photo is “shocking”

In August, we published an article on reducing malpractice risk related to vaccinations on The Doctor Weighs In (TDWI). It is titled, Boost Patient Safety: How to Reduce Risks with Vaccinations and was written by Debbie Hill, RN, MBA, CPHRM and Lisa McCorkle, MSN, CPHRM, Patient Safety Risk Managers at The Doctors Company, the largest physician-owned medical malpractice insurer in the country. The article provides guidance to physicians on how to reduce risks related to vaccinations. Examples of the suggestions are assigning someone in the practice to be sure FDA/CDC vaccination schedules are up-to-date and monitoring the storage and handling of the vaccines in the office. We bought a photo of a child getting a vaccine from one of the commercial stock photo companies. Here’s the photo:

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We post a lot of our stories on TDWI’s social media channels, including Facebook. As we do with some of our Facebook posts, we decided to pay a small amount of money to “boost” the story in order to reach a broader audience. Shortly after we submitted the request to boost to Facebook, we got denied. When we asked why, here is what they said:

Your photo is “shocking, sensational, or overly violent”

The baby isn’t even crying! What is shocking about a child getting an immunization??? Of course, the post attracted the anti-vaccination crowd who left comments that reflected their opinions. Perhaps, someone complained about the photo or, perhaps, the person who handled our boost request is against vaccinations as well. That being said, I wonder if there really are legitimate grounds to censor an article about vaccination safety because it includes a photo of a kid getting a shot? We switched out the photo and the boost got approved (see below):

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Is it really a taboo to talk about burning fat?

The following month, September 2016, Facebook again denied our request to boost a post. We are trying something new, making short videos out of the key findings from some of our articles. The first one we made was based on Dov Michaeli, MD, Ph.D’s very popular post on when is the best time to exercise. It is titled, Exercise Before Breakfast to Boost Its Benefit on Weight. The story explained, from a scientific point of view, how we burn calories with exercise and concluded that exercising before breakfast can result in,

“….preferential utilization of fat as a source of fuel”

The short video captured the most important points of the article. We posted it with the comment:

“Trying to burn fat? Mornings may be the best time to sweat it out.”

When we tried to boost the video, we were again denied. We were shocked. What on earth could be the matter with this one???

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When we wrote to Facebook to find out why this one was denied, here is what Robin from the Facebook ads team said:

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We wrote back several times to no avail. They closed the ticket and quit communicating — case closed:

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Should we be worried? You bet!

I realize that this is not nearly as egregious as when Facebook censored an iconic picture from the Vietnam war because it showed a nude child. The child was nude because she had had her clothes burned off by napalm and she was running down a road crying — that is hardly pornography.

Why I am so worried about this is that Facebook is now BIG MEDIA. This is where billions of people are getting their news. It is one thing to have algorithms that screen for things like childhood nudity. It is quite another when you act on those algorithms and then try to justify the resulting censorship by using nonsense like what they sent to us.

This is more than a slippery slope; it feels like they have crossed an important line in terms of free speech. Yeah, I know, we were trying to buy boosts from Facebook so they only prevented us from reaching a larger audience. They didn’t actually take our posts down. But nevertheless, it feels like the beginning of something very very big and very very bad.

Have you experienced similar censorship by Facebook? If so, drop us a comment. We would love to know just how big this problem is.

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Originally posted on The Doctor Weighs In.

Written by

Dr. Patricia Salber and friends weigh in on leading news in health and healthcare

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