Self-publishers and independent publishing houses who use Facebook and other social media to showcase and promote their publications may be more wary in future after a surprising instance of apparent censorship, or at least overzealousness. It seems the Facebook page for the Bram Stoker Award-nominated graphic novel Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times was taken down shortly before the Awards, over an anonymous and apparently unsubstantiated accusation of online bullying. Facebook did not respond when asked to comment.
“The first we heard of this was a notice that our page was suspended because of an accusation of bullying,” Rocky Wood, the co-author of the book, told me. “We were offered the opportunity to ‘Appeal’. That process turned out to be nothing other than clicking a button. No chance to discover what on our page was bullying, or to give any feedback whatsoever.”
This comes in the context of Facebook’s admission on May 28th that “our systems to identify and remove hate speech have failed to work,” following the #FBRape campaign that led to advertising boycotts over Facebook content apparently condoning violence against women. Signs are that Facebook may be overreacting in unrelated areas.
“It seems to me no thought went into this. I suspect a troll or someone with no respect lodged a random complaint and Facebook’s automated processes went into overdrive,” Wood added. “I wonder if any person at Facebook has been involved, or in the normal course of events, ever would be.” (There is also the alarming possibility, with the 2013 Stokers not yet awarded, that a rival entry or one of their fans tried to skew things against Witch Hunts, though Wood made no such suggestion.)
Facebook’s policy statement says specifically:
“We prohibit content deemed to be directly harmful, but allow content that is offensive or controversial. We define harmful content as anything organizing real world violence, theft, or property destruction, or that directly inflicts emotional distress on a specific private individual (e.g. bullying).”
Wood emphasized that, as far as he knows, the book is fully compliant with Facebook’s community standards: “Certainly, there is nothing there that a reasonable person would find objectionable, considering the material that pervades Facebook.”
He did add that “graphic works are probably more susceptible to complaint—it only takes a glance from someone seeking to be offended by a photo or art, compared to minutes or hours to read written work … One would think Facebook would be alive to the threat of trolling, wowsers and self-appointed censors, and actually investigate claims, or at least build a number of separate complaints before taking capricious action.”
All the same, Wood advises self-publishers or small presses contemplating a Facebook page to promote their latest work to “forge ahead! I am President of the Horror Writers Association and my co-author Lisa Morton is Vice President,” he says. “We won’t be driven from social media, which is a critically important way to connect with readers, by capricious policies and actions like this. Neither should any writers or artists. Ironically, as our illustrator Greg Chapman points out, Facebook is bullying us with these actions. I would not advise any creative person to bow to bullies.”
Facebook seems to have begun a witch hunt of its own.
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Editor’s Update: Not long after this post went live, the page in question was suddenly restored “without any communication from Facebook,” according to an email sent to Paul St John Mackintosh from Rocky Wood. Wood explained that, “We put this down to coverage such as yours and pressure from the horror community, readers and FB users.” He also mentioned that “at least one other book with the ‘Burning Time’ phrase was also deleted after ours – the page promoting ‘The Burning Time’ by JG Faherty. He was also banned for 12 hours and his page has also been restored.”