As of press time, there is a chance that if you share this very news article on Facebook, its headline will trigger an eventual takedown with a “spam” tag and no further explanation.
On Tuesday, social media users began sharing scattered reports with a confusing issue in common: links from reputable news outlets they’d shared—either publicly or in private friends-only groups—were marked as violations of “community guidelines” and automatically taken down, and many—but not all—had “coronavirus” mentioned in either the headline or in the article’s body. Other hot topics in the automatic-takedown spree include recent Democratic Party primaries in the United States… and the recent YouTube viral sensation of penguins running free in a Chicago aquarium.
This seemed to affect posts going back as far as five days, and it includes content from established newspapers and sites such as Politico, The Atlantic, USA Today, Vice, Business Insider, Axios, and The Seattle Times. Also caught in the net are the more open-ended blogging platform Medium (which runs a series of staffed and edited sub-sites) and the crowdfunding site GoFundMe. As of press time, compiling a complete list of affected sites and topics is admittedly difficult, thanks to the anecdotal nature of how these takedown notices are being reported and circulated.
The targeting of GoFundMe and other crowdfunding sites may very well be tied to rising concerns about social media as a source of hoaxes and malware distribution. In one case, New York Times bestselling author and activist Ijeoma Oluo had promoted her Seattle-area fundraiser for “those in the greater Seattle arts community who have been financially impacted by [event] cancellations,” one of multiple GoFundMe campaigns she has run on behalf of vulnerable Seattle populations. Days later, she learned that members of the community who had tried to share the same link saw it taken down by Facebook and marked as spam. Oluo’s own posts were not flagged as spam.
“It’s disheartening to see posts about fundraisers trying to support communities impacted by COVID-19 flagged as spam,” Oluo said to Ars Technica. “It undermines the trust in our campaign and harms the communities we are trying to help.” Oluo clarified that, when other users reached out to her about Facebook’s automatic takedowns, they began questioning whether her GoFundMe campaign was somehow fraudulent.
When asked about the source of these “spam” notifications and post takedowns, a Facebook representative pointed us to a breaking statement from company Vice President Guy Rosen, stating: “We’re on this. This is a bug in an anti-spam system, unrelated to any changes in our content moderator workforce. We’re in the process of fixing and bringing all these posts back. More soon.” (Ironically, Facebook directed us to a statement posted by the company on Twitter.)
Update, 10:02pm ET: Rosen posted an update after this article’s publication, claiming that all “incorrectly” deleted posts in this wave have since been restored. “This was an issue with an automated system that removes links to abusive websites, but incorrectly removed a lot of other posts, too,” he wrote, and he added that posts affected were not just within the COVID-19 spectrum.
This article has been updated since its publication with proof of at least one penguin-related Facebook takedown notice.