Last week Facebook purged 559 pages from its site, saying the pages had “consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” In explaining the mass deletion, a Facebook executive told the New York Times that “the majority of the information operations we see are domestic actors.”
The social network, according to the Times, took down the pages as part of its struggle to navigate the “blurry lines between free speech and disinformation.”
From 2014 to 2017, I worked as the world affairs editor at Reverb Press, one of the pages that was targeted. Facebook’s characterization of the kind of work we did — and our motives for doing it — is wrong, and those who support a free press in America should be very worried about how the company disappeared our page.
To begin with, Reverb was given no heads-up, no warning, no chance to make things right. It learned it was being purged at the same time everyone else did, according to my former colleague James Reader, its managing editor. He told me that, long before the closure, he had been trying to communicate with Facebook to make sure that the page was following its best practices — but he could never get hold of anyone. “They basically shut everybody down and sent the same boilerplate thing to all the pages,” he said. “What you saw is what we saw.”
Is that any way to treat a news publisher?
In its official statement, Facebook leveled serious accusations against the 559 pages. While I can only speak for what I witnessed at Reverb Press, I can say the company’s characterization of our work was dead wrong.
Facebook accused the pages it deleted of engaging in “spam that’s typically motivated by money, not politics.” That was news to me — I began blogging about politics in 2011, while unemployed for nearly a year after finishing grad school. My blog gained a following and I continued doing it, for no money whatsoever, until I got my first check from Reverb Press four years later. I never received a check from Reverb that was anywhere near enough to live on. I worked roughly 30 hours a week for the site, and the income I gained from it was supplemental to my main income. I could have made more money driving for Uber or bartending, but I chose to write about the things I believe in.
James Reader and the other management at Reverb did not pay themselves anything for the publication’s first 10 months, in order to pay the writers as much as possible. But you know who always got paid? Facebook. Reverb Press paid Facebook tens of thousands of dollars over four years — advertising dollars needed just to reach our audience. Facebook made a lot more money off of my work than I ever did.
Like everyone who has worked for Reverb Press, I am passionate about researching, analyzing, and informing people about politics. And like most people who worked there, the Great Recession left me overeducated, underemployed, and buried under student loan debt. Despite my financial situation, I continued to write about politics, for little pay, because it’s important to me. The fact that I got paid anything at all was just a bonus to pursuing my passion and reaching an audience of over 800,000 people who chose to follow our work on Facebook.
That’s what is so hypocritical about Facebook’s accusation that our page was “motivated by money.” Facebook has a virtual monopoly over social media and rakes in tens of billions of dollars a year in revenue that it collects from selling out its users to advertising companies. It squeezes small businesses and publications, pushing them to pay for the privilege of reaching even a fraction of the people who follow their pages. It produces virtually no content but generates a gargantuan profit from other people’s work. And it is, apparently, deeply concerned about publishers that are “motivated by money.”
My colleagues at Reverb and I were not motivated by money. Facebook is.
Facebook also said the sites that were purged ran articles that were “often indistinguishable from legitimate political debate” — a backhanded compliment, perhaps — but nevertheless behaved in ways it found unacceptable. But let’s pause for a minute to consider the absurdity of Facebook believing it could define what “legitimate political debate” looks like in the US, given its well-documented abuses of power and invasions of privacy.
With its executives being hauled before government inquiries in the US and abroad, it's clear that Facebook is completely unqualified to determine what kinds of political discussion are legitimate. And this goes for sites across the political spectrum, including the many conservative pages caught up in the latest purge: I disagree with their arguments, but I believe absolutely in their right to reach their audience on Facebook.
As an editor, I never allowed anything under my purview to be published unless I had double-checked every fact and determined that it was relevant and important news. Every editor who worked for Reverb was committed to those principles.
Reverb Press has a progressive, liberal editorial slant. We freely admitted that. Every big newspaper and cable news channel has staff who openly editorialize and push political messages. The Daily Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and The Rush Limbaugh Show all present news mixed with opinion. They all make a profit. They are all integral to American political media, and Facebook would never consider purging any of them or question their role in “legitimate political debate.” Just like those household-name media giants, Reverb Press filled a media niche and responded to audience demand.
Facebook also accused the purged sites, including Reverb Press, of engaging in “spam.”
This charge is putting the cart before the horse. Publishers on Facebook have to be creative about reaching their audiences because their ability to reach the people who choose to follow them can evaporate by up to 98% if the owners don’t pay Facebook for promotion.
Facebook’s algorithms are always evolving, and the company is never clear with publishers about what kind of posts it will reward or punish. As any Facebook user knows, the site’s biggest publishers spend much of their time experimenting in response to frequent changes in its algorithms, pushing more video one day, more pictures the next. What Facebook calls “spam” behavior is, in reality, a response to its own constant unexplained changes.
Reverb tried to understand those changes, but while major corporate publishers have access to Facebook staff, independent operations scream into a void. “We’ve tried countless times to reach out to them,” Reader told me. “The only way to even try to reach them is through contacts, friends of friends who work for Facebook. There is no other way to do it. If you go through the site, it goes to a call farm in India or artificial intelligence. We begged for a meeting, and could never get one.”
They might not want to speak to publishers, but they’re happy to take their money. Even as Reverb constantly experimented to keep its head above water, a huge chunk of its revenues went straight back to Facebook as advertising payments needed to reach its followers.
Independent publications seeking to reach an audience have little choice but to engage with Facebook on its terms. But it is also a private company, and while its decision to kill off politics pages is not legally a First Amendment issue, it raises major free speech questions. The company’s monopoly position in a vital sector of the media industry creates an obligation for it to emulate the parameters of the First Amendment on its platform as much as possible.
Its arbitrary destruction of hundreds of political pages is a watershed moment, and one that isn’t getting enough attention. It raises big questions, including: How does Facebook propose that independent publishers both reach their audiences and afford to pay their bills? Can we have robust political debate in the US that keeps up with the fast-paced technological changes in the media? Should one company really have the power to terminate a law-abiding publisher with the click of a button?
I am extremely proud of the work that my colleagues and I have done at Reverb Press. I helped create a platform for many talented writers from among underrepresented voices in American media. Those individuals were free to report and opine on the news however they wanted to, as long as they stuck to the facts and our editorial guidelines. I personally wrote and published about 500 articles on Reverb Press over three years, and did some of the most important research and analysis of my career while working there. Facebook’s misrepresentation of the kind of work that we did can’t take that away from me.
Marc Belisle is an English teacher and freelance writer. You can follow him at marcbelisle.com.