Back in August, Facebook conducted a preelection misinformation sweep and deleted a bunch of groups. (Kaboompics/Pexels)
With some 2.7 billion monthly active users, Facebook deletes accounts all the time, including fake accounts and accounts linked to hate speech, terrorism or misinformation. It's hard to shed any tears for professional political operatives or people who write bot software, but when there's a real human behind the account, you'd think they could reach somebody in customer service for an explanation and their data.
Back in August, Facebook conducted a preelection misinformation sweep. The social media giant deleted a bunch of groups, including a group that Rheba Estante of Walnut Creek was an administrator for.
"A lot of the stuff that I posted came from OANN — One America News [Network]," she said, naming a far-right, pro-Trump cable TV channel. Far-right, pro-Trump news outlets and politicians have more commonly been flagged for posting misinformation this year, but Estante says it’s a mistake to presume she was always posting in agreement with the articles.
"There was a big thing with the QAnon. I did not like it. I think I even posted a Newsweek article about the kind of psychological need that this kind of conspiracy thing was feeding," she said.
Facebook did not respond to requests for comment on this story, so it's not possible to confirm exactly why Estante's group was deactivated, but she suspects artificial intelligence software flagged the group because its admins and roughly 2,000 members posted a lot of links about hot-button topics, like QAnon.
Fair enough, she thought at first. "Private company. You have a right to kick me off. You have a right to ban me. It’s not a constitutional right to have a Facebook account."
She was even sanguine about the fact Facebook deleted the group's administrators, too. But then Estante discovered she was blocked from 13 years worth of photos she posted on Facebook — many of them her only copies.
"I want my grandmothers’ photos, actually. I didn’t have certain photos of her that were on my account on the anniversary of her death," she said, adding she's also lost access to photos of her dead German Shepherd/Doberman mix, Benji. "That dog was my companion everywhere. I’m pretty heartbroken."
She's also upset on behalf of fellow administrators, some of them grandmothers and great-grandmothers, who lost years of family photos as well as personal contact information for friends and family members. "I honestly just wanted my mom's pictures, as she is gone and I can't get those memories back," wrote one friend of Estante's, Tiffanie Skibicki of Minnesota.
It’s not that hard to download your profile data on Facebook, and even move your photos to competing platforms — if your account hasn’t been deleted.
Estante is a health care events producer now, but she's worked in public relations before and figures she's fairly savvy about advocating for herself as a consumer. She contacted Facebook customer support. She looked up Facebook executives on LinkedIn and contacted them directly. She opened a dispute with TrustArc, a privacy compliance company that contracts with Facebook. She sent both companies copies of her driver's license and passport, repeatedly.
"This has been going on since, you know, mid-August. It should not be this herculean task. Literally, let me just download it, and buh-bye," Estante said.
She feels the same way about her Instagram account, deleted one week after the election, though she says she sticks to New York Times links on Instagram during election years.
Estante even tried to line up a lawyer, but according to the state attorney general’s office, neither the California Consumer Privacy Act or the Privacy Rights Act voters just approved would prohibit a company from deleting data or disabling accounts.
Perhaps more to the point, neither law provides consumers with a private right of action if a business does not comply with a consumer’s requests, wrote a spokesperson for the office, adding, "We encourage any Californian who believes they have been wronged to file a complaint with our office." That said, there is no promise to follow up on any individual complaint, and no threshold number of complaints that will trigger an investigation.
"Any service with 2 billion users is going to make mistakes, right?" said University of New Hampshire law professor Roger Ford, who studies privacy and social media platforms.
Ford added, "We want them to be taking down bad content, and so the law assumes that you’re going to want to immunize people who are doing that, because we don’t want people to worry about getting sued for making those mistakes. And so they don’t have a lot of legal incentive to make it easy to fix them."
That's an idea perhaps more vexing to political activists and journalists than private citizens like Estante, who says she doesn’t care if she ever gets back on Facebook or Instagram.
Much noise has been made by lawmakers about the social media giants' monopolies of late. Is there any hope the tech backlash we’re seeing in Washington, D.C. will make tech giants more responsive to consumer concerns?
"I could see the platforms deciding that because of that scrutiny they need to step up their content moderation and step up their customer service and step up their public relations a bit, but the likelihood that anything significant is going to come out of Congress or the FTC [Federal Trade Commission] or state attorney generals about the content moderation specifically is very low," Ford said.
In short, Estante and her friends have learned the hard way that no social media platform is a safe space for personal data archiving.