An insider’s account by Ambassador Satyabrata Pal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s controversial visit to the United Kingdom in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots – published by The Wire on Tuesday – has been restored to Facebook, a day after the social networking service erased the story from the timelines of readers who had shared the link while making it unsharable to other users.
A Facebook spokesperson said that the article had been “mistakenly captured” by the company’s spam filter.
Facebook has not yet shared its internal technical report regarding the mistake with The Wire, which would be helpful in order to prevent similar future incidents.
“The content was mistakenly captured by our spam filter and has now been restored. We are sorry for the error and inconvenience caused,” a company spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.
Social media was abuzz with theories for why this happened, with people speculating about the reporting of the article as “abusive” by those who did not like its contents, or pointing to technical reasons specific to the way Facebook blocking works, and some even fearing censorship.
The Wire is not in a position to offer any view on why the blocking happened.
Though one theory that has been advanced points out that the images on the pages of The Wire load from an IP address (rather than a URL), that is unlikely to be the trigger since that is also the case with hundreds of other articles on The Wire site.
Another reason suggested is that the URL of the lead image in the report matched Facebook’s internal guidelines for spam. In fact, The Wire’s editors, in response to an error message that several readers received flagging the lead image as “unsafe”, reposted Satyabrata Pal’s article without the “unsafe” image and tried re-sharing it on Facebook. However, the social networking service continued to reject the link.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) November 19, 2015
The image in question – of Narendra Modi having a hearty laugh with David Cameron at Wembley – was not a piece of in-house content but was a cropped version of a Press Trust of India photograph.
In his article, Satyabrata Pal, who was India’s deputy high commissioner to the UK from 2002-2005, focussed on how Modi’s visit to the UK in 2003 was not filled with the “warmth and respect” that the Prime Minister recently claimed it was, but was instead a nerve-wracking affair that could have spoiled bilateral relations between India and the UK.
The politically sensitive nature of the report led to speculation on Twitter and other social media that The Wire had become a victim of Facebook’s much-misused ‘Report Abuse’ button — a feature that The Verge once referred to as a “tool of global oppression”. There have been a number of media reports that show that Internet trolls and supporters of authoritarian governments around the world use Facebook’s’ report abuse’ feature to stifle dissent, shut down the accounts of journalists and as a general method of tricking Facebook into deleting unwelcome content.
The company, however, insists that the deletion of the report was a technical and automated error. Readers and Facebook users themselves received a wide variety of error messages and warnings while trying to share a link to the report. One such error message, as shown above,warned users that the action being attempted was “abusive”. Other messages simply said that the link was blocked; only one warning dialog box pointed out that the image URL was “detected to be unsafe”.
Facebook and most other social networking services currently do not offer any avenues by which media organisations, activists and individuals can appeal against the removal of content. In this regard, in a happy coincidence, the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Thursday announced the crowd-sourced portion of its Online Censorship Project. The crowd-sourced initiative aims at collecting information, trends and evidence regarding the deletion of social media content. Organisations and users can submit a report that details how their content was taken off Facebook or Twitter. This collected data, as the organisation points out, will be used to encourage social networking services to operate with greater accountability “as they make decisions that regulate speech”.