26 April 2016

Clinton Campaign Gets Facebook to Temporarily Shut Down Grassroots Organizing Efforts for Bernie Sanders

On the evening before five very important primary elections were to be held on Tuesday, April 26, 2016, supporters of Bernie Sanders noticed something quite strange taking place on Facebook: groups advocating support for Bernie Sanders, which have been a primary vehicle for disseminating information and mobilizing support for actions, were disappearing.

According to Lauren E Stafford, a social media consultant and administrative assistant, many of the affected Bernie Sanders Facebook groups have more than 50,000 members. "At least ten such very well-known and popular groups were removed during Monday evening's attack, leaving hundreds of thousands of Bernie Sanders supporters in the dark," she claimed.

Evidence implicating a coordinated effort by Hillary Clinton's campaign and/or her supporters was quickly uncovered as some Clinton supporters, such as Casey Champagne, bragged about being part of that effort in the "BROS 4 HILLARY #GiveEmHill" Facebook group:

Other Clinton supporters cheered him on. Chris and Brian Swain-Mabry stated that they constantly report content posted by Sanders and his supporters with a 50% success rate at having the content removed. When one user suggested that Champagne take down his post because it could be seen by anyone, he responded that he didn't really care:

Whether the attacks were conducted at the behest of Clinton's campaign or her paid online supporters is unclear at this time, although online analyst Kagen Aurencz Zethmayr believes the purpose itself to be clear:
We don't know for a fact that they were paid but there has never been such a concerted attempt to take down multiple high-profile Bernie Sanders support groups at once. This was a massive attempt to hobble our communications capability, especially as regards the election-day issues and obstacles which have become endemic to this Democratic primary season.
The timing speaks for itself, though certainly no paid or recruited troll would say as much as to their specific tactical motives. As the saying goes, in politics there are no accidents.
The participants in these attacks included Nyssa M. Cruz, a pledged delegate for Hillary Clinton, who admitted to participating in this coordinated attack via what appears to be a post on Facebook. As indicated by the user who uncovered Cruz's post, many of Bernie's supporters responded to these attacks by making a small donation to his campaign.

Ken Kevilus, an administrator of other Bernie Sanders Facebook groups, was alarmed by this recent attack against Bernie's supporters:
[Clinton] and the DNC are destroying the Democratic Party. This campaign of censorship is part of her 'win-at-all-costs' method of campaigning, with which we're all too familiar. Flashbacks of Clinton losing to Obama in 2008 must be increasing her panic, as her campaign only recently realized how powerful the groups supporting Bernie have become. Her supporters have been increasing their attacks against Bernie's Facebook groups quite a bit recently, especially after he won all those states in a row.
The ten affected groups all disappeared from Facebook between 8 - 9 pm EDT, and were fully restored to all users between midnight and 1 am EDT. Stafford, a member of some of the affected groups, described how Clinton's supporters were able to take down the top Sanders groups on Facebook:
They came into the groups and posted objectionable and disgusting content that violates Facebook's TOS, such as child pornography. They then reported that content, en masse. This triggered Facebook's automated reporting algorithms, which track these reports and automatically remove the offending content if the number of reports crosses a certain threshold.
Michael J.D. Warner, CEO of ThunderReach, a strategic social media consulting firm, explained how Facebook's reporting system operates:
Facebook employs an algorithm that automatically shuts down affected content—whether it be a post, a user, or a feature of Facebook such as groups, pages, or apps—once a certain threshold in negative reports has been reached.
The shutdown remains in place until a human can review the situation, which often can take hours. Once this trigger has been activated, it does not appear that there is any effort by these algorithms to elevate the priority for human review.
This raises serious questions about Facebook's reporting feature and its functionality. 
Warner observed that the wording of the response Facebook provides after submitting a report would cause one to presume that a human being reviews the reports, which is true. However, it sometimes can take hours for a report to be looked at, and Facebook's own infographic states that most reports are looked at "within 72 hours."

Facebook Reporting Guide Infographic
"This type of situation has the potential of leaving Facebook in a rather negative light as being complicit in or implicitly allowing users to interfere with political operations or censoring political speech of people they disagree with," Stephen Pipenger, an attorney who practices in New York, added. He further advised, "They need to figure out a better system that protects both users as well as the content owners, especially when it comes to political speech."

After being alerted to this situation a Facebook spokesperson responded, "A number of groups were inaccessible for a brief period after one of our automated policies was applied incorrectly. We corrected the problem within hours and are working to improve our tools."

Warner noted how social media has played a significant role in the political process around the globe:
Social media continues to play an ever-increasing role in social, economic, and political reform movements and struggles throughout the world. Greater measures must be taken to protect freedom of speech in social media, as recent events in Turkey, China, Syria, and Hong Kong have demonstrated.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication (I will update this article if they do). Clinton's campaign declined to comment.

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Disclaimer: The author is a strong supporter and unpaid volunteer of the presidential campaign for US Senator Bernie Sanders, which is calling for a political revolution.