More than 200 Facebook users have been blocked from posting or sending messages through the popular social media platform after what appears to be a targeted attack on those supporting an anti-pipeline protest in northern British Columbia.
The suspensions temporarily disabled the personal accounts of people with posting privileges on 18 different Facebook pages belonging to environmental and Indigenous rights organizations.
The pages had all shared information on an online rally in May in support of Wet’suwet’en Nation members who opposed the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline through their territory. A similar rally was scheduled for today but has been postponed.
Facebook’s restrictions also affected users’ ability to communicate on the platform’s associated Messenger app.
Annie Morgan Banks, a member of Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Team and an event organizer, said many of the people blocked were not aware of the event or did not share information about it.
“I find it very disturbing that a platform that has come to be a pretty universal form of communication, that access can be so quickly revoked,” she said. “It really raised a lot of questions for me around: How is this possible? Why would they ban and block all the admins and moderators and editors of all of these different pages, but not the pages themselves?
“All of this overkill.”
Morgan Banks said Facebook hasn’t disclosed who might have launched a complaint.
Affected users were notified Saturday morning that Facebook had removed a post “that infringes or violates someone else’s rights or otherwise violates the law.” They were blocked from posting for three days — in some cases longer — and warned that they could be permanently blocked if the violations continued.
The Wet’suwet’en Solidarity Team had already postponed today’s planned online protest for a week before the suspensions. The initial event on May 7 attracted 17,000 people from around the world to support efforts to stop the Coastal GasLink pipeline by targeting its funders.
“The Wet’suwet’en struggle blew up this year, and we know that Indigenous people are struggling all over the world,” Morgan Banks said. “So it didn’t surprise me that Indigenous people and their allies are interested in learning about the struggle and hearing from the frontline folks themselves. I also think it’s quite telling that was the event that got flagged and created all this.”
She said she’s never experienced a suspension on the platform and wonders why Facebook didn’t just remove the event instead of banning moderators and administrators on pages that shared it.
“It’s just such a huge overreaction on the part of Facebook when, in other ways, they don’t react at all,” she says. “When it’s hate speech online, misinformation about coronavirus being spread, people literally murdering people on a livestream. That stays up.”
The initial event, called Online Action and Rally: KKR and Chase, Defund Coastal GasLink!, targeted the $6.6-billion Coastal GasLink project, which is currently under construction and would carry fracked gas from northeast B.C. to a liquefied natural gas plant in Kitimat.
It included speakers and a plan to flood KKR & Co. Inc., a major U.S.-based investor in the Coastal GasLink project, with emails and phone calls.
Earlier this year, Calgary-based pipeline builder TC Energy sold a 65-per-cent stake in the pipeline to KKR and Alberta-based AIMCo, which manages public pension funds in the province.
Despite band councils along the route signing benefit agreements with the pipeline builder, Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs oppose to the project. Earlier this year, RCMP removed barricades that were preventing access to the pipeline route, arresting 28 people over five days on the Morice West Forest Service Road in northern B.C.
The protests were supported by international solidarity actions, including the blockading of highways and railways across Canada.
Fifteen organizations are listed as hosts on the May event’s Facebook page, which remained active at press time, including Greenpeace USA. Lindsey Allen, chief program officer with the environmental organization, said Sunday that she was waiting on answers from Facebook about how many accounts had been affected and what triggered the suspensions.
She said Facebook had acknowledged the error and was working to reinstate the accounts. At press time Monday, some accounts had been returned but many were still suspended.
While most were suspended for three days, Facebook has a “repeat infringer” policy that imposes increasingly strict suspensions for subsequent offences and those with prior suspensions were blocked for seven days or more. Allen worries the current suspensions could impact the users down the road and calls them “arbitrary and scary.”
“I think it’s important for Facebook to be able to answer what triggered this action,” Allen said. “Because it’s consistent with a pattern that we’ve seen from fossil fuel companies, and companies supporting them like their funders, where they’ll engage in aggressive legal tactics to silence us.
“This seems like a playbook that the industry is using and so we want to understand what Facebook’s role was in allowing that to happen.”
Kayla Preston is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Toronto who studies the activities of far-right groups on social media. She said protests are sometimes shared in Facebook alt-right groups in an effort to flood the corporation with unfounded reports of policy violations, making it difficult for moderators to keep up.
“In the past couple of years, Facebook and Twitter have supposedly tried to crack down on some content. They’re doing more bans than they did before and that’s often from pressure from human rights groups or anti-racist groups to try to crack down on content of far-right extremism and white nationalism on the social media platform,” she said.
“I’m not sure about what has happened in this situation, but it could be that a large amount of people, maybe people who are countering the anti-pipeline protests, are going onto these pages and intentionally messing with the algorithm and reporting all of the posts or the page itself, creating a massive amount of reports for Facebook.”
She said bans are implemented by algorithms without a person actually reviewing the posts.
A company spokesperson has since noted that "our systems mistakenly removed these accounts and content. They have since been restored and we've lifted any limits imposed on identified profiles.*
Delee Nikal is Wet’suwet’en and a member of the Gidimt’en clan. A Facebook page providing updates on pipeline resistance from Gidimt’en territory was one of those suspended. She denounced the platform for allowing racism and violence to remain while silencing the protestors.
“Facebook is actively suppressing those who oppose fascism and the colonial capitalists,” she said. “We have to remember this also shows the power that we have as a collective.... What we are doing is working. The defund actions will continue. We will continue to live on our territories as we always have and protect our territories for future generations.”
The Tyee reached out to KKR and Coastal GasLink for comment but did not receive a response.
*Story updated on Sept. 21 at 2:38 p.m. to include a response from Facebook received after press time.