A network of conservative Facebook pages with 1.5 million followers was shut down just 24 hours before one of the most consequential midterm elections in recent memory, according to the proprietor of the network.
Addison Riddleberger is the 21-year-old founder of several large pages that deal with “many hot-button subjects through our Facebook distribution channel.” Riddleberger, a former Conservative Tribune writer, is the proprietor of such pages as “Standing for Americans,” “Freedom Catalog” and “Patriotic Folks.”
“But that’s all come to a crashing halt as we’ve lost three crucial things in what appears to be a last-second midterm purge: I lost my personal Facebook account (it’s been disabled), we lost over 1.5 million Facebook followers, and the $25,000 in Facebook approved ads we spent building our network has simply gone down the drain,” Riddleberger wrote in a news release.
In the release, Riddleberger insisted he’s kept abreast of Facebook’s policies regarding news — but that simply wasn’t enough for the suzerains of Menlo Park, apparently.
Riddleberger described how, “at 10:40 pm on November 4th, my personal Facebook account was disabled — where I am an administrator for the pages, where my family photos are posted, and where many years of my young life are documented.”
“Just hours later, at 12:52 am on November 5th — 24 hours before election day — the vague Facebook emails notifying us of our removed pages began rolling in. The emails were curt, but here’s the sentence that says it all: ‘Pages that are hateful, threatening, or obscene are not allowed. We also take down Pages that attack an individual or group, or that are set up by an unauthorized individual.’
“Our pages were not in violation of being ‘hateful, threatening, or obscene’, as we’ve published news nearly identical in tone for almost three years straight. Our pages were even vetted and approved for Facebook’s prestigious ‘Instant Articles’ feature, which has very strict rules about what kind of content can be published,” Riddleberger wrote.
All in all, eight pages run by Riddleberger were unpublished or deleted. And it’s not as if these were minor pages, either.
“At the beginning of September, we published a story titled, “‘American Sniper” Wife Ends Silence, Goes Directly After Nike And Kaepernick,’ which ended up being the most shared/ engaged article in all of Facebook news for that week, as reported by NewsWhip,” Riddleberger wrote.
“After the extreme viral nature and reach of the story, Snopes was contacted to verify the story and in rare form for conservative pages, they officially stamped it ‘correct attribution.’ I feel that it’s important to point this out to reiterate that we do NOT publish what biased fact-checkers label as ‘fake news.’”
In an interview Monday with The Western Journal, Riddleberger said he received a vague warning from Facebook two days before the pages were taken down. The automated messages didn’t provide a point of contact at Facebook, but listed a number of ambiguous reasons pages could be deleted — including sending users to so-called “ad farms” that provide little content but are loaded with ads.
At the time, Riddleberger said, he and his team believed this was the culprit; they had started with a new ad company just days before. To be as careful as possible, they not only cut off ties with the company but went ad-free for several days.
This made no difference. The pages were terminated anyhow.
“I mean, I’m so clueless as to what’s going on because — to spend 25 grand on (Facebook advertising) and to not have a Facebook rep reach out and jump on a call and say, ‘hey, your investment is at risk of being completely removed, you need to really look at this’ … is absolutely sickening and completely unprofessional,” Riddleberger said.
Was it offensive or sensationalistic content? That would require the content to be flagged offensive, according to Facebook guidelines — and, according to Riddleberger, none of his content has ever been flagged.
Riddleberger’s team felt that the only possible culprit, if Facebook was indeed following its own rules when it suspended the accounts, was that it felt that Riddleberger’s account was fake. That, he said, would explain why his personal account was taken down as well.
“Nothing else makes sense,” he said.
Except that doesn’t quite make sense, either. Riddleberger said that he was verified to run political advertisements on Facebook, a process that requires extensive identification after the Russian ad scandal during the 2016 election cycle. To achieve that verification, Riddleberger says he had to provide extensive proof of who he was — including showing them his passport.
In other words, if his version of events is accurate, Facebook ought to have known Addison Riddleberger was a very real person.
So, what was the actual offense? Well, in a bit of a Kafkaesque turn, Facebook left Riddleberger to find that out with very little evidence.
“How unfair is it for them to claim you’ve possibly done multiple things and then leave it to you to figure out in 24 hours what exactly you’re doing when you have an entire company and an entire (group) of pages posting articles with completely different content?” Riddleberger asked. “How exactly are you expected to drill down and figure out exactly the one issue they want you to fix is with these automated, vague, Big Brother-like Facebook messages?”
In isolation, this wouldn’t necessarily be a story. However, this latest round of deletions seems to represent a pattern — and a pattern that almost always seems to go in one ideological direction.
Take the case of the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent pro-life conservative women’s organization whose ads were blocked by Facebook. According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook was more than willing to take the SBA List’s money, just not willing to show the ad, which was in support of Tennessee Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who’s running for Senate.
However, Facebook itself admitted it was in error in that situation.
“This ad does not violate Facebook’s policies and should never have been disapproved,” a Facebook representative told the USA Today Network.
“We’re sorry for this mistake — the ad has been restored and is now running on Facebook.”
Then there was the Facebook purge last month where hundreds of pages were deleted.
“Many were using fake accounts or multiple accounts with the same names and posted massive amounts of content across a network of Groups and Pages to drive traffic to their websites. Many used the same techniques to make their content appear more popular on Facebook than it really was. Others were ad farms using Facebook to mislead people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate,” a statement from Facebook read, according to Heavy.
However, many of the pages almost certainly didn’t fall under that umbrella. One was John Hawkins’ Right Wing News, a fixture in the conservative media movement. The Free Thought Project, another Facebook fixture that would more than occasionally delve into conspiracy-tastic nonsense but certainly wasn’t outright fake news, was also shut down.
However, many of these pages were relatively small and firmly situated on the political fringe, even by the standards of the internet. The same couldn’t necessarily be said for any of Riddleberger’s pages, which may have been strident but certainly weren’t prone to outright sensationalism or crankery.
They hadn’t fallen afoul of Facebook’s strictures until — suspiciously — just hours before the midterm elections. And Facebook can’t seem to come up with any one specific rule that they’ve violated.
“My message to Facebook is this: Life’s not fair, I get it,” Riddleberger wrote.
“But when we spend $25,000 on ads, submit personal identification multiple times, and comply with every Terms of Service tweak, we expect to be treated fairly in return by the industry-leaders you are. The vague, automated messages about page deletion over issues that don’t apply to us is far from professional and raises far more questions than answers. We don’t want a fair shake — we deserve one.
“Facebook, you have my email address — please reach out and let’s clear this matter up.”
Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. In almost every other case, that’s a plea that’s fallen on deaf ears — and given the highly equivocal and impersonal reasons Riddleberger says he’s received from Facebook, the chances of this turning out much different seem bleak.