COVID-19 shutdowns naturally affected some businesses more acutely than others, and many who felt the sting turned to entrepreneurism. Some saw new ventures as their only options, while others viewed the crisis as a forced opportunity to try something they had long dreamed of pursuing. No matter what motivates people to take that career leap, it’s a safe bet that nearly every entrepreneur will make more extensive use of internet platforms like Facebook to promote and/or directly sell their products or services.
The opportunity for low-cost, DIY entrepreneurism has always been one of Big Tech’s most effusive promises. And in fairness, many self-starters, from jewelry designers to storytellers, do successfully use free platforms to attract fans and customers without the need for intermediaries or costly infrastructure—or even a unique website in many cases. But what the major Silicon Valley companies failed to mention, of course, is that the ways in which they built their platforms and their business models on a laissez-faire approach to online moderation also created new opportunities for entrepreneurs in hacking, identity theft, piracy, and scams.
In a recent example, I know of one an old school friend (we’ll call her Sally) whose storefront business was critically affected by COVID shutdowns, and among the choices she made in response was to launch a podcast series. Whether she expects the podcast itself to eventually generate revenue, or simply to be a vehicle that will keep her in touch with the market while she rebuilds the original business does not really matter. It was a new venture, and people started tuning in, and like any self-starter, she would see where the podcast might lead.
But a few weeks ago, Sally announced that both the Facebook page she had created for the podcast and the page for the original business were hijacked, apparently by foreign actors. The hackers took over the admin for Sally’s pages, renamed them, and (it appears) began promoting a completely unrelated line of products to a foreign market. Why the hackers slaved her pages, which did not have thousands of followers, rather than create their own Facebook presence is unclear, but what is clear is the remedy Facebook was willing to offer when Sally contacted them for help: not a damn thing.
To put it bluntly, Facebook told Sally she wasn’t a big enough deal for them to do anything for her, and the implications of this Emperor’s New Tech Support should be chilling to every entrepreneur on the platform, whether they’re small retailers or artists. Facebook informed Sally that they could have helped her if her page were “verified,” which does not seem to mean much because bullet point Four under the requirements to receive a “verified” badge is that the user must be “Notable: Represent a well-known, often searched person, brand or entity.” So, a big deal then.
Facebook makes a fortune from the commercial uses of its platform, and it promotes those features to everyone, but apparently without any obligation to support everyone. Why the hell not? A company with the computing power and influence of Facebook ought to be able to at least shut down a hacked page, if not fully restore it to its rightful administrator. And if this really cannot be done, the company should be required to post a warning label for less “notable” users informing them that they’re basically on their own when it comes to security.
Meanwhile, I have seen friends put in “Facebook jail” for making jokes its moderators (or algorithms) don’t understand. In fact, my colleague David Lowery made a Bugs Bunny reference about “Killing the Wabbit” in one of his posts, and some Magoo flagged it for inciting violence and gave David a time out to think about his behavior. It seems to me that if Facebook can screw up so exquisitely and with such granularity that it homes in on a single Looney Tunes reference, the company has the ability and obligation to help the Sallys of the world recover their pages from hackers.
In no other context would consumers tolerate a company declaring that it has built a system too big to manage. Nowhere in Facebook’s promotion of its commercial services do we see bold, red warning signs that say Use at Own Risk. The reasonable expectation in the market remains that when a company sells something, it bears certain obligations to its customers. My bank has tens of millions of customers worldwide, and I am by no means a “notable” customer. But if a fraudulent use of my card were to occur, it will be immediately and effectively addressed, and the bank will even eat the fraudulent charges. So, really? Facebook can’t help victims of hackers get their pages back? Really?
Illustration by: VIGE