In which the writer confronts the overwhelming power of Facebook
In April, my Facebook account was hacked and suspended, and although I followed all of Facebook’s procedures for disputing the suspension, my account was ultimately disabled. At the time, I posted a little bit about it on social media – mostly to try to get help from Facebook and/or Meta. Otherwise, I have avoided even thinking about it because it continues to be both embarrassing and distressing.
That said, I’ve decided to write about it now because the use of Facebook is so ubiquitous that most people have no idea what is really lost when you’re excluded from the platform. You will think I’m exaggerating when I say there are entire aspects of life that I am unable to participate in or experience because I am no (longer on Facebook. I assure you, I’m not. And I’m not the only one: in fact, what happened to me is widespread and well-documented and has been happening for years.
But let’s back up – because I’d like to explain what happened.
In the early months of the pandemic (summer 2020), I realized I needed an extended hiatus from social media. Facebook, in particular, was having a really negative impact on my mental health. I decided to avoid it for a few weeks, which turned to months. When I did have to use Facebook (which I did somewhat regularly because there are whole aspects of life that exist almost entirely on FB), I had to really work to avoid getting hooked by posts or conversations that were only going to make me feel bad. I often think of Facebook like Target: most of the time, I go in to get one $5 thing, but I come out two hours later having spent $150, carrying a bunch of stuff I didn’t need and the requisite shame. But after more than a year of mostly Facebook-free existence, using it only when I really had to. Even when I decided to return to social media, I continued to avoid Facebook because it was the platform that instigated the most emotional distress for me.
That was a mistake. Perhaps, if I’d been more active on Facebook, I would have realized I didn’t have two-factor authentication set up, and I would have put that in place and better protected my account. Maybe my inactivity was what attracted the hacker. Who knows?
Either way, someone hacked my account. The hacker didn’t just chance upon my password though. No, they went out of their way to purchase a unique domain name that I previously owned (but had allowed to lapse) so that they could get access to the secondary email address on my account. To be clear: I had long since changed the primary email address on my account, but apparently that old one was still associated at some level. Anyway, by the time I figured out what was going on, it was too late. The hackers got in, did whatever egregious thing they did to violate FB’s terms of service, and got the account suspended – in less than a day.
I immediately began trying to get the account back, doing all of the things advised by Facebook. When those didn’t work (I’m pretty sure they’re built to not work), I started scanning forums for options, reading articles, watching YouTube videos, posting on Twitter, emailing Facebook, and dm’ing them on Twitter and Instagram. Nothing. Obviously. After 30 days, Facebook informed me that the account was permanently disabled. That was it. No explanation. No response to my dispute. Just done.
At first I thought I’d use it as an opportunity to start over, rebuild a new Facebook account. Having spent a month locked out of Facebook, I realized there were things that I just wasn’t able to do. My karate school does most of its communicating via Facebook, so I was missing updates and class sign ups. The parent groups for my kids’ schools were based on Facebook. I couldn’t access my alumni groups. I missed both social and professional events that were hosted on Facebook, and I couldn’t easily access information that my social and professional groups posted on their Facebook pages. Likewise, I couldn’t research businesses that relied on Facebook as their primary web presence – home improvement contractors, service providers, and more. I didn’t realize how often I’d been routed to Facebook for various things, until I suddenly couldn’t follow those routes.
Maybe this seems trivial; I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I’m probably better off or lucky. To be honest, I probably would have said the same thing. But, it adds up, and it’s not trivial. The problem is that Facebook is so deeply embedded in everyday life and controls far more of our lives than we’d probably like to admit; being locked out of Facebook is almost like telling people they just can’t be a part of society.
Beyond the social losses, having my Facebook account terminated and being kept off the platform has a considerable impact on my professional life. I’m a writer and writing teacher, and a significant portion of my professional network communicates via Facebook. Not to mention, I’d been on Facebook since 2006 so I had developed a significant contact base over the course of 16 years. That network was important for finding opportunities, sharing my work, reaching my audiences, and being a part of the literary community. Now, as I plan to launch my first novel through a crowd-funding campaign, I am crippled by the loss of that community.
I’d like to be clear: I don’t really want to be on Facebook; I need to be. Yet, there’s nothing to be done. This is a well-known problem, Facebook does nothing about it, and no one seems willing to call Facebook to task. Sure, there have been some journalists who attempted to apply pressure, but it doesn’t matter. Lawyers won’t touch it. The overwhelming response is a giant, collective shrug. I’m honestly not sure why. I’ve heard the ‘why’: you signed a contract, FB can terminate accounts whenever they want, blah blah blah. But I don’t understand why no one is willing to call Bullshit on this. Facebook is an $85 billion company, and it got that way leveraging us and our information. They could figure out a way to deal with this. They just choose not to. Instead, they choose to ignore, aid, and even encourage identity theft by doing nothing about it. In fact, what Facebook does to victims of identity theft is to actual punish them and victimize them further.
Again, you might think this is an exaggeration, but I’ve heard stories of Facebook employees taking bribes to reinstate accounts and even trading accounts for for sex. Facebook responds by saying those employees are acting outside of the company’s code of conduct, but it never addresses the real problem: Why are people willing to go to such lengths? Especially for legitimate accounts? Why are users unable to get resolution from the company itself?
For me, the echo impact isn’t nearly as dramatic as these other cases, but it is painful. I still experience visceral panic when I encounter minor password issues, enter information into new websites, and/or get prompted for Facebook credentials somewhere. I get a cold, heavy lump in the pit of my stomach. My throat gets tight, and my palms sweat. Will I get locked out of Instagram? Will I lose access to some other account, network, or community? Eventually, my fear and anxiety pass, but in the meantime, those feelings are real and they are difficult.
How can this possibly be okay? How can this possibly be a system that so many of us participate in without question or complaint? I’ve already answered those questions: we have to.
The thing is: we shouldn’t. There should be a way to hold Facebook accountable for basic human courtesies – like user support, responses, and a real process for mediating account issues. Handing people’s accounts over to timers and bots is lazy, cheap, and should be unacceptable. Facebook has so many unfair and unreasonable practices, and it will only get worse if we continue to just click the like button and think it won’t affect us. At least, that’s how it went for me.