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A local news site was critical of Facebook—then Meta banned all their links

Their content was erroneously flagged as a cybersecurity threat.

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FBI Director Christopher Wray (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Something strange started happening Thursday morning: Facebook users who’d at some point in the past posted a link to a story from the Kansas Reflector received notifications that their posts had violated community standards on cybersecurity. “It looks like you tried to gather sensitive information, or shared malicious software,” the alert said. 

As the mayhem began, Sherman Smith, Editor-in-Chief of the nonprofit news site, just so happened to be listening to a keynote speech by FBI Director Christopher Wray at a local cybersecurity conference. Suddenly his texts, Facebook messages and emails started blowing up.

“Some people were thinking, like, ‘oh, this is because of the Marion County Record story’ or ‘this was because you wrote something critical about a prosecutor’ or about, you know, any number of topics,” Smith told The Handbasket via phone Thursday afternoon. “It wasn't necessarily clear to individual readers that this was literally every link to every story on our website.”

Readers of The Handbasket might recognize the Marion reference: The Kansas Reflector first broke the story of the August police raid on the small town Kansas newspaper, which in turn led to me breaking the story about the paper investigating the police chief. The Reflector is a non-profit newsroom that’s one of 39 affiliates in the States Newsroom project. 

They published a column Thursday morning by journalist Dave Kendall entitled: “When Facebook fails, local media matters even more for our planet’s future.” It was about obstacles he faced in promoting his new climate change documentary “Hot Times in the Heartland.” He writes: 

Imagine my surprise when I attempted to “boost” a post on Meta’s Facebook to begin our online promotional efforts — and the company summarily rejected it.

Why? According to the automated response I received, the post “doesn’t comply with our Ads about Social Issues, Elections or Politics policy.”

Apparently, Meta deems climate change too controversial for discussion on their platforms.

When Reflector Opinion Editor Clay Wirestone went to post Kendall’s column on the publication’s Facebook page, it was rejected.

“After trying a couple of times and getting rejected, he just made a short post that said ‘go to the website and read about this’—and then that was taken down apparently,” Smith explained. “And suddenly we started getting messages from many, many readers saying they were being told that all their posts to our stories had been removed.”

Until approximately 4pm ET Thursday afternoon, whenever people attempted to share any link at all to the Reflector, they were unable. In screenshots shared with The Handbasket, the warnings varied from saying the content was reported by others as being “abusive,” to labeling the link as spam, as well as a simple upload error. 

Shortly after 4, it appeared most links to the site were posting properly on Meta properties—Facebook, Instagram Threads—except for one: Thursday’s column critical of Facebook.

Multiple people have reported that when they clicked “let us know,” they received an error message.

It’s yet another example of the Streisand Effect, where it’s unlikely many people outside the Reflector’s regular readership would have read Kendall’s column about Facebook interfering with climate change content if not for Facebook’s own interference. But now it’s being spread far and wide.

Still, the harm has already been done. While Smith awaits an explanation from Facebook, he said he’s already consulted a media lawyer in Kansas.

“The good news is Facebook can't have any say in what we write, when we write it, or how we write it,” Smith said, “And they have increasingly little impact on who actually sees our stories. So we're able to get stories in front of people through, not just other social media platforms and through our website, but also through our newsletter. And so I just don't think that Facebook can effectively silence a news organization, and certainly doesn't have the same kind of impact that it would have had two years ago or 10 years ago.”

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