Once again, Facebook reporting algorithms facilitate harassment of pro-science advocates by antivaccine cranks

Nearly eleven years ago, back in April 2005, I opened my work e-mail (I was working at a different university back then) and saw an e-mail from someone whose name I had seen before, one Mr. William P. O’Neill. Opening the e-mail, I was shocked to find an e-mail to Orac; worse, the e-mail was cc’ed to my cancer center director, my division chief, and my chairman. In it, O’Neill outed me as Orac and was threatening to sue me over a post I did. Naturally, it was interspersed with accusations of my being a “pharma shill” and having lied about him. Now here’s the odd thing. This is the post that provoked Mr. O’Neill’s ire. All I did was point to Peter Bowditch’s website, specifically his 2004 Millenium Awards. Basically, he was pissed at me for approvingly citing his nemesis, who had taken great pleasure calling O’Neill the Gutless Anonymous Liar.

Thus ended my anonymity, a mere five months after my first blog post. Such is life as a blogger. Nowadays my pseudonym is more a nom de blog than any sort of protection against “outing,” as everyone knows who I am and anyone who doesn’t and can’t find out I consider too clueless to be worth dealing with. Since then, I’ve had more cranks take a run at me, either through “outing” me online or harassing me at work, than I care to remember. The most agita-inducing example occurred in 2010, when Jake Crosby accused me of an undisclosed conflict of interest with a pharmaceutical company, resulting in the antivaccine drones at Age of Autism sending complaints about this to my dean and the board of governors. Fortunately, nothing came of it, but I’ll never forget it.

I tell this story, which I’ve told several times before over the years, not so much because it’s so fascinating, but rather because it illustrates a fact of life that anyone who publicly criticizes cranks must realize. Not having evidence or science on their side, cranks, especially antivaccine cranks, attack the person. In particular, they go after what they perceive as their online critics’ weakest point: Their employers. I was reminded of this in a post on Skeptical Raptor by Dorit Rubinstein about a campaign of online harassment against Alison Hagood on Facebook. It includes all the same ugly, sorry tactics, including these actions:

  1. Started an online petition to Ms. Hagood’s employer requesting disciplinary action or termination.
  2. Repeatedly reported Allison to her school for her online activities, trying to get her fired.
  3. Posted her private address online.
  4. Emailed people she knows.
  5. Created a web site, the purpose of which is solely to harass Ms. Hagood.
  6. Repeatedly sent her insulting or threatening messages.

As I said, the same old tactics. Meanwhile, elsewhere, pro-vaccine advocates are subject to attacks on Twitter, in blogs, and on other social media. However, there is one new tactic that is more recent. Specifically, it’s about Facebook; specifically it’s about how antivaccinationists abuse Facebook’s reporting algorithms. I’ve written about this once before, when members of the Stop the Australian Vaccination Network were targeted by what was then called the Australian Vaccination Network for complaints against them on Facebook. Facebook, through its automated reporting algorithms, would then issue 12-hour, 24-hour, or even longer bans against pro-vaccine advocates.

Well, they’re at it again. Not the AVN this time, but another group of antivaccinationists, and they’re targeting Allison Hagood and others:

Last month, Facebook banned Ms. Hagood for 30 days, for posting an image that “violates community standards”. The image, with a caption Allison added, is shown below. This was her third ban in a row.

The original image, shared widely on Facebook by those who revile Ms. Hagood (shown above), is a photograph of Ms. Hagood’s green-tinted face photoshopped into a still of the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz. The original caption reads, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!”…

For posting this image, Ms. Hagood was banned from Facebook for 30 days. It is likely, although impossible to prove, that the image was reported by the anti-vaccine activist who created the original image.

Dorit Reiss documents a Facebook conversation gloating about it on the Skeptical Raptor blog:

Anti-vaccine activist #1: Actually A hag’s (sic – the anti’s nickname for Allison) main account is about to come off a 30 day suspension, and I have just the comment to report that will extend it another 30 day
Anti-vaccine activist #2: [image of laughing squirrel with HAHAHA]
Anti-vaccine activist #3: Dahahahaa
Anti-vaccine activist #4: Go for it!
Anti-vaccine activist #5: Go for it!

A year later, they’re still at it. In fact, Allison’s been banned multiple times, including recently. Mostly it’s been Allison Hagood and Stacy Mintzer Herlihy, who co-authored a recent pro-vaccine book, Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines Are Safe and Save Lives and seem to come in for particularly opprobrium from the antivaccine fringe. However, earlier this week, the man responsible for the Skeptical Raptor website fell into the sights of antivaxers. It’s useful to consider just how far they went to do this, too, and the way to do that is to look at a Facebook post one of my readers forwarded to me from an antivaccine group known as The Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). It’s a Facebook cesspit of the most radical, batshit radical antivaccinationists you’ll find. This is the post I was pointed to in that Facebook group (click to embiggen):

Yes, this is the sort of tactics that antivaccine loons use to harass and silence pro-science advocates on Facebook.

Yes, this is the sort of tactics that antivaccine loons use to harass and silence pro-science advocates on Facebook.

That last bit sounded very much like a threat.

So, yes, from this it appears that the above woman is behind at least one of these bogus complaints to Facebook. There are actually many more antivaccinationists harassing pro-science advocates on Facebook, but this is the one I saw in a public forum, thanks to one of my readers; so this is the one I’m naming and shaming.

Perhaps you are wondering what the “racial slur” that Skeptical Raptor allegedly made. Here’s what I meant when I was referring to just how far someone like Heather would go to find something to complain to Facebook about. What she found demonstrates not just her mendacity but Facebook’s cluelessness. I’m Facebook friends with Skeptical Raptor; so I know the story. While it’s a little more complicated than this, one thing that contributed to Raptor’s ban is a post of his from three years ago in which he referred to someone as “niggardly.” As anyone with any education knows, this word is not the N-word that is among the worst, if not the worst, of racial slurs, nor is it related to the N-word. Rather, it means, basically, stingy or cheap and has nothing to do with race or slurs. It turns out the Raptor used the word in a post in which he mocked someone who thought “niggardly” was a racist comment. Heather, clueless as she is, thought this word was related to the N-word. Even more cluelessly, Facebook accepted that explanation. Whether it happened at the level of its automatic algorithm or whether a real human approved the block, who knows? Facebook’s banning algorithms are the ultimate black box. They might as well be in the center of a black hole, given how impenetrable they are and how difficult it is to shine any light on them.

Because of idiocy like this, I don’t use the word “niggardly” anymore exactly because people these days are so clueless that they mistake the word for a racial slur. It’s a shame and I know it’s truly dumb, but unfortunately language has evolved and the stigma against the N-word is so strong that people hear something that sounds vaguely like it, and their brains shut down. There really is little point in fighting it any more. That battle was lost, and using that word risks getting bogged down explaining that it has nothing to do with the N-word and distracting from my message. Besides, my intentionally using the word as a protest isn’t going to change the way things are, and the way things are is that clueless wonders like this antivaccine warrior think the word is “hate speech,” and Facebook even more cluelessly agrees.

So let’s recap what we have here. We have a group of rabid antivaccine activists intentionally going through Facebook with a fine tooth comb to locate anything that they think they can report to Facebook that might get a temporary ban, and then they report it. It doesn’t matter how tenuous that “dirt” is. We have service (Facebook) with a system for dealing with hate speech and online harassment that is easily gamed to harass people, an observation that is ironic in the extreme, so much so that it would be amusing if it weren’t so destructive. Facebook’s reporting algorithm is now a tool of harassment, such that it can be used again and again to keep pro-science advocates banned and continually on their guard. Finally, Facebook’s double standard is so incredible that many complaints about things that should be complained about and should result in a ban result in no action. I personally have complained about harassing posts about myself and others, and each and every time I’ve received a notice that the post “does not violate Facebook community standards.” I’ve heard similar stories from several others.

Indeed, take a look at the comments after Dorit Reiss’ post. You’ll see that Allison Hagood has gotten another 30 day ban over, well, let her tell you:

I have just received my fourth 30-day ban for a post that in no way violates any community standards of any kind. The text:


That is fucking priceless. I am in love with Frau Heather’s irony right now.”

Referring to someone by their first name is not harassment, not bullying, not a personal attack. Laughing at someone’s idiocy is not harassment, not bullying, not a personal attack.

Also, Allison’s posting of a link to Dorit Reiss’ article on harassment on Facebook was also reported as “hate speech.” Meanwhile, in the comments after her post, Heather is posting screenshots of Facebook confirming that the targets of her complaints had received temporary bans and gloating heartily. Obviously, my opinion of her is incredibly low. She is cowardly, vindictive, and, let’s be frank, a complete and total asshole. She is also welcome to comment here to defend herself if she wishes. Her first comment will go to moderation, but I’ll approve it, and after that she will be able to comment freely. Somehow, I doubt she’ll take me up on my offer, because she can’t function anywhere where she isn’t preaching to a friendly, approving crowd cheering her on for her dishonest use of the Facebook reporting system.

So, in the end, once again antivaccinationists have no science, only pseudoscience. They have no good evidence, only cherry picked data twisted into an unrecognizable pretzel in the service of supporting their pseudoscience. So they attack the person, facilitated by Facebook’s reporting algorithm. It’s truly despicable behavior and not at all disappointing for antivaccinationists. After all, it’s what they do; we don’t expect anything more honorable from them, and meanwhile, those who’ve aligned themselves with the antivaccine movement who try to portray themselves as nice and honorable guys (I’m talking to you, Dr. Jay Gordon) stay silent. What is disappointing is that one of the richest companies in the world, a company that revolutionized social media, is apparently incapable of preventing itself from being played for a sucker by antivaccine activists turning its tools intended to prevent and stop harassment into tools to harass.

Either that, or the people running Facebook just don’t care. After all, it’s not just antivaccine cranks who can game the system. In response to complaints, Facebook routinely deletes peaceful, anti-racist posts by activists, doling out 24-hour and 30-day bans the way it has to Stacy and Allison, while deciding after similar complaints against them that bigoted posts calling for preparing for violence against Muslims don’t violate Facebook’s community standards.

Truly, Facebook is broken, and its system designed to police community standards seems to indicate that community standards favor pseudoscience, bullying, racism, and harassment.

ADDENDUM: A little birdie told me that the administrators of VRM took down Heather’s post and sent me this (click to embiggen):

Heather's post removed