An antivaccine activist explains how she uses Facebook reporting algorithms to harass and silence pro-science bloggers

I wish this post were an April Fools Day joke, but it is not.

Three weeks ago, Skeptical Raptor and I wrote posts describing how a particularly vicious, nasty antivaccine troll named Heather Murray had successfully gamed Facebook reporting algorithms intended to report abuse in order to silence pro-science bloggers. It is, unfortunately, a tactic that I first heard about over two years ago, when antivaccine activists affiliated with what was then called the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) used the same sort of tactics to target pro-science bloggers and activists associated with a group whose purpose was to counter the misinformation spread by the AVN. What often happened was that the automatic reporting algorithm that Facebook uses to screen complaints for true violations of its “community standards” would issue temporary bans in response. Often the various “community standards” violated were unclear and difficult to avoid. For instance, directly mentioning someone by name in a disparaging fashion (or even in a non-disparaging fashion) could, if complained about, result in a ban. Bascially, 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.

Obviously, as I’ve explained before, the clear intent of this tactic is to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook. These bans can last anywhere from a day to 30 days and basically prevent the person victimized from posting to Facebook for the length of the ban. Once a ban is in place, there is basically no appeal, either. For one thing, it’s damned near impossible to get a hold of an actual human being at Facebook to review and reconsider spurious complaints that trigger such bans. For another thing, the level of complaint that triggers a ban seems to get lower with each successive successful complaint resulting in a ban. This has allowed antivaccine activists to keep hitting their pro-science targets with new bans almost as soon as an existing ban expires, resulting in their being locked out of Facebook for long periods of time and, when they get back on Facebook, being forced to be very careful about what they say and constantly look over their shoulder for potential attacks. If one of your outlets as a pro-science activist is Facebook, these attacks can essentially shut you down by taking you offline intermittently and making you a lot more measured in what you say. It also—intentionally—discourages pro-science activists from calling out the antivaccine misinformation promoted by those who use this tactic.

Everyone knows what a piece of work Meryl Dorey of the AVN is, how nasty she is. When I picture Heather Murray, I think Meryl Dorey amped up by a factor of at least 100 in terms of sheer nastiness, for reasons that you will soon see. First, a brief recap. When last I left this sordid tale of Facebook ineptitude and lack of concern, I enumerated some of the tactics Ms. Murray had used against Ms. Hagood. These included:

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

I also described the sorts of things Ms. Murray did to get Ms. Hagood banned. For instance, Ms. Murray had Photoshopped an image of Ms. Hagood to make her look like the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, complete with the text, “I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!” When Ms. Hagood posted the image to demonstrate the harassment against her, it was she who wound up in what we now call “Facebook jail,” not Ms. Murray. Although it can’t be proven, it is widely believed in the relevant pro-vaccine Facebook groups that it was almost certainly Ms. Murray who reported her. It wasn’t just Ms. Hagood who was victimized, either. Our favorite dinosaur, Skeptical Raptor, was also targeted, receiving a ban because he was reported for allegedly using racially inflammatory hate speech. In context, even as described on Ms. Murray’s site, he clearly was not, but rather using an example of offensive speech to make a point about how offensive he found something in a movie. Ms. Murray’s dishonesty in having reported that post as Facebook abuse is truly breathtaking. But, then, she has demonstrated herself to be an antivaccine loon and Holocaust denying anti-Semite.

What’s truly irritating about these particular incidents is that Heather Murray herself is a raging antisemite and Holocaust denier, as has been documented elsewhere. I didn’t go much into it last time, but I sure as heck plan to this time. For example, look at this post right here:

Heather Murray's antisemitism

In fact, I was having acid flashbacks reading this post, back to the days when I used to blog regularly about Holocaust denial, because there sure is a heaping helping of Holocaust denial right here. Indeed, the Holocaust denying tropes that Ms. Murray regurgitates were of the very same variety that I used to spend to much time deconstructing and debunking back in my Usenet days on alt.revisionism and early in the history of this very blog. I mean, seriously. Ms. Murray swallows whole the lie that Adolf Hitler himself used to try to justify the invasion of Poland, including his utterly risible claim that he never wanted war. (Coincidentally enough, I’m re-reading William Shirer’s excellent Berlin Diary, which recounts his time as a news correspondent in Nazi Germany from the time shortly after Hitler took power to just before the entry of the US into the war, and in fact just read the section on Hitler’s invasion of Poland, in which Shirer recounted this very lie and how Hitler used it.) I mean, seriously. Believing lies Hitler told for propaganda purposes to get his people fired up to go to war and try to keep Poland’s allies from coming to her aid? It doesn’t get much more Hitler-admiring than that.

Ms. Murray also barfs up the old Holocaust denier canard that the prisoners in the Nazi camps died of typhus and starvation and were not intentionally murdered, as though it wasn’t really horrific that the Nazis rounded up so many people and put them in camps where they were overworked, underfed, and victim to raging epidemics of infectious disease. Yes, many did die of disease and starvation, but there were also homicidal gas chambers. There were also two kinds of camps, work camps and death camps (although Auschwitz-Birkenau was both). In the work camps, prisoners were basically worked to death; in the death camps they were murdered by a variety of means, in particular gas chambers. Of course, no Holocaust denying, Hitler admiring rant is complete without an antisemitic comment about our “Zionist puppet masters.” That’s because Holocaust denial is always rooted in anti-Semitism. There are no Holocaust deniers who are not anti-Semites. At least, if there are, I have not been able to find them, and I have been looking for 18 years now.

So, yes, Ms. Murray, through her own copious statements, regularly reveals herself to be anti-Semitic as hell, and a Holocaust denier, to boot. I’d love to see her come here and spew her bigoted pseudohistory. I guarantee you that, as is the case with antivaccine loons, she can’t repeat a claim that I haven’t heard and analyzed many times before. In any case, I feel the need for a shower after that, so much so that I’ll just leave you this link if you want to see more of her blatant anti-Semitism, other than this last example I’m posting here:

heather-anti-semitism-1

OK, so from my perspective (and that of most people who do not share her bigoted views), Ms. Murray is a despicable, contemptible woman. That isn’t the reason I posted this, although posting this did give me an excuse to emphasize just how nasty she is, something I failed to do last time. (I don’t know what I was thinking then.) Far more important, however, is that she is now explaining how she targets pro-science advocates. A series of comments from her from a super-secret closed Facebook group have found their way into the “wrong” hands (i.e., ours). First up:

HM1

OK, as vile as Ms. Murray is, I’ll give her credit for opening a Facebook profile named Frau Heather as being mildly amusing. Whether that was what let her succeed at shutting down Ms. Hagood and others again, who knows? Unfortunately, now that the beans have been spilled, we now know not to do that sort of thing again. Of course, contrary to Ms. Murray’s claim I never really even tried to figure this one out because “Frau Heather” was not an insult that I recall ever having used to describe her. In fact, I didn’t really use any insults at all; I just described her behavior relatively dispassionately compared to how much her antics annoy me—more so than I have here.

Next up, Ms. Murray explains how mocking memes will get you banned:

HM2

Note that “AVWoS” stands for Antivaccine Wall of Shame.

Now, this is a rule that seems to be very inconsistently applied, because I see mocking memes about people all the time, and I know for a fact that pro-science advocates have complained to Facebook about memes made to mock them. (After all, what was Photoshopping Ms. Hagood’s face onto the Wicked Witch of the West or Photoshopping her to look like Hitler but producing mocking memes?) Notice how much Ms. Murray gloats, though. I know that Ms. Murray will see this post sooner or later—although not on Facebook, at least not posted or commented upon by me, as, even though I have blocked her and every sock puppet of hers that I know about, I am not stupid. So let me just say right here that I take much pleasure in exposing someone whom I consider to be a terrible, vicious woman, her flagrant anti-Semitism, and her antivaccine nonsense, particularly revealing what she’s saying about how she did it. This is information that will allow her targets to take more precautions and at least make her harassing pro-science advocates more difficult, as it makes it possible to take precautions. Besides, I do so love shining lights into dark places, to watch the cockroaches scatter.

Finally, we have this:

HM3

In this post, Ms. Murray spells out exactly what she recommends and brags about how many members of AVWoS she’s gotten banned. At first, I wasn’t sure why she linked to my last post on the subject of antivaccine trolls trying to get defenders of science banned from Facebook. After all, that was a blog post. I never posted it to Facebook—intentionally so, just as I will not post this one to Facebook, either. (Why take the chance?) Of course, then I realized that she thinks she can find the commenters on that post and try to target them for harassment on Facebook too, as no doubt she has been trying to target me, thus far without success. Such are her cowardly techniques.

I must admit, though, that I hadn’t heard of Jeri Keith before. It turns out that she’s another antivaccine loon. She appears to like a lot of all caps. Quelle surprise:

So as a member of several antivax groups…or should I say PROCHOICE GROUPS we are looking to see if you are willing to stand WITH US in DEFENDING OUR RIGHTS TO CHOOSE WHAT IS PUT INTO OUR BODIES. The California Senate right now is trying to FORCE VAX SCHOOL kids and adults vaccines a mile long are in the pipeline for us as well…around 300. We WILLNOT STAND FOR THIS….we are THOUSANDS, and MAYBE TENS OF THOUSANDS STRONG at this point. So we would like to know…are you with us..or against us. We are willing to help make a video with all kinds of intelligent free-thinking people. We have doctors and lawyers, and scientists, and biologists all that DONOT vax and we have the SCIENCE to back it up. What say you all? Please let us know ASAP as we are hoping to be able to POST ON THIS PAGE…..OUR BODY, OUR KIDS BODIES, OUR CHOICE. And we will NOT ELECT any official that is trying to take away our rights to choose.

Yes, Heather Murray and Jeri Keith appear made to be BFFs. They deserve each other.

Of course, as I pointed out last time, antivaccinationists have no science to back up their harmful beliefs, only pseudoscience. All they have are cherry-picked data and biased studies incompetently done by the likes of Andrew Wakefield, Mark and David Geier, Christopher Shaw, and a small cadre of scientists and physicians who somehow fell off the wagon of science into the tar pit of quackery and pseudoscience. If that weren’t the case, perhaps antivaccinationists like Heather Murray wouldn’t attack the person first but instead would do what real science advocates and scientists do: Marshal science, experimentation, and evidence to argue her case instead of trying to harass and suppress speech.

If all that succeeded in doing were to inconvenience a few bloggers and writers like Allison Hagood, Stacy Mintzer Herlihy, our skeptical scaly Raptor friend, or myself, it might not be such a big deal. The problem is that Facebook is such an enormous platform that to be banned from Facebook is to loose access to a major means of getting one’s message out. That’s the intent. In the decade-plus that I’ve been blogging, social media has changed markedly. Before, blogs ruled. Now, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms rule. I still use a blog because it allows me to say things in way more detail than these other platforms do and requires me to write actual essays, but I know that it might not be the most effective platform in general for my message. On the other hand, I know my strengths and weaknesses, and blogs play to my strengths. The point is, though, that antivaccinationists can’t win on science and evidence; so they fall back to despicable and deceptive techniques of the sort used by the Heather Murrays of the world.

Of course, the real problem is that Facebook allows this to happen. Even worse, there is a double standard that’s been demonstrated time and time again, when pro-science advocates have complained about the very same sort of mocking memes, personal attacks, and offensive posts to which pro-science Facebook members are regularly subjected to. Heck, how is it that Ms. Murray’s antisemitic posts don’t “violate Facebook’s community standards”? Now, I’m under no illusion that Facebook is anything other than a company looking to make money, nor am I under any illusion that I am Facebook’s customer. Rather, I am Facebook’s product to be monetized in any way possible, as are Allison Hagood, Stacy Mintzer Herlihy, and the Skeptical Raptor. Yes, those of you who are on Facebook are, too. The very fact that Facebook users who are victimized by these bans complain and clamor to be reinstated shows how Facebook has all the power. Add to that the billion users it has who generate far more complaints than it has employees to deal with, and, unless there is a mass exodus from Facebook because of its automated complaint algorithms or publicity that’s so bad that even Mark Zuckerberg has to take notice, Facebook is unlikely to take any significant action to fix its badly broken abuse reporting system so that it can’t be so easily used to harass and silence. So far, having few dozen users targeted by antivaccine loons doesn’t qualify. Facebook has no compelling reason to fix its broken algorithms.

At the end of the day, I consider people like Heather Murray to be contemptible pathetic people, too cowardly to try to win on the field of ideas. In fact, for that very reason I considered not writing this post. However, given how Ms. Murray gloated about her methods, I figured it was worth discussing her one last time in order to give my readers a heads up.

Finally, I was amused to learn from various sources that Ms. Murray was—shall we say?—not very happy about my previous post and that she has claimed to have tried to contact me. Let me just say right here, right now, that I have received no such contact from Heather, and I checked the spam folders of all my public e-mail accounts, just to make sure I didn’t miss an e-mail from her for that reason. So I’ll make it easy for her now. She is welcome to comment here—if she dares. If she doesn’t, my e-mail address is orac@scienceblogsllc.com. She should be aware, though, that as with any e-mail to the blog, I reserve the right to publish anything she says and respond as I see fit.

Best wishes, Ms. Murray.