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In the aftermath of this Kansas Reflector columnist’s Facebook cataclysm, a call for reality

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In the aftermath of this Kansas Reflector columnist’s Facebook cataclysm, a call for reality

May 29, 2024 | 4:33 am ET
By Dave Kendall
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In the aftermath of this Kansas Reflector columnist’s Facebook cataclysm, a call for reality
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One of the windows that greeted contributor Dave Kendall after Facebook removed all content from Kansas Reflector last month. (Dave Kendall)

The last time I wrote a piece for this publication, something quite unusual happened.

As I was browsing Facebook one morning, I started receiving notices that my posts were being removed, with this explanation: “It looks like you tried to gather sensitive information, or shared malicious software.”

“I’m being banished!” I thought to myself. “I’m being tossed off this platform.”

I’ve never been chastised in such fashion, and it felt quite unsettling to see such notices appear one after another in rapid succession.

I was, of course, not the only one experiencing this. You may have been puzzled or alarmed to receive such messages yourself.

For me, however, it did seem to be an act of personal retribution. After all, I had just written a piece for Kansas Reflector that questioned the policies enacted by this monolithic social media platform.

But it wasn’t what I considered to be an overly harsh critique, even though I did reference the faceless nature of the communications provided by the organization itself. I really just wanted to express my dissatisfaction with the “shadowbanning” technique used to sideline conversations that address substantive issues such as climate change.

I did not expect to trigger a cascading avalanche of removal notices ostensibly tied to cybersecurity threats, much less the removal of all content linking to Kansas Reflector.

Editor and Publisher, a trade magazine identifying itself as “The Authoritative Voice of #NewsMedia Since 1884,” invited Kansas Reflector editor-in-chief Sherman Smith on to its podcast to talk about what happened with its publisher, Mike Blinder.

“I was at a cybersecurity conference at the University of Kansas listening to the FBI director talking about very real cybersecurity threats when suddenly Facebook declared that we WERE a cybersecurity threat,” Smith explained.

“How did you tell your audience what was going on?” Binder asked.

“We were just trying to tell our audience what we knew at that time, which is simply we tried to post this article, Facebook took everything down, and Facebook was not telling us why this happened or how it happened or anything at all,” Smith said. “We actually had no correspondence from Facebook for close to seven hours that day.”

The editorial board of The Kansas City Star weighed in: “Big Tech is terribly opaque. Unilateral deletions like The Reflector’s aren’t uncommon, and good luck finding someone who can help you out when something nonsensical happens.”

This assessment was corroborated by Dion Lefler of The Wichita Eagle: “Their corporate phone number is a we-don’t-give-a-bleep recording that hangs up on you after two repeats. And their so-called media relations department is where press emails go to die.”

A Kansas audience gathers for the screening of "Hot Times in the Heartland" at All Saints Hall at Grace Cathedral in Topeka.
A Kansas audience gathers for the screening of “Hot Times in the Heartland” at All Saints Hall at Grace Cathedral in Topeka. (Dave Kendall)

Eventually, Kansas Reflector did receive a response from a Facebook spokesman, who suggested what had happened was basically caused by a glitch in their system and offered a mild apology, leaving it up to the Reflector to assure followers there were no malware or cybersecurity threats involved.

Editor and Publisher characterized the incident as one that “underscores the challenges facing media organizations in the digital age and raises critical questions about the power wielded by tech giants over the dissemination of news and information.”

At a recent public forum in Topeka sponsored by the League of Women Voters, opinion editor Clay Wirestone recommended obtaining a free subscription to Kansas Reflector’s daily email newsletter, which provides direct links to the news stories and opinion pieces of the day, as an effective means of circumventing social media filters.

In regard to the main point of the opinion piece that likely triggered the kerfuffle, it appears to me that things have not changed.

Facebook continues to stifle distribution of posts related to climate change, even though it claims to take “a comprehensive approach to climate-related content,” and often responds to attempts to share them with an accusatory note about transgressing its community standards.

Consider this recent comment I received from someone who tried to share one of our posts about an upcoming screening of our documentary only to have her post deleted as she received notification that it violated community standards: “I was really confused about what standards I had violated in trying to promote the film that I’ve seen twice! and that has a segment that features my grandson and his article on climate change in Kansas.”

Meanwhile, we continue to receive prominent coverage from local media outlets and more requests for screenings.

Following an Earth Day screening at K-State that included a discussion with university experts on the subject, a feature article headlined the front page of the weekly publication Grass and Grain, which bills itself as “Agriculture’s Local Newspaper.”

Although some might assume that rural residents in a red state remain resistant to the notion of climate change, which sometimes gets caught up in party politics, this publication apparently did not have a problem with our production in terms of its community standards.

The article simply framed our intent with the documentary in terms of starting “a conversation about climate change and what it means for the Great Plains.”

Seems as though it would be possible and even advisable for Facebook to reconsider its policies and amend its approach, acknowledging that we need to be able to share our thoughts and concerns about such issues as climate change without getting flagged for some sort of rules violation.

As a recent NPR story points out, however, Facebook is currently promoting posts created by artificial intelligence, many of which spread scams or spam.

“Some Facebook users are considering leaving the platform entirely because of their frustrations with being recommended spammy AI images,” Shannon Bond reported.

The story also notes that Facebook has plans to begin labeling AI-generated content, but as one user put it: “It just sort of reinforces people’s disbelief and … makes it harder to see what is real.”

We know that climate change is real, and I’ve watched audiences across the state engage with that reality.

If only social media platforms agreed.

Dave Kendall served as producer and host of the “Sunflower Journeys” series on public television for its first 27 seasons and continues to produce documentary videos through his own company, Prairie Hollow Productions. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.