Dear Zuckerberg,

Please unban me.

This letter is intended for anyone who uses Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram. You might not realize it, but you are at risk of losing your account for shallow reasons - just like I lost mine.

Facebook shareholders and Facebook employees will also benefit from reading this. I should know, I used to be one.

My problems began as a Facebook Advertiser

I own a digital agency that focuses on applications and advertising. I have multiple products and services of my own to advertise, as well as our customers’ products.

Facebook is unbeatable when it comes to advertising. With a user base of over two billion people, Facebook has the widest audience out of every social media platform, and their ability to target specific demographic is unparalleled. One of the best features to Facebook Advertising is how it displays ads to targeted markets without needing the user to actively search with a certain keyword, which is how Google operates. It would be the perfect marketing platform, but Facebook’s asinine policies and administrators completely ruin it.

I have successfully ran many advertising campaigns on Facebook. Before an advertisement can be posted and viewed by the public it must be approved by Facebook. Sometimes, weeks or months after its approval and posting, Facebook has notified me that my advertisement violates their policy and has been removed. If the advertisement is breaking enough rules to warrant deletion, why was it approved for publication at all?

I had one particular advertisement that I believe led to my account deletion. I have never attempted to advertise using provocative or suggestive text or images. However, one of my products was an erotic novel marketed towards adults. My advertisements for this book never contained sexual language and the landing pages were completely clean. All of my ads were approved and posted onto Facebook, where they ran for a few weeks. Without warning my business Facebook was shut down and blocked permanently. This deleted all of my ad campaigns along with my account.

I am far from the only one struggling to understand and comply with Facebook’s policies. At 57 years old, my own mother decided to fulfill a lifelong dream by launching her own personal training business. She wanted to use Facebook ads to target her local market, and we worked together to come up with a fitness-focused campaign that was right for her business. None of the ads got approved by Facebook. They were constantly denied for using harsh language, although they didn’t contain bullying or harassing language, or for “promoting a certain kind of body image”. Facebook’s actual, posted policies ultimately rely on interpretation to understand what exactly falls outside of the permitted content. Facebook states, “Ad content must not imply or attempt to generate negative self-perception in order to promote diet, weight loss, or other health related products.” Even from this simple statement one can see where confusion might arise; it isn’t clear where the boundaries are between generating negative or positive self-perception. The ambiguous nature of these policies is what leads to advertisers accounts getting deleted.

Facebook has the power to destroy small businesses

As I said, Facebook is unparalleled when it comes to targeting and market reach. Besides housing its own enormous user base, Facebook also owns Instagram and controls advertising there as well.

I am an entrepreneur with a small company, and I relied heavily on Facebook and Instagram to reach new customers. Without access to their markets, I’m struggling to promote my products and can no longer assist my digital agency clients with their own Facebook and Instagram ads. I know many other small business owners who are facing these same types of issues when advertising on Facebook.

If you don’t work for Facebook, you might be wondering why I don’t simply create another business account. Part of Facebook’s genius is its impeccable record-keeping capability. Facebook stores your company info, mailing address, past advertisements, email accounts, and payment details. The system remembers this data and matches it against all of Facebook's active accounts, making it impossible to run my ads under a new or different profile.

Being permanently banned from Facebook: Personal and Professional

Even though I was no longer allowed to advertise on Facebook, I still had access to my personal account.

Like most people in the world, I was an active Facebook user. I was part of several private Facebook groups with my close friends, which we used to send images, documents, and videos back and forth. I might have posted some “inappropriate content” within this closed group, not realizing that sharing within a completely private community would still break Facebook’s policies. If no one besides my friends can see the content, who am I hurting by posting something Facebook decides is inappropriate?

It didn’t take long before my personal account was deleted as well, and I was completely banned from using Facebook in any context -- personal or professional.

Facebook has a communication monopoly

As an avid traveler, I frequently used Facebook to keep in touch with friends I had made all over the world. Facebook Messenger was far more convenient than taking down phone numbers. By adding someone as a friend I could not only chat with them without the restrictions of international message rates, but I could also keep up with their daily life by following their other Facebook activity. There is no real alternative to following someone’s Facebook Timeline -- Instagram is too curated, Snapchat isn’t permanent enough, and Twitter is for short text posts. Facebook is still the only place that combines the features of every other social media platform, and is still the most widely used.

Many people don’t realize that being banned from Facebook also means a permanent ban from Facebook Messenger. As I didn’t receive any warning before my account was deleted I had no time to figure out alternate ways to contact my friends. There are many people I haven’t been able to talk to since the day my account was banned, simply because I have no other way to reach them.

Multiple websites and applications enable users to signup and login using their Facebook accounts. This is extremely convenient... for everybody who hasn’t been banned from Facebook. Once you’re banned, all access to the sites and applications you signed up for using your Facebook account is disabled. It doesn’t matter if these sites have nothing to do with Facebook -- once you’re locked out of your Facebook profile, you’re locked out of every profile.

Facebook’s power and user base is so massive that being banned from Facebook is like being blocked from all electronic communication. A banned user is essentially in communication jail with no chance of parole -- once you’ve been banned, you’re banned for life.

Customer service? What customer service?

As a free platform, Facebook relies on advertisers to make a profit. You might assume that because advertisers are the backbone of Facebook’s income they would be given the best customer service possible. Quite the opposite! Unless you are a household-name company, all of your customer service requests will be met with an automated reply. Only those well-known brands are given a human point of contact for their questions or concerns.

As for the rest of us? Facebook couldn’t care less. After being banned I reached out to Facebook and received an automated reply. I compiled and submitted the documents they requested to restore my account, but never heard back from them. So I contacted them again and again. Radio silence.

My experience is not unique. Content is constantly being removed from Facebook and users are being banned, but it is almost impossible for the average consumer to connect with a live customer service representative instead of a robot. Keep in mind that Facebook employs thousands of content reviewers who spend only seconds judging each piece of controversial content. If Facebook can afford to employ all of these reviewers, why can’t they staff their customer service department with live representatives?

The ideal Facebook

Facebook is highly conservative and idealist platform. They try to control and filter content, showing only what they think is best to the “community”.

“We're also focused on building a more informed community. We see Facebook as a community, and ourselves, our role, as supporting that community. We don't write the news that you read, but we want to be a place where people can access information and have meaningful conversations, and this is a responsibility that we take very seriously...Our primary goal here is to do the right thing for our community. If we can help people stay informed and make Facebook a better place to understand what's going on in the world, then we think that's going to make our community stronger and a more positive force for good in the world.”
- Mark Zuckerberg via Facebook’s 2017 Annual Report

Wouldn’t it be great for YOU as the user to decide what kind of content YOU want to see – and not get it selected and prefiltered by Facebook? Facebook is a dictatorship and not a community. We want a space to discuss our ideas with like minded people who we have chosen to connect with.

They claim their mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”, but how the world can be open if it’s heavily filtered and users are prone to being blocked when they break Facebook’s arbitrary rules?

Each user has the power to follow pages and profiles that interest them, and the ability to join private groups for sharing and discussion. Why should content be censored even within these private groups, many of which have their own self-selected moderators? If a user is offended by content they personally deem inappropriate, they are free to unfollow those pages, unfriend those posters, and leave those groups.

The decision of what content is appropriate and what content isn’t should be left up to each individual’s discretion, not the preferences of a nameless content reviewer. A solution would be to allow each user to select which kind of material they do and do not want to see. For example, you could set your preferences to show political posts but hide any posts referencing reality television. This way you have greater control over your own feed.

Using this method would also allow advertisers to market adult content to Facebook users. Google has an excellent ad program that allows adult advertisements to be shown to users who are searching for adult content, an ability that can be turned off and on through the SafeSearch feature. If Facebook users could choose to restrict or allow adult content, then the advertising system would be made much more logical and fair to businesses.

Titties on Facebook and other adult content

There has been much controversy lately centered around the censorship of female nipples on Facebook and Instagram, which bans all “graphic content” showing a female areola. Watch the outcry when a photo of a woman breastfeeding is removed. “Breastfeeding isn’t sexual! If male nipples are allowed female nipples should be as well!” protesters cry.

But that isn’t exactly true. Breastfeeding can be seen as sexual by a person who gets aroused by it. Determining what content is sexual and what content elicits sexual response is impossible because everyone is attracted to different things.You might find a photo of a woman wearing a short skirt arousing, while it does nothing for your friend. Your neighbor might find pictures of feet sexy, which you aren’t interested in. What is “sexual” or “graphic” content is therefore left up to the viewer to decide.

Keep in mind that all content moderation is done by thousands of real people, employees that Facebook has hired to go through all flagged posts. Each individual has the power to decide which posts should be deleted -- meaning the determining factor on what is and isn’t inappropriate is completely dependent on the attitude and opinions of each content reviewer. The subjective nature of the reviewing process becomes problematic when you realize that one content reviewer can delete a post that another employee wouldn’t.

By Facebook’s logic, a breastfeeding photo can be posted as long as the nipple is completely censored. But does this actually make the picture unappealing to those who find breastfeeding attractive? Of course not. Allowing only censored content is nothing but an effort for Facebook to appear more marketable to advertisers. It has absolutely nothing to do with what its users actually want.

Of course, there are many users who do not want to see pornography in their newsfeeds. But there are many people who would like to see this content. Sexual, provocative Instagram accounts have hundreds of thousands of followers, proving that there is a market for adult content on social media. Facebook users should be permitted to Like pages that post this kind of material if they so choose. Twitter and Tumblr let users tag their own content as “adult”, which is then only visible to those who have set up their preferences to let adult content on their feeds. Why can’t Facebook adopt a similar model?

The report culture

Just because one finds something offensive doesn’t make it actually offensive or morally wrong. Many people report posts that they personally disagree with, even if it isn’t technically breaking any rules. We see this all the time with Democrats and Republicans reporting each other's political posts, as if a conflicting opinion is violating any terms or regulations of Facebook.

Many people get a sense of satisfaction from reporting content they disagree with and seeing it removed. Facebook gives every user the ability to hide specific posts as well as all posts from specific users. Instead of promoting the report feature, Facebook should emphasise the ability of the hide feature to remove content that one finds offensive. This would lead users to realize that they can simply unfollow or unfriend profiles that are posting material that they disagree with.

Problems with the current closed application store system

There are some open websites which allow all kinds of content, barring child pornography, narcotic sales, and anything else that breaks an actual law. The most popular of these sites are 4chan and Gap, which allow their uses to chose what type of content they want to see.

Open websites like 4chan and Gap are unable to make mobile applications. All apps are controlled by Alphabet (Android) and Apple (iOS) and they do not allow material that doesn’t suit their brand. These corporations aren’t worried about the morality of the content, they are worried about their brand image and the possibility of losing clients or facing criticism in the media.

Apps like Tumblr allow pornography – but only if you enable it via web interface instead of within the app settings. It sounds like a joke, but it is the only way for Tumblr to keep their app available for iOS and Android. It is only a matter of time until Apple and Alphabet force Tumblr to completely filter out pornographic content from their mobile app.

Open websites like 4chan have a huge user base. People want 4chan, but big corporations are afraid of what these unfiltered users might do to their public image. The fear is that advertisers won’t want to work with their brand anymore if they have been linked to any kind of obscene content. But how can “obscene” content ruin a brand if the users have selected to see the very content in question?

The End

I would appreciate it if you could share this page with your friends. I know there are lots of others like me who are getting destroyed as collateral damage when Facebook tries to filter out the really bad guys.

Who knows, tomorrow might find you searching for a solution after one too many controversial posts gets you banned.

You can reach me at niko@facebook-banned.com. I've had plenty of letters from people who have been blocked from Facebook. Keep sending those and I will try my best to get your account back.

And Zuckerberg, please unban me.

Best regards,
Niko Viitala