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Opinion

The day Facebook betrayed me

Social media giant should help democracies thrive

| Philippines
Social media platforms such as Facebook have served as the last refuge for defenders of civil liberties and democratic pluralism.   © Reuters

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

For media practitioners and liberal thinkers working under the shadow of authoritarian populism, the past four years have been nothing short of hellish.

This is especially true in besieged democracies such as the Philippines, where tens of thousands of alleged extrajudicial killings have coincided with a systematic crackdown on independent media outlets.

At the height of the pandemic, President Rodrigo Duterte's allies oversaw the shutdown of the country's largest media outlet, ABS-CBN, while swiftly approving a new anti-terror law that could potentially criminalize democratic opposition. Today, Maria Ressa -- our country's most prominent journalist -- faces detention on the most dubious of charges.

No person with a political conscience has been spared. As an outspoken writer and public educator, I have had to endure not only constant trolling and harassment -- including bizarre subpoenas and petitions to have me jailed -- but even threats to my career and my life.

There were nights when I could not sleep, worrying about the threat of being imprisoned. There were days when the sight of motorcycles on the horizon, with helmet-wearing riders in dark jackets, sent jitters down my spine. At one point, I considered learning how to use a handgun for self-protection, realizing that my decades-long martial arts training would not cut it. It's almost impossible to describe the full range of fears I have felt in recent years.

With fragile democratic institutions in such distress -- and the mainstream media under such pressure -- social media platforms such as Facebook have served as the last refuge for defenders of civil liberties and democratic pluralism. So when I discovered in late-October that my own Facebook page -- a verified account that prominently displays my mainstream media affiliations -- had suddenly been deactivated without explanation, I felt as if I had been stabbed in the back.

Despite countless inquiries, including a formal letter to Facebook's Manila office, it took more than a month before Facebook acknowledged that my being denied access to my page had been a mistake. "This Page was restricted in error and we reinstated it as soon as we became aware of our mistake. We apologise for any distress caused," a Facebook company spokesperson said in an email.

Still, I remain unconvinced. Facebook's Manila office never responded to any of my queries, and it was only when I went higher up -- to Facebook managers based outside the Philippines -- that action was taken to restore my page.

After spending almost a decade in the Middle East, including a visit to Cairo just months before the 2011 revolution, I fully understand the power social media platforms have when it comes to bringing about political change under the most oppressive conditions. And it goes beyond politics and revolts.

As Facebook's chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, wrote in the article "How an open internet can power Asia-Pacific's economic recovery" published on Nov. 19, social media platforms have become an integral part of our daily lives, even a "lifeline."

Protecting and enhancing the open internet has never been more important, especially in developing countries, where Facebook has become the primary means for direct and unencumbered communication with the broader masses. Facebook is the one place where we can -- in plain language and devoid of editorial embellishment -- discuss human rights, due process, and democratic discourse.

Facebook is freely available to a wide majority including the poor and people living in remote areas.   © The Washington Post/Getty Images

For those of us who believe in a pluralistic society and the value of rational discourse, Facebook has not only been a powerful platform but a partner for the preservation of our most cherished democratic principles. And then one day in October, I suddenly noticed that my Facebook page -- with more than a hundred thousand followers and millions of engagements -- had been "unpublished" for supposedly going "against our [Facebook] Community Standards." Now that was strange.

At first, I thought it was a simple glitch, something to do with the introduction of a new algorithm to stave off disinformation campaigns ahead of the U.S. presidential election. Some of my colleagues suspected that perhaps people seeking to silence critics of Duterte had reported false violations of Facebook's community standards.

I waited patiently waited for Facebook to sort it out, and I had reasons to be optimistic: when multiple posts on my page were mistakenly flagged earlier this year, they were quickly remedied. I also believed that if there were any specific posts that violated Facebook's community rules, surely they could be taken down on a case to case basis.

Nevertheless, posting anything that could be considered graphic, defamatory, or, worse, an incitement to violence or hatred, is contrary to my fundamental values. And as someone who works a lot with the media, as well as leading academic institutions both at home and abroad, this is something I have worked very hard to avoid.

Sadly, during the time I was prevented from posting on my own Facebook page, others -- including trolls -- were still able to post in my comments section. Moreover, the Facebook pages of some of the Philippines' most notorious purveyors of disinformation -- including those who have victimized and threatened me throughout the years -- remain fully functional.

As I pondered whether to take this issue public, I wrestled with my disconcerting predicament: on the one hand an authoritarian regime and its rabid supporters; on the other, an opaque social media behemoth that had shut me down without explanation. I have never felt so helpless.

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