Friday 7 February 2014

How Facebook Is Destroying History - A Survey Of August 21st

This week, as Facebook celebrated it's tenth birthday, an article in The Atlantic highlighted another aspect of the Syrian conflict taking place on the pages of Facebook.  Many of us who study open source information relating to the conflict, such as YouTube and Facebook, frequently come across dead links to Facebook pages belonging to opposition groups and pro-government groups.  The Atlantic article points towards the deletion of opposition Facebook pages as being part of online campaigns run by pro-government groups
“We continue our reporting attacks,” read a typical post from December 9 on the SEA’s Facebook page. “Our next target is the Local Coordination Committee of Barzeh [a neighborhood in Damascus], the page that is a partner in shedding Syrian blood and provoking sectarian division.” It then provided two links to photos on the Barzeh page that could get the page taken down. Soon afterwards, the SEA removed its post as if it had never existed.
These deletions mean a vast amount of information is being lost, including initial reports of various events, photographs, and videos.  But how do we get a sense of how much information is being lost?

In recent weeks, I've been working on a project to gather and analyse all the information I can find relating to the August 21st Sarin attacks in Damascus.  This has included collecting a list of YouTube channels posting videos relating to the attacks, many of which have Facebook pages linked in the video descriptions.  To understand how much information is being lost, I've reviewed each channel, and detailed the status of their related Facebook pages below.

Abdullah Alshamy - No linked Facebook pages.
cmo algota - Three pages deleted, c.m.o.alghotac.m.o.alghota2c.m.o.alghota3
Coordinating Kvrbtna -  Current page, Coordinating.City.KafrBatna, created November 2013. Earlier page, kafrbatnasy, deleted.
Darya Revolution - Current page, D.M.C.Daryya, created January 2014. Earlier page, MCDDaryya, deleted.
erbeeni/erbin revo/erbinmedia1/MrERBEEN2011 - Current page, Erbinrevo2011, created November 2013.  Earlier page, erbin2011revolution, deleted.
Fadi Abdallah - No linked Facebook pages.
free syr - No linked Facebook pages.
HAMMORIAFOREVERHamoria.Revolution.Coordinating deleted.
Information Office of the consolidated city Arbin - No linked Facebook pages.
Jobar RevoJobar.Revolution deleted.
lcc doumaDouma.Revolution.lcc created in February 2013.
MajlesRifDimashq - No linked Facebook pages.
Mehmed - No linked Facebook pages.
Mohammed Saeed - No linked Facebook pages.
mrkzmoadamia alsham - Three pages deleted, Moadamiah.Revolution.Newsmjles.moadamia4alll,
Network is always free - Damascus - No linked Facebook pages.
SaqbaRevo0 - No linked Facebook pages.
Sham Media Foundation appeal Foundation.Nidaa.Alsham created April 2013.

9 channels have no Facebook links.  7 are linked to Facebook pages that are now gone (some of which have new replacement pages created after August 21st), with 2 linked to existing Facebook pages.  That means 78% of Facebook pages that could have included initial report about the August 21st attack, and relevant photographs and videos, are gone.  Compared to the hundreds, if not thousands, of YouTube pages linked to Facebook pages, this is a small sample size, but relating to the one event that took place on August 21st, this represents a extremely significant amount of information.

The question for Facebook is how they see their role in the world.  Social media is being used as a place for both sides in the Syrian conflict to get their message out, and sometimes that includes unique and important information.  This has lead to an online information war, with both sides attempting to eliminate each other from the internet, with data on war crimes and key events in the conflict being the collateral damage, if not the intended target.  Facebook has a choice, develop it's policies to take into account the changing way in which online communities and social media are being used in relation to conflicts, or to be just another place where people can share pictures of their latest meal and funny cat pictures.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at


  1. "...The question for Facebook is how they see their role in the world..."

    Asked and answered. FB is a for-profit U.S. corporation. Their evil business plans are published here: Part I of their annual 10K report describes their business. I can assure you that being an "accurate, historical repository of user content" isn't the remotest part of that plan. I would imagine that - just like Google - they will scrub content or re-index history for *anyone* for a price. And just like Google, they owe the world absolutely no client lists or explanation for their actions. That would be bad for business (and the contracts typically have pretty stiff non-disclosure clauses). They can be evil much longer than the global community can be indignant. If they don't last, then there are ten other psychopaths lined up to take their place.

    Then you can open the Pandora's box of who made the changes, what their intentions were and what the changes actually mean. This will bring a deeper appreciation to the determination of a dog frantically spinning around chasing its own tail.

    "...Facebook has a choice, develop it's policies to take into account the changing way in which online communities and social media are being used in relation to conflicts, or to be just another place where people can share pictures of their latest meal and funny cat pictures..."

    Noble thoughts... When can we expect pictures of you getting tazed at the annual shareholder's meetings for proposing this 'choice' to management?

    1. So how does youtube fare in terms of maintaining historical accuracy when compared to facebook? Where should one go to utilize social media for goals greater than conspicuios consumption and egotism?

    2. YouTube is even worse. Their account deletion policy is squishy enough that they can delete almost anything for any reason. Like FaceBook, YouTube feels no obligation to explain their actions to anybody and is mostly unreceptive to 'appeals'. They all offshore the task to content reviewers that are supposedly enforcing stated policy. Nobody at corporate cares too much about what they delete as long as it makes the overall number of complaints small.

      FB, YouTube and Twitter (and many other social media sites) consider the site's contents as their intellectual property - including anything you or anyone else posts. This is always stated somewhere in all the legalese - which nobody reads - when you sign up for an account. Facebook's situation is more murky with regards to their rights to posted videos. They have not taken any action against archivers so far (that I can tell), but they certainly will if they think they are losing traffic or profit to those sites. It's not a matter of 'if', but 'when'. It will be most unfortunate when that happens.