Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

How I landed in Facebook jail—A cautionary tale for churches that rely too much on social media

November 10, 2021

For months now I’ve been preaching to church leaders about the importance of building email lists rather than relying on social media platforms to engage people. My own advice has come home to roost, and today I’m sharing about my experience so you might not tread down the same path and end up in… (cue the dramatic music) Facebook jail.

Facebook jail is a term used whenever Facebook, or any other social media platform for that matter, bans you for bad behavior. This might involve taking away your ability to post for a time or to go live. The net effect of this depends on how much you rely on these platforms to connect with your community: for some of us, this is inconsequential. In fact, some of us might even consider a break from Facebook a welcomed blessing.

For others, it affects more than one might realize.

How it happened

As a member of the Board of Governors of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute (TDBI), I am passionate about telling the story of the Institute, its namesake, and the environment that made Bonhoeffer’s life and witness so important. In 2005 I made a film called “Theologians Under Hitler,” which did not focus on Bonhoeffer’s life as much as it set the context for why he was so extraordinary. It told the story of important church leaders whose public support of Hitler helped give validation to his brutal regime and atrocities. As a recent fundraiser for TDBI, I held a Facebook Live event in which I streamed my film, answered questions, and showed clips of well-known supporters of TDBI, all in an effort to raise money for the Institute.

The event was, in my estimation, very successful, with a large number of attendees and generous donations! It all went off without a hitch.

So, just to recap, I screened a film on Facebook Live that detailed a part of history, and especially church history, where things went terribly wrong, all to highlight the good work of an institution that attempts to learn from this history, to train pastors and church leaders to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

But you see, (again, cue the dramatic music) the Facebook algorithm only sees the form and not the substance of the material on the platform. Can you tell what it might have objected to in my post?

I’m guessing it flagged me because it didn’t like that I posted the name of “Hitler.”

While still feeling the buzz of a successful event, I received a notice from Facebook that my post had been taken offline because it violated community guidelines. I would not be permitted to post for 24 hours, and Facebook Live would be off-limits for an entire month.

Wow! Really? Seriously, Mr. Algorithm Overlord?

As my righteous anger welled within, I immediately pressed the button that made it known that I strenuously objected to this judgment. The algorithm warned me that it could be 24-48 hours before my protest would be acted upon.

Surprisingly within minutes, I was greeted by a message that read something like, “My bad! Your post didn’t violate community guidelines at all! How could I have been so stupid?” I breathed a sigh of relief. I had been arrested under false pretenses, had to spend an hour at the Facebook police station, but was released without charge moments later.

No harm, no foul: after all, I appreciate Facebook’s need to police the platform after aiding and abetting the January 6th insurrection at the US Capitol. My inconvenience was a small price to pay.

Oddly, though, three weeks later I am still unable to switch on a Facebook Live session.

Of course, this all could have been avoided, in theory. Let the victim-blaming ensue. Yes, you’re correct: this could have been avoided if I hadn’t used the name “Hitler” in my post. Yes, I did disagree with the decision. Yes, I have filed an official complaint through their difficult-to-access complaint system. And no, I’ve had no satisfaction with my complaint, and I am still unable to use Facebook Live.

Oh, wait—none of this matters. I was released from Facebook jail without charge, a complete vindication of my righteous cause. So why can I not livestream? Why am I still a citizen of the empire in good standing, but after three weeks can’t go live?

For months now I’ve been preaching to church leaders about the importance of building email lists rather than relying on social media platforms to engage people. My own advice has come home to roost, and today I’m sharing about my experience so you might not tread down the same path and end up in… (cue the dramatic music) Facebook jail.

Ok, so what? Why is this a problem?

As a business owner, I have to engage people in every way imaginable. Because I can’t go “live” using my own account, I can’t do it through any of the pages I manage either. As a part of my business, I teach pastors and church leaders how to broadcast and engage in this new online-church environment more effectively. I’ve spent a fair amount of money building a studio that demonstrates what’s possible, that we don’t have to rely on laptop webcams that look up our noses as we host Zoom calls. It’s hard to do that work when your most accessible audience cannot see you.

It also means I cannot control the Facebook Live sessions that I manage for clients. An organization’s company page cannot be accessed directly; it can only be accessed through a personal page. Sure, there are workarounds, such as using different accounts and such, but trust me, it’s difficult and tedious, and Facebook works aggressively to prevent doing this.

Is the lesson here that we should all just stay away from using potentially problematic keywords as we post to Facebook? No. If we are doing the work of a faithful church, we will inevitably run into the same kinds of problems that I’ve recently had.

Email is your friend; social media is not

I write this as a cautionary tale to you, faithful leader, who might have slipped onto the Road More Traveled. As we have all found Facebook to be somewhat friendly toward building community, sharing information, and broadcasting ministries during this time of pandemic, the community we build there does not belong to us. Who does it belong to? Facebook, and it is subject to the arbitrary rule of the algorithm, the artificial intelligence-driven police force. Even more alarming, the time and energy we’ve spent building communities on Facebook is subject to the whims of the Grand Overlord: shareholder value, not the loving Spirit of the living God whom we as faith leaders serve.

Put simply, the “likes” you’ve gathered on your church’s page do not belong to you, and therefore put your organization at risk.

This is why I’m glad I have spent time and energy building a robust email list. As imperfect as it is, my list is a digital asset that belongs to me. It can’t be arbitrarily shut down; open rates are determined by the quality of content I provide, not what an external algorithm determines is worthy.

Steven D. Martin is founder of The Lakelands Institute and a member of the Board of Governors of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute. He is also a member of the Advisory Council of The Christian Citizen. Used by permission. To sign up for The Lakelands Institute newsletter or learn how to develop an effective email list, visit here.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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