As reported by Hilary Hanson in the Huffington Post, Facebook, for a day or so, banned the phrase "everyone will know" from being posted and sent through Facebook Messenger. According to Hanson, several people began experiencing the same failure, as evidenced by multiple threads about it popping up on places like Question.com, and, of course, on Reddit.
Depending on where you tried to use it, either Facebook Messenger or Facebook itself, you would received the following alert:
Our security systems have detected that a lot of people are posting the same content, which could mean that it's spam. Please try a different post. If you think you're seeing this by mistake, please let us know.
Other attempts to post the phrase created a message about failing to "Like" something and a reminder to read Facebook's community standards information. Several commenters wondered if this was some kind of Halloween prank, because it seemed very spooky that such a harmless phrase, which became weirdly ominous in this context, would be censored.
Hanson got to the bottom of things; according to Facebook, the reason behind the ban was much more innocuous than censorship or a prank. Melanie Ensign of Facebook security communications told Hanson that it was simply a mistake in filtering. Apparently an update to their "spam-fighting engine" (which is a funny image if you think about it) caused the phrase "everyone will know" to be included on the list of words to watch out for. But the Facebook engineers got on it, and the problem was resolved.
I agree that the brief and mistaken censorship of this phrase feels ominous, but not for any Halloween-related reason. Facebook is a privately-owned company. So are Google, Twitter, Snapchat, and all the other social networks. Because they are privately owned, they have to right to control what content is allowed and not allowed on their service.
This is kind of a given when dealing with private ownership, but we are entering an age where an increasing proportion of our everyday communication is moving through privately owned channels. Our phone communication (and television broadcasts) had the protection of the government and rights because technically the airwaves were limited and publicly owned. There are private television companies, yes, but also public television, and even local public access, if you were desperate.
Social Media has no such regulation outside of already extant laws against threats of violence, and these are poorly enforced.
Naomi Klein's book No Logo describes how physical public spaces like markets and parks have become increasingly privatized into things like shopping malls, which, via private ownership, have the right to limit what people can do and say there. Protest in front of a government building? Fine. Protest in front of a shopping mall? You'll have to do it on the sidewalk way outside the parking lot, because the rest is private property.
I'm not saying we need some sort of new regulatory body or great expansion of oversight for social media. Nor am I saying censorship is actually happening right now, at least that I am aware of. Nor do I think social networks shouldn't have the right to remove hate speech and threats, as stopping that is in everyone's best interests.
Right now, people can and often do criticize Facebook on Facebook. But what if we get to the point where Facebook doesn't want to let that happen anymore? What if Facebook goes through a scandal, and internally decides that any posts discussing that scandal will be automatically sent to the bottom of the news feed?
These are real risks, and they are worthy of a thorough and public discussion. What seems ominous is we're not having one.