These are the facts in the Case of the Missing Web Page: The week before the election, a Cal student put up a page on Facebook.com criticizing Berkeley City Council candidate George Beier, an advertiser on the site. Three times that week, the student's page was removed. Why? How? Facebook ain't talkin'.
Tech-savvy politicians realize that one of the best ways to reach young voters now is through social-networking sites such as the Palo Alto-based Facebook.com. Geared toward students, it lets them post profiles, link to friends, and set up "groups" pages about topics that interest them. All the candidates from Districts 7 and 8, which cover the campus, were on the site, either with paid ads, groups run by student supporters or, for the Cal alums, their own profiles.
Beier, who narrowly lost to incumbent Kriss Worthington in District 7, had all three. "It's a great way to get your message out," he says. Beier praises Facebook as cheap, efficient, and a better way to initiate dialogue with students than walking precincts. "An odd thing about District 7," he says, "is it has students, but a student candidate has never won, and it's because they don't vote very well. Anything you can do to encourage student participation is great."
But Cal senior Nathan Danielsen thought Beier's Facebook campaign was a bit too prominent. He didn't like the ads of Beier's smiling face popping up all the time, and he found the candidate's campaign page vague too many promises, not enough biography. The student already had taken swipes at Beier on his personal blog, BerkeleyExperience.blogspot.com, and on November 1, he transferred his criticisms to Facebook. His group's title was hardly subtle: "Who Is George Beier? Kinda Creepy."
"Dear Mr. Beier," Danielsen wrote, "you never told us who you are or where you come from. Never said why we should trust you. What are your political credentials? What's your track record? ... What are you hiding?" Danielsen then logged off, and headed to the student union the next morning to fill in his absentee ballot.
While offline, Danielsen received an e-mail response, dictated by Beier to his student campaign coordinator Robby Kaufman. The letter, now posted on Danielsen's blog, gave a comprehensive overview of Beier's credentials: Haas School of Business grad who founded and later sold a Berkeley software company; ex-president of the Willard Neighborhood Association; past or current member of various city commissions. The candidate offered to chat with Danielsen, and later even tried calling him.
Problem solved? Not really. Three minutes after the e-mail arrived, Danielsen's group page was removed from Facebook. This, he concluded, was a direct political hit.
Facebook lets users flag pages for removal if someone posts problematic content, and users must agree to abstain from anything "threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise objectionable."
Facebook sent Danielsen an e-mail warning that he'd violated the site's terms and was in danger of having his account disabled, but he was pretty sure calling someone "creepy" doesn't constitute abuse. "I assumed what had happened was that George Beier spent a lot of money advertising on Facebook and when he saw an opposition student group formed against him, he flagged it as offensive," Danielsen says.
Beier denies it, but says it's possible a campaign worker flagged it without his knowledge. (Kaufman, who handled the Facebook part of the campaign, did not respond to interview requests.) Beier, meanwhile, chuckles at the thought that his less-than-$1,000-worth of ads won him preferential treatment from a national company. He says he never cared about squelching the "Kinda Creepy" group; he just wanted to address Danielsen's concerns. Plus, Beier points out, soon after Danielsen's page disappeared, his did, too.
This is where things start getting weird. Neither Beier nor Danielsen were told why their pages had vanished, but within a couple of days they were back up. After some e-mail back-and-forth, a Facebook rep assured Danielsen that his page was removed in error by customer support and made no mention of it being flagged as abusive. "There was some confusion here as to what exactly the intent of the group was," the rep wrote. "We have re-enabled your group and removed the warning from your account information." By the evening of November 3, "Kinda Creepy" was back online.
Then, just a few hours later, it was shut down again. Danielsen hammered out more upset e-mails demanding details about Facebook's "abuse" policies and what, exactly, was the problem. "The section that I believe applies to me is vague and described by one of my friends as full of 'weasel words,'" Danielsen wrote. He didn't get an answer, but his page was reinstated.
On November 6, election eve, it was removed a third time.
Again, Danielsen complained, and again, customer service insisted it'd been a mistake. By this point, it hardly mattered. The election was hours away, and Danielsen figured the frequent shutdowns had cost him his audience. His concern now was more philosophical: What are the rules when a private company controls a medium for public, political discourse?
It's a fair question, given that Facebook and its brethren sites like MySpace and YouTube are increasingly go-to spots for politicians wishing to woo twentysomethings. With ten million registered users, Facebook is ranked as the fortieth-most-popular US Web site by ComScore Media Metrix, which measures Web traffic. Facebook has not been shy about encouraging users to express themselves politically. Its "Election 2006 network," which posted candidate profiles, attracted 1.5 million users; its "Election Pulse" page, which tracked how many of those users were supporting various candidates by linking to their profiles, accurately predicted Jim Webb's Senate victory in Virginia and Jon Tester's in Montana.
But who or what moderates these discussions? Is it filtering software that trolls sites for forbidden words and automatically suspends offending pages? Is it up to users to police one another a Wikipedian process that, come election season, can be fraught with hidden interests? Do real, live employees play a role? If so, Danielsen says, the people moderating discussions about Berkeley politics could be far from Berkeley. "This is really a discussion about local politics, and you are having people who are very removed I don't know if they are in Palo Alto or India or whatever and they are making decisions that could really limit other people's legitimate criticisms," he says.
"Sure, I understand there are community standards of decency and what's appropriate and what's libel and slander," Danielsen continues, "but increasingly our society is moving online and when private companies own these very public places, how are we going to make sure that people can legitimately speak their minds and discuss political issues?"
On this point Beier agrees. "What's [Facebook's] obligation to tell us how they screen these messages and what the rules are?" he says. "It's brand-new territory. With the First Amendment, we've had case law for two hundred years. You know you can say, 'I think you're a jerk,' but you can't yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater because there's been enough precedent. But there isn't precedent for Facebook."
Still, as an election-season target, Beier knows how damaging a few disgruntled comments can be in the Internet echo chamber, and cautions that a "guilty until proven innocent" approach, in which questionable pages are suspended until they can be reviewed, is a useful protection. "Facebook is a powerful tool," he says. "Maybe there has to be a higher standard."
But did nobody vet the complaints before deleting the page? Why was Danielsen told there'd been a "mistake" if, in fact, someone had flagged his group? And why did this happen three times? Can a single perhaps spurious accusation be enough to silence a critic? And if Facebook is to play an important role in how students experience politics, shouldn't it be crystal clear what's fair game during a campaign season? Facebook had no comment.
Oh, yeah: Just one more thing before we stash this in the unsolved mysteries file. That absentee ballot, the one Danielsen filled in while his group was being deleted? He voted for George Beier.