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Where is the Facebook Oversight Board for the Rest of Us?

Eight years ago someone I once taught at Sacramento Country Day School told me about a problem he had with Facebook. His small nonprofit had a popular Facebook page, but a former supporter had grown disenchanted and lashed out by creating an imposter page and posting material that upset readers who thought they were viewing the real thing.

That was bad, but what was worse was he couldn’t get Facebook to do anything about it. At the time I was the executive editor of a legal publication, and I assigned a reporter to write a story about it. She wasn’t able to get a response from Facebook either.

Times have changed. There’s now a Facebook Oversight Board to which Facebook users like our former president can appeal decisions like the one the social media company made when it suspended his account. But how much has Facebook really changed?

Shortly after the Oversight Board ruled on May 5 that Facebook must issue a decision on the Trump suspension with a specific time frame and rationale—which it recently did—a friend of mine got in touch. “I never thought I’d have anything in common with Donald Trump,” he said. He’d had three Facebook pages of his own disabled, he explained.

The irony is that what happened to my friend, a prominent lawyer and author, could be viewed as worse than what happened to Trump. It made no sense, was never explained, and after he managed to get one page restored, Facebook left him frozen with no recourse.

What he discovered is what my former student had learned nearly a decade earlier: There’s no board to review the decisions Facebook makes for the rest of us.

My friend’s name is Andrew Vachss. For decades his legal practice has been devoted exclusively to representing children and advocating on their behalf. To reach a wider audience, Vachss began writing novels about child abuse. They succeeded beyond anything he could have imagined. Knopf published dozens of his books. In recent years, his Facebook pages have become important tools to reach not only his legion of fans but a younger audience. Until Facebook inexplicably pulled the plug.

At the time, Vachss had “fan” pages that reached followers of two series of books he wrote. He also had a “personal” page that allowed him to communicate with a maximum of 5,000 “friends.” And there was a “public” page that came with no limits. Three pages were suddenly knocked out. Only one of the fan pages was unaffected. Afterwards, he received a message from Facebook with the subject line: “A friend reported a profile pretending to be you.” (My former student would have cheered if he’d ever gotten something like that.)

Facebook asked Vachss to show proof of his identity. When he did, his personal page was restored. But one fan page and his public page were still down. He wrote again to point this out. He reminded Facebook that the three pages it had disabled shared the same identifying information.

The public page was by far the most important of the four, Vachss told me. Because it was unlimited, it reached many times the number of friends allowed on his personal page. It was the venue that allowed him to introduce his work to younger readers. And he sometimes used it to publicize causes his followers might want to contribute to.

Finally Facebook seemed to restore it. But upon further inspection, not quite. Yes, there was a profile photo and a few lines of biographical information (with an error that hadn’t been there before). But that was it. All of the posts that had accumulated since 2008 were gone. On top of that, Vachss no longer had the ability to post on his own page. So Facebook’s “restoration” of his most important page left it the functional equivalent of an embalmed corpse.

But Facebook wasn’t done. Instead of responding to requests to restore the page, weeks later it further flayed the remains. It scaled back the biographical information, changed the number of people listed as “followers” of the page from about 3,900 to 27. And it even removed the profile photo.

Vachss has never shied from a battle. This would seem to be an open-and-shut case for the most effective lawyer I have ever seen, only there is no court for ordinary people. There isn’t even customer service or a chat function.

I wonder how many others are waiting for their day in Facebook court.