Chicago, June 22nd, 2017. The conference hall is packed. Ecstatic crowds check out their “personalized schedules” included on their neck lanyards. Electronic music, which could successfully serve as background music in a shopping mall starts playing in the room. Phones up, ready to take photos. He appears on the scene.
Before we start, let me introduce myself. I’m Mark.
A wave of laughter fills the room, and the hero of the evening joins the amused crowds. These two words come out of Mark Zuckerberg’s mouth.
Mark is being playful and tells people that he also belongs to a number of Facebook groups. He and his family post pictures of dogs that look like mops, but with a muzzle. Mark is also an admin of a group for people who love the game Civilization. The group has only 52 members but Mark assures his audience that he knows the struggles of group admins very well.
“I have to screen a bunch of requests from people who don’t actually play the game, so I know what you all have to go through.”
But all jokes aside — Mark, the Civilization guy with a cute doggo, is simultaneously a co-founder and chief executive officer of Facebook. Mark came to Chicago to explain one fundamental thing: what is Facebook? In short, Facebook is about “bringing the world closer together”. In other words, Zuckerberg convinces the audience that he understands their situation. “You started a group you care about, and now thousands of people depend on you to keep that community strong,” the founder of Facebook kicks off his speech. “I can relate to this,” continues Zuckerberg. “I started Facebook to connect my college. I always thought one day someone would connect the whole world, but I never thought it would be us. I would have settled for connecting my whole dorm. We were just college kids. But we cared so much about this idea – that all people want to connect.”
Mark says how impressed he is by people running these Facebook groups: “you’re not running these groups because it’s going to look good on your resume. You’re doing it because you care about bringing people together.”
Warsaw, June 6th, 2018. The office of Political Critique (Krytyka Polityczna) magazine. The voice recorder is on, the battery – tested. Jurek Afansjew, an activist from the Social Initiative for Drug Policy (SIN), arrives at the office. He brings the leaflets included in the drug tests. However, these are not the tests that overprotective parents buy for their children. Little cups sold and distributed by SIN are intended for the users of psychoactive substances. This way, they can verify whether crystal meth or a gram of another drug that they buy at a party is what they think it is.
Jurek was an admin of a Facebook page and website. He wasn’t running them because it was going to look good on his resume, but because he cared about bringing people together so that they could share their experiences.
“We educate people at parties and on the internet. On our page, we published warnings about substances. Like this one, for example: “If you want to take a tab with this particular logo, we don’t recommend taking more than one fourth, because it’s exceptionally strong,” explains calmly Jurek.
Both the Facebook page and the group were shut down by Facebook’s administration. On the group “SIN – MDMA department” (SIN – Sekcja talerzy) people would exchange information regarding the composition and strength of the MDMA tabs. The group had four thousand members. The Facebook page of the Social Initiative for Drug Policy reached fifteen thousand fans. There, they could read about anything related to harm reduction of substance use – advice on how not to hurt themselves when using the substance.
Before both pages were deleted, they had been suspended.
“Okay, I can even understand that [Facebook] is a huge international corporation, and they did not understand that we were not advertising drugs on our group, that we were just posting warnings about them. We paid a lot of attention to the content posted on our group. There wasn’t any encouragement to drug consumption, and we were definitely not selling any drugs,” ensures Afansjew.
Two months before the page of the Social Initiative for Drug Policy was deleted, Facebook had classified it as a non-profit organization.
“Later, we only got a warning that the post about a tab with Nespresso logo “violates community standards.” They shut down the group, and then the whole page.
FB Community Standards, I. Violence and Criminal Behavior, 5. Regulated Goods, section “Do not post”: “To encourage safety and compliance with common legal restrictions, we prohibit attempts by individuals, manufacturers, and retailers to purchase, sell, or trade non-medical drugs, pharmaceutical drugs, and marijuana.”
But nobody was selling drugs on the SIN page or on their Facebook group. Substance users would report to the administrators that such and such substance appeared on the market. Then, the admins would do research on MDMA and include information on potential effects of using that particular substance. No one on the group was cultivating a fantasy that we live in a “drug-free” world. Active users of substances would exchange their knowledge regarding risks and dangers associated with MDMA intake.
Facebook’s community standards are restrictive not only with respect to online drug-dealing. Here’s an excerpt from a document which sets rules for moderating the content on the social platform:
“Do not post: Content about non-medical drugs (other than alcohol or tobacco) that admits, either in writing or verbally, to personal use of non-medical drugs unless posted in a recovery or harm reduction context.”
The research conducted for many years by organizations affiliated with the UN reveal that you can talk about your experiences with drugs on Facebook only when you belong to 0.5% inhabitants of Earth. Why? According to the findings of the researchers, just above 5% of the global population use some sort of drug at least once a year. Problems resulting from drug use occur for every 10th person out of this 5% (and the problem is not always limited to “addiction”). Now multiply one statistic by the other.
“And what are you going to do now?”, I ask Jurek about his plans for SIN’s online activity after Facebook had thrown them out of the door.
“Everyone keeps asking me about it as if some sort of tragedy happened,” says Afansjew with irritation. “We are a serious organization and I’m sure that I don’t want to waste time on setting up another group, just so that it gets shut down instantly. Possibly, in five years nobody will be using Facebook. We are developing our website, store, and keep educating people at parties. The moon doesn’t care for barking dogs.”
Recently, profiles of groups that focus on harm reduction of substance use were deleted from Zuckerberg’s platform. The Social Initiative for Drug Policy will not die just because its profile was banned on Facebook. The problem is not exclusively related to the standards of this particular online community. Recently, Youtube shut down a channel with a graceful name “KnowYourDope” (WiemCoĆpiem). In his videos, the youtuber discusses risks and effects involved in the use of psychoactive substances.
Even though SIN declares that it will make do without access to the largest social network, it still decided to join other organizations in a petition to Joel D. Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global public policy.
“Substance abuse continues to be one of the major struggles of today,” begin organizations who initiated the petition. “A factor that is significantly contributing to the problem is, on top of drugs, scarcity of information about their dangers and practical ways to mitigate those.”
Then, petitioners explain what harm reduction is about. They rely on the World Health Organization, which supports the thesis that not just abstinence, but also harm reduction has a positive influence on public health.
“Videos, groups, and profiles from online communities and non-governmental organizations that provide harm reduction services are being removed by Facebook and Instagram due to “not meeting Community Standards”. And this is endangering seriously the valuable work of the harm reduction community.” – we read further in the petition.
Petitioners, which included organizations that advocate for drug policy reform (such as Prekursor Foundation, YODA Youth Organisations for Drug Action, Youth-RISE, Fundacja Edukacji Społecznej. DanceSafe), demand that the content of their pages is brought back and community standards changed. “It’s time for Facebook to make the distinction between drug safety information content and drug promotion content. There is no doubt that education does not promote any harmful behavior and is not in violation of the Community Standards,” they conclude.
“I will tell you one more thing,” – adds Jurek at the end of our conversation. “I was sharing a lot of my personal information with Facebook. They probably know more about me than my girlfriend does. We were giving them money. We were investing our time in that page. I spent many hours working on it. And what now? They wouldn’t even reply to us.”
Jurek Afansjew deleted his facebook account.
“You may think you’re just creating a space for new moms, or bird watchers, or locksmiths. But when you give people a way to connect and a sense of support, it can lead to important changes,” says Zuckerberg, closing his one-hour long gig in Chicago.
“We all have the power to be leaders. And if enough of us work to build community and bring people closer together, we just might change the world. Thank you so much for all you do for your communities and for the world.”