Facebook Hampers Do-It-Yourself Mask Efforts

SAN FRANCISCO — As health workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic plead for personal protective equipment, volunteer efforts to create hand-sewn masks and deliver them to medical professionals have quickly sprung up across the internet.

But those efforts were hampered by Facebook’s automated content moderation systems over the past week, according to sewing organizers who have used the social network to coordinate donation campaigns.

Facebook’s systems threatened to ban the organizers of hand-sewn masks from posting or commenting, they said, landing them in what is colloquially known as “Facebook Jail.” They said it also threatened to delete the groups. The issue has affected do-it-yourself mask makers in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, they said.

Facebook has long struggled to distinguish between innocuous and malicious content on its site. While the Silicon Valley giant has relied on automated systems to flag and remove posts that violate its terms of service, those systems can have trouble spotting nuance and can sometimes be overly aggressive or make mistakes in identifying what may need to be taken down.

In recent weeks, Facebook has worked to clamp down on potentially harmful coronavirus content. It has created teams to deal with the issue and has banned certain types of posts specifically related to the virus.

At the top of its list were ads for masks, hand sanitizer and others looking to profit from the sale of safety equipment. Facebook banned advertising for such equipment last month, and has taken down nearly all posts related to the sale of masks across its Craigslist-like section, called Marketplace.

But as the company ramped up efforts to crack down on scammers and other miscreants, volunteer coordinators may have been caught in the crossfire.

“The automated systems we set up to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers have inadvertently blocked some efforts to donate supplies,” Facebook said in a statement. “We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward. We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people doing a good thing.”

Those who were affected include Nicole Jochym, a student at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, N.J. She recently put out a call on Facebook for people to use household materials to make their own versions of the masks to donate to medical workers.

Her volunteer organization, Sew Face Masks Philadelphia, has grown to thousands of supporters since it became active in early March. More than 3,500 people have subscribed to her group’s Facebook page alone.

“Our platform has become even more of a useful tool for our community members to engage with each other” said Ms. Jochym, 33.

But over the past few days, Ms. Jochym said Facebook’s systems flagged some of the posts from the community, marking them as breaking its guidelines against regulated goods and services.

Those whose posts were flagged or taken down were given a warning, and eventually threatened with being unable to post or comment on the site if other posts were flagged.

Melissa Knapp, a moderator for the Sew Face Masks for Quincy, IL Healthcare Workers Facebook group, said she has received numerous messages threatening to limit her posts. Moderators of similar groups also complained in private Facebook messages that they have received warnings.

Muddled messaging from government agencies on whether people should be using face masks may have compounded the problem. Officials initially warned people not to buy personal protective gear like masks for fear that there would not be enough for health care workers. But last week, the Center for Disease Control advised people to start wearing masks in public.

Moderators said they believed the mixed messaging led to confusion at some of the big tech platforms, including Facebook.

“We support Facebook in their efforts in removing unethical sales” from their platform,” Ms. Jochym said. “But we are hoping that they can update their procedures to protect community organizations such as ours.”

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