The day before Thanksgiving, I was happily scrolling away through my Facebook feed when suddenly everything grayed out. I thought maybe there was a problem with my Internet connection. But then, I got what I would call the Facebook “screen of death.” I was informed that my account had been suspended for unidentified “suspicious activity,” and would not be reinstated until the Facebook gods could review a photo of me and confirm my identity. Then began 36 hours of social and professional hell. This is bad enough for a regular Facebook user, but I want to explain in some detail below why not having access to Facebook can be downright dangerous for many wheelchair users, especially those who travel abroad.
Facebook suspension for “suspicious activity”
Even casual users of Facebook have probably seen either in the news or on social media that the social media giant is cracking down on fake accounts, hate speech, and other unsavory activity on its platform. This is a legitimate concern, considering that social media has been used in the past to interfere in our very own national elections.
The problem is that many innocent Facebook users and totally legitimate accounts occasionally get swept up in the dragnet. Facebook has no customer service department and is incredibly opaque about its definitions of suspicious activity and posts that violate its terms and conditions. This has left many users confused as to why their accounts got suspended, or why they got placed in what’s affectionately known as “Facebook jail.”
In my specific case, my account was suspended on two occasions, two weeks apart, for suspicious activity that was never explained or identified. The first time, I was asked to provide Facebook with a code that was sent to my cell phone, and both times I was asked to upload a photo that clearly showed my face. Facebook then said they would review my photo, but didn’t tell me how long it would take to do so. In both cases, my account was reinstated roughly two days after it was suspended. However, in doing research about this, I have seen people whose accounts have been suspended for anywhere from 10 days to two months, or never reinstated at all. I was in a panic! I could potentially lose access to thousands of photos and videos that I’ve uploaded over the last 10 years, as well as thousands of Facebook followers that it has taken me years to obtain.
I can only speculate about the suspicious activity connected to my account. I don’t believe I was hacked. Because Facebook asked for my photo both times, I think it’s possible that someone may have reported my account as fake or being managed by an imposter. Facebook does have an algorithm to identify these accounts automatically, but considering I’ve had my personal account for 10 years and this is the first time this is happened — twice in two weeks — I don’t think this is an algorithm catch. It terrifies me that anyone can report anyone else’s account as fake, potentially initiating this kind of suspension.
The impact of a Facebook suspension on business
If you are reading this, there’s a good chance that you reached this article through a Facebook post. Even though it was my personal Facebook account that got suspended, that personal account controls, in my case, seven different Facebook business pages. This includes my Spin the Globe accessible travel page, my Spin the Globe/Travel accessible travel agency page, my The PreJax Foundation nonprofit scholarship fund page, and several others.
During this time, I had zero access to any of these pages. Had I been in the middle of a paid campaign that required me to post at specific times and dates during my suspension, it could have placed me in a breach of contract. Unfortunately, I did not have a second person named as an administrator who could manage these pages during my suspension. I had no way to let my page followers know what had happened or explain why I couldn’t reply to their questions. I have since taken care of this, so if it happens again, my second admin can post or make comments or do anything else on my behalf.
In addition to my business Facebook pages, I am also either the administrator or moderator for two different accessible travel related Facebook groups. During the Facebook suspension, I can’t do my job of monitoring the contents in these groups, responding to requests to join the group, or creating any new posts.
The impact on my safety as a wheelchair user who lives and travels alone
It’s a difficult thing to admit how much we rely on social media networks in general, for a wide variety of things. It’s an amazing tool for my business, but I also very much enjoy the social aspect of it. I often travel abroad more than I’m home, so Facebook is a great way for me to stay in touch with my friends who I don’t see in person very often. It’s also a great way to share my adventures with friends, and let people know where I am and what I’m doing.
However, until access to Facebook was taken away from me, I never realized how dependent I am on the network for communication that could either get me out of a dangerous situation or potentially save my life.
There is one Facebook group I’m in called Accessible Travel Club that has almost 10,000 members around the world, and is a lifeline for wheelchair travelers like me. Almost every day, I see a post in this group from a member frantically needing assistance away from home, ranging from the need for accessible transportation to repairs with a broken mobility device. I can’t count the number of times I’ve reached out to this group for assistance in a jam while traveling abroad by myself. Being cut off from this group and other similar sources of assistance while traveling in a wheelchair is terrifying, and especially when I have no one with me.
Even worse that not having access to these travel groups is being cut off from Facebook Messenger. I have many people in my cell phone’s contact list, but there are dozens and dozens of people that I communicate with only through Facebook Messenger who are not in my phone. If something happens to me, I do have family members and friends I can communicate with directly from my cell phone. However, there are many friends and business associates I have had to reach in emergencies that are only available to me through Facebook Messenger.
During the Facebook suspension, you are completely invisible. It looks as if you have no Facebook profile and have disappeared from Messenger, so your friends and contacts have no way of finding out where you are or what happened to you unless they can contact you via email or your phone. I actually had a friend contact me through the Messenger function on LinkedIn to find out why they couldn’t find me on Facebook.
How to prevent future Facebook suspensions
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a good answer to this. I have changed my password, tightened my privacy settings, and deleted Facebook friends with whom I’ve never really been acquainted. People I know to whom this has happened have taken even more drastic security measures, and the suspensions still continue. The problem is that if someone is reporting your account as fake, no amount of security will prevent the required Facebook verification process. You can try to defend against random hacking or security attacks, but not against deliberate personal malice.
The plus side of two days without Facebook
Despite the tremendous sense of relief I felt when my account was reinstated the first time, I found it extremely funny and ironic that there was nothing I felt the immediate need to post in that moment. I was hoping to post some photos from my Thanksgiving with my parents and my sons, but the day had already come and gone. My greatest anxiety was from not being able to access my business pages.
One of the first things I did after getting reinstated was to add a second administrator to all my business pages, and have her become a member of my travel groups so she could post messages from me in my absence. I took a hard look at my security practices for social media. I came up with a plan for what to do if I was in the midst of a paid campaign and lost access to Facebook.
On the personal side, I felt more okay with losing Facebook access during my second suspension. I didn’t have anything pressing that I urgently felt the need to share, but I missed seeing what my friends around the world were up to. When you live alone and travel as often as I do, Facebook sometimes does become your social life. Part of that is sad, but part of it is amazing that I get to keep up with such a diverse group of people in so many different places. Love it or hate it, Facebook is often our only window into the world of many of our friends.
Finally, I was really surprised at how much extra time I had to get things done. I wrote more than usual, did get bored more than usual, but looked around and paid attention to things more than I normally do.
Biggest lessons learned from my Facebook suspension
- If you manage any Facebook business pages, have a second administrator who can manage them for you during your absence.
- Ask your friends with the highest number of Facebook mutual friends to post about what happened to you to help get the word out if need be.
- Make sure you have backup copies of all photos and videos that you upload to Facebook. Don’t use the platform as your primary media repository!
- Go through your messenger contacts and ask for phone numbers of people you might need to reach out to in an emergency.
- Make arrangements with a friend already in your most important Facebook groups, or arrange for a good friend to join, so they can ask questions or seek support for you.
- Use another social media platform (I used Twitter) to get any important messages out, and ask for retweets or reposts if necessary.
- In the worst-case scenario, have a plan for starting from scratch, both for your personal page and your business pages. Think about utilizing your email lists and Facebook groups to help get the word out that you need people to like your pages again.