Yesterday, Facebook restricted and then shut down the public pages of Ex-Muslims of North America (24k followers) and Atheist Republic (1,6 million followers) –groups that advocate secularism and provide support to “apostates” (people who leave Islam and who often face persecution).
On Monday, Muhammad Syed, the president of the Ex-Muslims of North Americatook to Twitter to report that the Facebook pages of Ex-Muslims and Atheist Republic were restricted (and the next morning shut down) “in violation of Facebook’s community standards”. No details were given as to what standards were violated. On Tuesday, after appealing the case, both groups were able to regain full access to their pages.
Syed believes the pages had been targeted in coordinated attacks by Muslim fundamentalists using “simple and effective” Facebook flagging tools to report that pages falsely for standards violations. Facebook, Syed said, isn’t doing enough to protect “groups vulnerable to malicious attacks”.
In the open letter to Facebook, which was revealed to Heat Street, Syed pressures the social media company to take measures to improve its reporting mechanisms and to protect ex-Muslim groups.
“Ironically, the same social media which empowers religious minorities is susceptible to abuse by religious fundamentalists to enforce what are essentially the equivalent of online blasphemy laws. A simple English language search reveals hundreds of public groups and pages on Facebook explicitly dedicated to this purpose – giving their members easy-to-follow instructions on how to report public groups and infiltrate private ones,” Syed writes.
The Atheist Republic group has been shut down 4 times in the last two years, Syed says, and then reinstated. He adds that attacks of this nature are not new and there are there are hundreds of Facebook accounts that are working to shut down atheist and ex-Muslim public pages in an organized effort. Facebook, he alleges, is doing nothing about it.
“Arab atheists, Bangladeshi secularists, and numerous other groups have been under attack for years, as religious conservatives in the Muslim world learn to abuse Facebook’s reporting system to their advantage. Early last year, multiple atheist and secularist groups were targeted with mass, coordinated infiltration and reporting – leading to the closure of many groups. These groups were eventually restored, but only after a lengthy and sustained effort by organizers to draw public attention to the issue,” he explains.
In his letter to Facebook, Syed, with the help of the Arab Atheist Network, compiled a list of groups that have been targeted in coordinated flagging attacks and shut down by Facebook in the last several weeks. At least nine other groups have been abused with Facebook’s reporting tool.
Syed, who was raised in Pakistan, believes that ex-Muslims are among the most persecuted groups in the world and that online platforms like Facebook are the “last refuge” for many atheists and secularists in the Muslim world.
“Many of these groups are not simply pages – they are communities in which atheists who are abandoned by those around them find comfort, support and emergency assistance in case of persecution or abuse. The closure of these groups means the loss of these vital resources for the isolated and vulnerable,” Muhammad tells Heat Street.
The letter urges Facebook to create a “whitelist” for groups and pages that are vulnerable to such attacks and asks to penalize accounts that repeatedly abuse its reporting tools.
In the meantime, as Heat Street reported, in March Facebook kowtowed to officials in Pakistan and removed “blasphemous” content insulting Islam within the country. In this instance, Facebook had no problem with censoring freedom of speech on its platform.
Other atheist groups shut down by Facebook in the course of a month:
A Science Enthusiast (750,000 members)
Arab Atheist Network (23,500 members)
Arab Atheist Forum and Network (9,200 members)
Radical Atheists without Borders (23,500 members)
Arab Atheist Syndicate (11,000 members)
Arab Atheist Syndicate, backup (5,000 members)
Humanitarian Non-Religious (32,000 members)
Human Atheists (11,000 members)
Arab Atheists Forum and Network (6,400 members)
Mind and Discussion (6,500 members)