Why these historical re-enactment enthusiasts were mistakenly kicked off Facebook

·4 min read

A group of Halifax historical re-enactment enthusiasts have found themselves facing a very modern-day problem: their social media accounts disappeared overnight.

Photos of friends in period costumes and recipes for oatcakes filled the Facebook group called the Halifax Militia Volunteers, but in October the group vanished.

The only clue to what had happened? The administrators of the group got the same message when they logged in, saying they had violated community standards.

One of the first of the group to notice was Colin Nicolle, an Anglican minister from Nova Scotia who was stumped when he couldn't log in when he wanted to live stream a service to his parishioners in Summerside, P.E.I., in mid-October.

"I thought it was really strange because I don't post a whole lot at all to my personal account, I just mostly use it to keep in touch with people and manage our church page."

He soon learned that friends who had been involved in the re-enactment group were going through the same headache. Their Facebook profiles and later their Instagram accounts disappeared.

Submitted by Gabriel Purcell
Submitted by Gabriel Purcell

Despite the folksy, family-friendly pictures about civilian life from centuries ago, the group got caught up in the social media giant's algorithm targeting QAnon, a group promoting violence and misinformation.

The group would have been targeted by the algorithm because of the word militia in the group's title, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed.

After facing years of criticism for allowing misinformation to flourish on its platform, Facebook had been very public about its crackdown on QAnon, saying in October that it would take down pages, groups and Instagram accounts for "representing QAnon," even if those pages didn't promote or post about violence.

"In August, we expanded our Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy to address militarized social movements and violence-inducing conspiracy networks, such as QAnon," said Meg Sinclair, a spokesperson with Facebook.

"Since then, we've identified over 600 militarized social movements, removing about 2,400 pages, 14,200 groups and about 1,300 Instagram accounts they maintained, and in addition, we've removed about 1,700 pages, 5,600 groups and about 18,700 Instagram accounts representing QAnon."


How the algorithm works

What's unclear, however, is how many of those accounts belonged to people like Nicolle, a history buff originally from Halifax. When asked about the number of people who had found themselves mistakenly caught up by the algorithm, Facebook didn't provide those figures.

Right now, the social network uses artificial intelligence to detect these groups like QAnon. A spokesperson said that there's so much content on Facebook and fewer people able to review what's flagged because of the pandemic.

When it first announced it would ban these types of accounts, Facebook said the social network would analyze several factors in deciding whether to ban a group or account, including the title of the group, its description and the posts and discussions featured on the page.

Nicolle and other group members tried to send email and appeal notices through the help centre.

Right now, however, there's no appeal process for people who mistakenly get caught up in this crackdown on QAnon, although a Facebook spokesperson said they're working on creating an appeal method for this particular situation.

While losing a social media account might not seem like a critical loss, it can represent a daily source of connection and communication — especially in the middle of a pandemic.

Submitted by Gabriel Purcell
Submitted by Gabriel Purcell

It's how Shannon Ireland-Leckie stays in touch with friends and family, as she and her husband move across Canada with the military every few years.

It's where she stored conversations with loved ones, some she says have since died. And it's also been a repository for her photos, many of which she didn't have anywhere else.

In this case, CBC Nova Scotia contacted the media team at Facebook to question the removal of the Halifax Volunteer Militia Group — and the shuttering of the accounts of those who participated in it.

Sinclair acknowledged it was mistakenly taken down and has since been restored. The team at Facebook is working to restore the accounts of the editors and administrators like Ireland-Leckie and Nicolle who lost access due to the mistake.