Aug 04 2016

Skepticism – Banned by Facebook

Facebook - GMOFacebook, despite its critics and many competitors, remains a robust social media platform. The SGU has a Facebook page with over 1 million likes, and we use it to drive traffic here and to Science-Based Medicine.

There are pages on Facebook promoting just about any point of view you can imagine. It is a true marketplace of ideas. Like any marketplace, there is the expectation that its rules are fair and its regulation is rational and reasonable.

Earlier this year Facebook came under criticism when it was discovered that some of their employees may have been systematically biased against conservative leaning news items. This sparked a discussion of whether or not an outlet like Facebook has a responsibility to be neutral. They are a private company, they can do what they want. Newspapers and TV news programs can have a biased editorial policy. What is important is transparency, and Facebook was putting their thumb on the scale on the sly. They have responded by initiating a training program for their employees to teach them to recognize their own bias – so they at least understand the benefit of the perception of being unbiased.

Recently the Facebook page, We Love GMOs and Vaccines, was permanently taken down by Facebook and its founder, Stephan Neidenbach, was banned from Facebook for 30 days. What offense did he commit to warrant such draconian treatment? None. He was simply using a Facebook page to promote a pro-science and skeptical attitude toward GMOs and vaccines, specifically to counter the gross misinformation about these technologies by anti-science fringe groups.

Facebook banned the page because of too many complaints. That’s it. They don’t give any evidence of having investigated the page themselves, and they don’t cite any specific examples of posts that violated specific policies.

This is an alarming situation. It means that an online lynch mob can target specific Facebook pages with complaints, because they disagree with the editorial content of the page, and Facebook will obligingly take down the page.

Facebook is perhaps unwittingly getting into the middle of an online scuffle. The deeper issue here revolves around tactics used by both sides to promote their point of view.

Both sides, of course, accuse the other side of using horrible tactics, painting themselves as victims, and professing their purity. I am not implying equivalency here, just pointing out that this is the story both sides are telling. You have to delve into the details to see what is really going on.

Here, for example, is the view from the anti-GMO side from GMWatch. Reading the article is like entering bizarro world. What the author is doing is ignoring or downplaying all the dirty tactics used by the anti-GMO side, while grossly overstating and cherry picking what the pro-science side is doing.

The online world of social media is the wild west. You will find nasty comments by anonymous commenters everywhere. If you are willing to cite such comments as representative of the side they support, you could build a case against any activists.

Anti-GMO activists have slandered companies and individuals, harassed scientists, spread demonstrable misinformation, and vandalized scientific experiments. They have targeted Kevin Folta, who I know personally and is one of the nicest people I know, and a very dedicated and talented science communicator. They have harassed him with FOIA requests so they can go on a fishing expedition in his e-mails looking for anything to distort. They have broken into his office, apparently also looking for incriminating evidence.

The GMWatch article, however, paints Folta as a villain. It is truly bizarre. In response to harassment by the Food Babe, Kevin wrote to his readers:

“First, some rules. Please do not retaliate or harass her. Respect her privacy for one reason– I can tell you personally how horrible it is to have someone not respect mine. I do not want her to feel the way I do, because of her. There’s some Sunday irony. Thanks.”

He has deliberately taken the high road. For that he is portrayed as a villain and a shill coordinating an army of “followers” to attack anti-GMO activists. It’s simply not true.

Skeptical activity is entirely a grassroots operation. All of the people you know because they have a blog, make videos or podcasts, write books, or speak at conferences came to skeptical activism on their own. There is no coordination, other than the spontaneous sort of activity that happens within groups.

I don’t know Neidenbach personally, but as far as I can tell he is just another pro-science activist acting on his own and in his own style. He has chosen to turn the tables on the anti-GMO activists, by submitting his own FOIA requests, for example. He notes:

“GMWatch, run by Jonathan Matthews and Claire Robinson, was quick to applaud the requests submitted by US Right To Know. When the tables were turned they lashed out like a rabid dog backed into a corner.”

I understand the impulse to use similar tactics against the anti-GMO crowd, and certainly they have nothing legitimate to complain about as they used the tactic themselves, but I do think it is problematic. I agree with Kevin – we need to be obsessively above board. As they say, you don’t want to mud-wrestle with pigs, you will just get dirty and the pigs like it. I personally don’t think we should be fighting their game in their arena. I think we should be trying to elevate the conversation, to change the venue to respectful and rational discussion about science.

As the GMWatch deceptive article illustrates, once you start playing their game, then it becomes all about who was meaner to whom and who is the bigger villain/victim, and not about the science.

The anti-vaccine and anti-GMO crowd cannot win in the arena of objective science. That is why they desperately try to make their activism about accusing people of being shills, conspiracy theories, and mean tweets. We need to keep it about the science. It’s fine to point out the horrible tactics used by the other side, but we should not “fight fire with fire.” If we do that, I think, then we are surrendering the high ground. We are abandoning a winning strategy in order to fight a fight we cannot win.

In any case, despite differences of style and tactics, Neidenbach has every right to use Facebook to promote his position. Many of his articles are well-written, well-researched, and informative. We frequently link to them from our own Facebook page.

I would not recommend targeting anti-GMO or anti-vaccine Facebook pages with the same tactics they used. Rather I would target Facebook for criticism. They should not permanently ban an activist page because it was targeted by its ideological opponents. This sets a horrible precedent and they are potentially opening themselves up for a disaster.

12 responses so far

12 thoughts on “Skepticism – Banned by Facebook”

  1. NotAMarsupial says:

    I’d been following the drama with We Love GMOs and Vaccines for a few months now when it was temporarily banned and brought back then banned again. I was not comfortable with how Neidenbach handled the situation, but he obviously ran his page in a manner consistent with his personality for people who find that entertaining. I am apparently not part of that demographic and that’s ok. In person, with my friends, I’m snarky and sarcastic. My friends understand that I’m ribbing them, I can read when I should stop, and I expect the same from them. When someone is instigating others online that dialogue doesn’t exist, tempers seem to flare much easier and it is obviously easier to take things too far when there is a keyboard between you and others. Personally, I feel like he crossed the line several times.

    However, Steven’s point regarding Facebook’s hand in the affair is well made. At the point that this came to a head, the WLG&V page was trolling* Erin at Health Nut News (Mercola’s girlfriend) and she used very underhanded tactics that were well documented to get the page taken down. She actually documented them herself and bragged to her followers. Initially she had her followers report the page any time they mentioned one of their names in a comment because that is apparently against Facebooks terms of service. Then WLG&V started using nicknames instead. I don’t recall what they were, but let’s just say one was “Erin the Nutter”. Erin admitted to opening new Facebook accounts using the nickname made up by WLG&V just so that she could report him.

    All that being said, I agree that we should be above this petty nonsense given that we have science on our side. We don’t need to spend our time sniping and manipulating when logic and reason will better serve us anyway.

    *Trolling while using his real name! Egnor will be alerting the press that it is possible.

  2. banyan says:

    Does Facebook have a Facebook page? Could we submit complaints to it in an effort to get it taken down for taking down other pages merely because users submitted complaints? Or have I been reading too much Douglas Hofstadter lately?

  3. Newcoaster says:

    It just reinforces my decision to largely avoid social media. I don’t have a FB account. Tried it for a month about 6 years ago…HATED IT, and promptly cancelled. I do have an unused Twitter account, as I could never figure out what I was supposed to do with it. I should probably delete it too, but I keep thinking one day it may come in handy for something…just not sure what. I think I have a total of 6 tweets, read only by my wife as far as I know.

    I occasionally participate in online discussions in comment sections in places that are relatively devoid of bile…like Neurologica, SBM and Daily KOS, but thats about it.

    Mostly what I see in social media is it tends to bring out the worst in people which I think swamps whatever good it may serve.

  4. BillyJoe7 says:

    I see someone else has read “Godel, Escher, Bach: The Eternal Golden Braid” 🙂

  5. linuxline says:


    Do you know how much you HURT our entire movement with making up lies about the anti science pages?

    Stephan Neidenbach has already stated Erin nor Mercola had nothing to do with getting the page taken down and it was a lady named Mary Hutton IN a video (so there’s no faking that)

    Furthermore, however much of a nut she is; She never bragged to her followers at all. In fact, she made a video forgiving Stephan for bragging (his style, I like his page, just not mine) for getting her a 30 day ban.

    Not only did he, but even Chow babe state publicly (both on their pages but with the sad wordpress antiquated comments here I cannot link or share screen shots) said it was someone else.

    When you make a comment on this page libeling someone (Even a quack) the website (Theness) can be held accountable because of your words on this page.

    So cut it out with the lies. Go look at Stephan’s videos AND article which share a picture of the Mary Hutton aka “HOG” aka Joan and let’s not libel the biggest quack sites who had nothing to do with the page being gone, which he has stated now in no less than 2 videos.

    Comments like yours making sh*t up is what gets we love gmos and theness and all of us in trouble.

    stick with the truth dude.


  6. linuxline says:


    making up a whole story Stephan already said was not true and made a video denying what you claimed in your fake story (he is the founder of WLGV) is not going to help our movement at all. Even if it’s about a quack.

    Just a heads up.

  7. DrNick says:

    I would love to be able to quit Facebook, as I hate so many things about the site. Unfortunately, I live thousands of miles away from my entire family, plus all of my friends from prior to age 18, and there just isn’t another way for me to easily keep in touch with them all.

  8. Derick "Darwin's Puggle" S. says:

    This is just lazy. I know it’s not anywhere near in terms of importance, but a similar kerfuffle happened recently in World of Warcraft. The devs put in a new silencing policy, wherein you could be preventing from sending messages in any public forum if they determined your speech was abusive. They assured players that they would do thorough investigations before issuing silence penalties.

    So after the implementation, a group of people decided to test it. At a certain time in a public chat room, a user wrote “I LOVE WORLD OF WARCRAFT” and a large number of users flagged his comment on cue. He was immediately silenced for 24 hours. No message from the mods, no inquiry, as was promised.

    I see these stories as part of a larger problem. People don’t want to be held liable and they don’t want to be seen as picking sides. People don’t want to think about the nuances. They just respond. You see this particularly in schools, where students and teachers alike face completely asinine discipline under the guise of “zero tolerance.” I get it it, to an extent. We’re living in an increasingly complex world with complicated social dynamics. But this trend of “act first, think later” has begun to go too far. Skeptics need to organize and tell Facebook that they’re being unfair and to use better judgment in their moderation policies.

  9. Thomas Hughson says:

    (my last comment that is still waiting moderation please delete and put this one in its place)

    Steven Novella,

    I agree 99% with this blog posting, but if I fear if I’d shared this one I get too much push back by conspiracy theorist who would be inclined not read past the title or notice any nuance in what you are claiming is going on here. Recently I have clashed with conspiracy theorist over their claim that Facebook algorithms and Google’s algorithms are purposely supressing stories because Facebook and Google favor an opposing ideology. I basically staked out my position that if these companies want to be credible sources of information they should be filtering out hoaxes and search engines at the very least need an option to rank queries by accuracy as well as by popularity. And maybe certain news sites may be ranked lower based on how credible the information was in the past.

    So I’m quite sure this would be their “So it’s not alright when the censoring is against your ideas” moment.

    I would have to stress the point to them that there is significant difference between the claims of why the censorship is happening. Claiming that Facebook censored something only because of the amount of complaints it received is actually showing the algorithms have a dispassionate approach to content and too much emphasis on the infamy content has.

    Dr Novella, if you would consider changing the title to reflect the bigger villain(s) so I could easily share this blog post without having to explain all these to people who will see this as totally contradictory to my position and care little for whatever argument that I’ll give that it is not.

    BTW The 1% thing- is this line here “and Facebook was putting their thumb on the scale on the sly” Was there really sufficient evidence to support this claim? Glen Beck has a good blog post on this. Kudos to Glen Beck for putting his biases aside on this.

  10. NotAMarsupial says:

    linuxline –
    I think “lies” and “libel” are a little bit over the top. I’m sorry, I’ll admit I got the players wrong. The problem is that the posts I was referencing were on the WLG&V page which, as you are fully aware, was taken down. I couldn’t go back and check what I was recalling through memory and I wasn’t aware that Neidenbach had any new videos about the situation.
    Now that you mention HOG I do recall seeing her as a player in this mess. Maybe she was the one bragging about the fake profiles, maybe it was someone else. I won’t say for certain because I’d hate to be wrong and make you climb back on that high horse.

  11. NotAMarsupial says:

    linuxline –
    I posted then immediately regretted the last sentence. I apologize. It was unnecessary. I’d never say that to your face so I shouldn’t be a keyboard warrior.

  12. linuxline says:

    No worries. It happens.. Glad to see all has settled down and though I still see the Hog (Heirloom organics) woman stirring up trouble in recent days for Stephan, it seems to die down immediately and glad WLGV is up and running. I know the woo pages will be too, but actually the minute FB starts taking pages down (on either side) we get into a dangerous territory with censorship.. So hopefully they change their policy, though compared to their giant site, I’m sure this was a mere blip in their cyberday.

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