By Leil Zahra | June 16, 2020 | Fellowships & Awards
At first look, it seemed like good news: Facebook announced this month that they “removed 446 Pages, 182 Facebook accounts, 96 Groups, 60 events and 209 Instagram accounts” in Tunisia and other countries due to what they described as “engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
This came at the same time as an investigation by DFRLab that linked Tunisia-based company “UReputation” to “a sophisticated digital campaign involving multiple social media platforms and websites. The campaign was an attempt to influence the country’s 2019 presidential election, as well as other recent elections” in various African countries.
According to Facebook, accounts affected are “fake” and designed “to masquerade as locals in countries they targeted, post and like their own content, drive people to off-platform sites, and manage Groups and Pages posing as independent news entities.” Facebook added that “some Pages engaged in deceptive audience building tactics changing their focus from non-political to political themes including substantial name and admin changes over time.”
But the real story isn’t quite so simple — or rosy. Facebook’s efforts to combat false accounts and content have actually silenced legitimate voices and artwork.
Local NGOs have documented at least 60 accounts that were disabled without clarification from Facebook. Emna Mizouni, an activist and journalist who campaigns for an open internet, told the Guardian, “They received no warning, no advance notice and still have no explanation. In the end we were able to get 14 restored by going to [the anti-corruption watchdog] IWatch … but know nothing about the rest.”
In the Guardian article, Facebook referred to “technical error” - a justification frequently used by the mega-platform when confronted with the shortcomings and impacts of their policies. They continued to say that due to the “technical error” they “removed a small number of profiles, which have now been restored. We were not trying to limit anyone’s ability to post or express themselves, and apologise for any inconvenience this has caused.” Though Facebook did restore a small number of profiles, this “technical error” went much further than the accounts in question (though at the time of publishing, an article on Access Now speaks of 28 restored accounts).
Due to the frequency of Facebook’s arbitrary enforcement of opaque policies, international and local digital rights organisations rightly focus on content takedown and account deactivation targeting civil society organisations, activists and human rights defenders. But what about musicians? Historically and today, in many places both the music and the art scenes are integral to activist and social movements. So, though some of the above mentioned 60 accounts could be musicians, not all of the accounts mentioned below are counted in the above 60. This means that it is likely that out of the hundreds of accounts and pages targeted by Facebook in this investigation, a considerable number should have been left online
For example, Deena Abdelwahed, a renowned Tunisian music artist, performer and DJ based in France, had both her personal Facebook account and Instagram account suspended permanently, without much explanation beyond a generic message (seen below), and without being given the chance to appeal. Abdelwahed, who also uses her talent at events to support women and LGBT rights, affirms the obvious: “My account is not fake, nor was I involved in any political operation during the 2019 elections in Tunisia. I surely voted and had my opinions, but I was not sharing any fake news and I’d always be very careful before sharing my political opinions as an artist and as a Tunisian citizen.” Abdelwahed’s fan page, career, agent, and Abdelwahed herself attest to Facebook failing to live to the standards and care the corporation seems to have.
Despite the understandable frustration and the feeling of being unfairly targeted, and despite deserving a fair process of appeal, Abdelwahed is relatively lucky compared to other affected artists.Her artist page is still online, she has an agent handling her bookings, and is based in France. Still, her work suffered a hit. “I am signed with an international music label, and I have contractual engagements regarding my social media presence and my music promotion. This incident strongly disturbed all the people I work with, and is sending a wrong and unfair image about me and the work I do.”
It is no hidden fact that artists, musicians and promoters are among those hit hardest by COVID-19, mainly due to the subsequent quarantine and the cancellation of shows and gatherings in public venues. Though this was almost universal, musicians and singers in Tunisia received a double blow. Almost a month before the country went on lockdown, Tunisia, like many Muslim-majority countries, celebrated the month of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting and little-to-no partying due to the shutdown of bars and clubs. In Tunisia and some other Muslim-majority countries like Egypt or the Gulf states, though laws aren’t always clear on the issue, the police enforce a ban on eating in public, drinking alcohol, and parties. This meant that the music scene was well into a month of no-to-little work before the lockdown started. Right when the government started to lift the lockdown and slowly allow bars, Facebook delivered the third blow.
Facebook’s recent operation hit Hamdi Toukabri, from the music collective and cultural association “Downtown Vibes - Tunis”, with a page of 14000 subscribers Toukabri is also part of the Eddisco, a traveling record store and an independent label, which also had its Facebook and Instagram pages taken down “This will cause a lot of problems for the months to come to resume our activity after the long break due to general confinement. We are even in the process of promoting our first EP which will be release in a week” said Toukabri about the distressing impacts.
What is peculiar about Facebook’s recent attack on Tunisian users is the choice of established artists and artist collectives, who are living proof that they are not “fake accounts” or Pages involved in “Inauthentic Behavior.”The takedown of the Radyoon Radio page,, with15000 subscribers, is a another example of yet another unjust takedown or “technical error”. Nassim BelHadjAli from Radyoon Radio says “I run a participative and an independent web radio since 2012. The radio is a space for freedom of expression and new ideas and ensures the inclusion of all local music scenes in Tunisia. I am very pissed because our page shared daily programs before the airing of the shows, and links to the podcasts and music after they air. Radyoon was also supporting and promoting local cultural events and at times streaming it live.”
Mohamed Guediri is a civil society activist and an event promoter, manager of cultural organisation "Cité'Ness" and music club "Cassette Tunis”. He was also hit by the takedowns of profiles and pages, and left to suffer the consequences without understanding why he and his various accounts were targeted. “Due to the latest incident that had happened to several accounts in Tunisia including mine, I lost my Facebook profile and the Instagram accounts of my businesses and projects. In addition to the crisis we are facing from COVID-19, now I am in additional problem as I can’t promote the re-opening of my place or the continuation of my projects. Even after reading the report about inauthentic behavior, I wonder: What does this have to do with me?”
MN Hattab, artistic director and co-manager of the Lotus club in Sousse, also had his personal Facebook and Instagram accounts disabled permanently. This has had a major and detrimental impact on his work. “These accounts are strictly personal, but contain all my contacts to managers and artists for the events I organise. Facebook did not bother responding to any of my emails and to date I have had no information why this happened to my accounts. I created a new Instagram account, but it got deactivated after three days. I suspect the new Facebook account I am using could be deactivated at any time.”
Further, there are problems beyond the economic consequences: Facebook states that they have “shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.” This raises a red flag. What information did Facebook share with “law enforcement” in Tunisia about the journalists and activists whose accounts were suspended (and then reinstated)? And what did Facebook tell law enforcement about the tens of musicians and artists who were erroneously targeted by this operation? It is very clear that the platform should be responsible for any repercussions, but also for admitting to both users and law enforcement their mistake.
These testimonies are but a few of many accounts targeted by Facebook in their recent mass takedown operation, but they are enough to highlight how haphazard this alleged “technical error” is. They expose the serious impacts of these policies on people’s livelihood and on the artistic, cultural and political scenes in the country. Judging all of this, and the many stories still waiting to be told — especially in times when the world is trying to get back on its feet — it is crucial for Facebook to be accountable towards its users and towards its own claims. It is unacceptable that the lives of people and entire cultural and art scenes in a country be the collateral damage of a corporation in its attempt to stop the misuse and abuse of its platform. It is unacceptable that a corporation of the size of Facebook (and Instagram), managing enormous riches and enjoying massive powers, continues to use “technical error” as an excuse when there is so much at stake —from freedom of speech, to artists’ livelihood, to stigmatising users whose career is dependent on their social media presence.