Earlier this week, Facebook removed celebrity gossip aggregator The Shade Room for violating its community standards. The Shade Room is not abusive or pornographic. If you feel unsafe reading The Shade Room, you might be Iggy Azalea. But everybody who likes reading words online should feel wobbly about this, because it’s an obvious example of the power that Facebook wields as a media publisher.
The Shade Room started as an Instagram page, and while it can be juicy, it’s often deeply mundane. The account featured a couple of posts this week about the death of 90-year-old Everybody Loves Raymond star Doris Roberts, for example.
BuzzFeed’s Doree Shafrir wrote about The Shade Room’s ascendance last year, identifying how using Instagram helped it succeed. “There were other websites about black celebrities, to be sure, but The Shade Room was the first to launch on the platform — Instagram — where many of its readers spent much of their time,” Shafrir wrote. “It aggregated from existing sites like TMZ or Bossip but gave gossip a social media spin: It actually did detective work on Instagram to figure out who was dating whom, who had broken up, who was in a fight.”
The Shade Room will live on. Instagram is still its primary platform, and it has its own website. However: Facebook owns Instagram. It’s not clear why Facebook decided to penalize The Shade Room on one platform and not the other, especially since the content is similar on both. But I have a guess. With the debut of Facebook Live, Facebook is giving everyone a convenient tool for broadcasting copyrighted material, and it is bracing for infringement claims. The company released a digital rights manager tool this month to help people make complaints when other users lift their content. This is clearly a priority, and since The Shade Room lifts images from other sources — sometimes without attribution — the timing of the takedown makes sense. If Facebook were debuting a streaming feature for Instagram, The Shade Room would be in even more trouble.
Facebook’s community standards are a set of guidelines designed to keep Facebook “safe.” They lay out Facebook’s approach to moderating abuse, intellectual property rights, and nudity, and they are couched in vague language that could apply to almost anything posted. “You may not publish the personal information of others without their consent,” one diktat reads. The most literal interpretation of this: You can’t post someone else’s phone number or address. But there’s nothing stopping Facebook from interpreting this to mean: You may not post gossip about someone else. We already know that content moderation is haphazard.
Other media sites have dealt with Facebook bans. In 2011, Facebook pulled Ars Technica’s page for IP infringement, but that turned out to be a bunk claim. “They didn’t issue a proper DMCA takedown, where you’re supposed to say what the infringing material is,” managing editor Eric Bangeman told me. “It was irritating at the time it happened, and it’s something that shouldn’t have happened because it was a fraudulent claim, but we survived.” Of course, that was before Facebook became the traffic spigot it is today.
More recently, Facebook has banned some legal marijuana vendor pages for violating community standards while allowing others, even though authorized vendors of legal drugs are not prohibited. Facebook considers photos of women’s areolae and childbirth dangers to its community, but not a video of horses drowning. (Warning: That’s literally a video of horses drowning.)
Facebook’s amorphous sense of good taste determines whether you can run a page pseudonymously or not. “We may ask Page owners to associate their name and Facebook Profile with a Page that contains cruel and insensitive content, even if that content does not violate our policies,” one section reads. It decides how cruel you get to be.
This is all completely within Facebook’s rights as a publisher. If Facebook decided to, it could ban all content except upsetting illustrations of Ron Paul and Rand Paul sexy parties. It could rewrite the community standards one day to note that mentioning Fairuza Balk’s performance in The Craft warranted swift and immediate expulsion. The Shade Room takedown shows that Facebook has no problem cutting off popular media companies.
A Facebook spokesperson confirmed that repeated copyright violations prompted the takedown, but didn’t specify which posts in particular broke its rules. But the thing is: Facebook doesn’t have to explain itself.
This piece originally appeared in the April 20, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.