Does Facebook think I’m a real Russian Spy?

Rebecca Day, Jennifer Day Facebook 'Live from Ja'Ville'

One musician’s dilemma highlights the need for
decentralized social media platforms 

By Rebecca Day

 On Friday, March 13th, 2020 I sat at my kitchen table and I confronted an unprecedented dilemma. I had just arrived home from filing my taxes, and as I poured a cup of coffee, emails began pouring in. Due to the threat of COVID-19, my entire live music calendar for the foreseeable future was being wiped out by a tidal wave of cancellations.

Performing music live had been my full-time gig for close to a decade up until that point. Faced with a sudden depletion of cash flow, and business expenses that pay no mind to fevers and forced economic suppression, I had to keep the sulking to a minimum. After a half hour of feeling sorry for myself (and an uplifting pep talk from my glass-is-perpetually-half-full mom) I devised a plan to pivot. It was vital because the loss of thousands of dollars in revenue was guaranteed.

Facebook Live

Rebecca's rescued Rusty jumped on camera during the Daysies' Facebook Live show.
Rebecca’s rescued Rusty jumped on camera during the Daysies’ Facebook Live show.

Facebook is a powerful marketing tool for musicians. For my band The Crazy Daysies, it is our most popular social media channel. In 2018, Facebook changed their algorithm, gearing it towards interactions with Facebook Live videos.

Because of this change, content creators began putting out videos and going live a lot more. Statistics show users watch live videos three times more than pre-recorded, uploaded videos. Just last year, Facebook’s view count for live videos shot all the way up to two billion viewers. Musicians like Dawn Beyer have revolutionized the way artists can earn a living over the last few years by utilizing the power of Facebook Live and other technology such as virtual tip jars.

With all this information working in my favor, we jumped on the Facebook Live bandwagon and started a weekly live original music show just as the brick-and-mortar entertainment industry came to a painful, screeching halt.

Our plan was going swimmingly. Every week, we were presenting our show ‘Live from Ja’ Ville’,  and earning modest tips for playing our originals. We were nurturing the relationships with supporters we had come to know over the years. We were busy developing relationships with newcomers.

We were making use of our original music set list like never before. I followed up our live stream episodes with a promotional plan each week. Boosting live streams, running continuous ads to attract new listeners, and advertising our upcoming online events were all part of our weekly live streaming checklist.

While many independent musicians were struggling to earn any income at the moment, we were able to keep our business alive, admittedly on a shoestring, and to continue playing our music thanks to the rapid advancement of technology in just the last 5 years.

We had done something so many businesses fail to do during times of crisis. We evolved. We survived. We lived to work another day.

Then, I had another ‘brilliant’ idea.

And that’s where my Facebook life as a presumed Russian spy began.

Photo of cell phone
Photo by Indie Art South

Я не русский шпион. Клянусь.
(I am not a Russian spy. I swear.)

When you release weekly content, your number one objective is to keep things fresh. Every week, you want to up your game and keep people entertained. After several weeks of releasing episodes, I wanted to create a live stream with a little friendly shock value.

With my sister’s birthday coming up, we decided to host an episode featuring a costume party. Our theme was Halloween in May. Our viewers loved the idea.

Last Halloween I dressed up as a Russian spy. I got into character in a very ‘method’ way. I signed up for Babbel, a popular language app, and began learning Russian. I bought a bright pink wig, and a Russian-American flag pin. The costume went over famously last Halloween so I decided to dress up as a Russian spy again for our live stream episode.

Our viewers got a big kick out of my wig. When I told them I was dressed up a Russian spy, they all joked about ‘Russian collusion.’ I even spoke part of our live stream in Russian. We then sang a comedic original song we wrote not too long ago during the quarantine called ‘Coronavirus Blues.’

Our supporters sent us messages saying it was our best show yet. The hilarious costume party coupled with original music and merchandise giveaways seemed like we had concocted the perfect Facebook Live formula.

However, immediately after the show, when I tried to boost the stream to our followers who weren’t able to catch it live, an error popped up I had never seen before: Insufficient Permissions.

No Way Out

Despite a long-standing Facebook ad account, and promoting similar boosted posts without a hitch thus far, suddenly I was stuck in ads creation purgatory.

As I tried again and again to run the ad, and getting denied every time, the pieces of the puzzle started fitting together. We had dismissed copyright issues because we own the music we performed on the show.

My Russian spy costume. The Russian collusion jokes. Me greeting and thanking our supporters in Russian during the episode.

The series of events was too coincidental.

Facebook had flagged my video.

Did Facebook think I actually am a Russian spy? And a terrible one at that? What spy would willingly blow their cover on a live stream while wearing a pink wig?

I felt like Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Fockers when he was arrested and interrogated in the airport for clarifying over and over again he indeed didn’t have a bomb on the plane he was boarding.

The plot thickened when I contacted Facebook’s support team, hilariously titled Facebook Concierge Service.

One support specialist said to upload a video of my ad process getting denied.

When I did that, suddenly I was using the wrong video software.

I was then given directions to download a particular screen-casting software.

That software was made for Apple.

I work from a PC.

Every question I asked about the error code was met with a deflection.

Some may just view this whole situation as pure luck of the draw. But Facebook’s history of censorship and allegations about ‘Russian meddling’ in the last election coupled with the level at which I committed to my live stream character for our costume party was the perfect storm of ingredients creating potential for our stream to be tapped as suspicious activity.

Even after multiple attempts to fix the ‘glitch’ and over a week of email exchanges with Facebook, I still have no answers and error code after error code popping up like never before.

The Case for Decentralized Social Media

Facebook has come under massive fire recently for the level of censorship they rolled out after the 2016 elections. Facebook  has mistakenly taken down content that doesn’t violate any community standards. An Oversight Board was appointed in early May 2020. This supposedly independent body “will govern appeals from Facebook and Instagram users and questions from Facebook itself, although the social media giant admitted it will have to pick and choose which content moderation cases to take due to the sheer volume of them.” (CNBC)

Well-known public figures have been forced off the platform for “spreading false information.”

Story after story of being blacklisted by the popular platform highlights the need for a decentralized social media platform.

Of course, those platforms do exist. They have been born over the years out of the need for social media channels who believe in complete freedom of speech and user privacy. But thus far, no true rival to the Facebook Goliath has stepped into the ring.

Platforms like Steemit, which is based on blockchain, have gained popularity, but not near enough to compete with tech giants. Plus, they recently went through a huge restructuring process to rebuild their platform from the ground up.

The need for a free market solution for a decentralized social media platform is heightened during a time like this when the gig economy is changing at a rapid pace.

Concert tours are being postponed until late 2021. Bars that have been forced to close down for months can no longer afford entertainment once they open back up. Some full-time musicians are playing for peanuts because they are desperate to make a buck. Corporate events are canceled, and so are fairs, festivals, and social events exceeding mandated levels.

As the industry becomes even more digital than it already was, having a platform where one doesn’t have to worry about a popular post being taken down due to an algorithm mistake, or being shadow-banned because you don’t agree with all the politics of the very platform you are on, is paramount.

A decentralized hub with an emphasis on freedom of speech is vital to artists in today’s tech-driven market.

 Remaining hopeful

I haven’t been whisked off to Facebook jail (or real jail) yet, so maybe Facebook doesn’t think I’m an actual spy. About a week after all this started, suddenly the error codes disappeared as I set up new video ads to run for our content that doesn’t include me in character as my Russki-inspired alter ego. But the evidence is pretty compelling that just because I thanked people for tipping us in a language they don’t like, our live stream was somehow flagged behind-the-scenes as suspicious.

For one hilarious roundup of Indie Art South’s own run-in with rogue Facebook algorithms, check out this article.

Even though this mysterious experience has put a glitch in our giddy-up (during a time when pivoting has to happen quickly and swiftly), I’m a firm believer that you learn the most when you’re tested with trials.

As long as the free market is around, though Facebook has proven to be very powerful, their reign won’t last forever. If enough need exists for a non-censored social media channel, a bright determined mind will come along and make one. History proves that.

And as someone who is a staunch believer in decentralization and non-censorship, I hope I am a part of that community when it is created.

Until then, I will press along with the technology and resources I have at my disposal, as any good entrepreneur would.

There is a silver lining to all this though.

Apparently, my Russian is pretty convincing.

At least my Babbel subscription is paying off.

Отлично!
(Published June 22, 2020)

~~Rebecca Day is a musician, writer, and one-half of swampy-Americana duo with Jennifer Day Thompson, The Crazy Daysies. For more information visit rebeccadaymusic.com.

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