Facebook Shuts Down Mom Who Posts Photos of Her Son at Special Olympics

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LOIC VENANCE / AFP / Getty Images

Facebook can be maddening. After a Thomasville, N.C., mom posted pictures of her 7-year-old son at a Special Olympics event — he has Down Syndrome — the social networking giant locked her account, apparently thinking that the posts were promoting hate.

The message from Facebook: “Never upload any photos that contain hate speech, support for violent organizations or threats to harm others.”

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It’s not clear what the 40-photo album had to do with hate or violence or why the photos would have been flagged by the site’s digital police force. The images in the album, simply titled “Special Olympics 2012,” are mainly of a little boy having a big day at the Davidson County edition of the event. A lot are of him playing. Others are with folks dressed up to look like characters from The Wizard of Oz.

For three days, Diana Cornwell couldn’t get back onto Facebook and couldn’t get an answer as to how photos from the Special Olympics could get her banished from the network. And even though she’s back on now, Cornwell is still unhappy with how Facebook handled the situation and wants to see changes in how they flag photos. “They don’t really look into the matter and see if there was anything offensive,” she said. An online petition supporting her has picked up some steam, surpassing 10,000 signatures by noon Wednesday. “They need to change how they do this.”

Facebook seems to have a knack for ticking off its now 900 million users. Some of that comes from policing posts by computer program. Something triggers a red flag and down goes an innocent account.

Despite this sometimes excessive vigilance, however, the site often seems unable to effectively police actual scams, which abound on Facebook and often evade the systems meant to catch them, frustrating users who get sucked into believing they’re helping sick kids or could win a gift certificate to IKEA. There are entire groups on Facebook dedicated to fighting scams on Facebook. As an example of how the whole system can get turned on its head, a year ago Facebook actually shut down two of those  of those anti-scam pages. To Facebook’s credit, it make take a while, but they usually do eventually get it right.

What makes it even more frustrating for folks who, by no fault of their own, get into these situations is that it’s difficult to find anyone to help. “They make it impossible to contact anybody,” Cornwell said. “They have not apologized nor have they explained,” she said. “They sent me a generic message saying it was a computer error.”

A Facebook spokesman was more apologetic when I contacted the site: “The photo was taken down in error. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and we hope she’ll repost the photo and continue to share her son’s experience at the Special Olympics on Facebook.” No explanation, though, of what happened.

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Facebook doesn’t have a customer service line. Last year, Facebook spokesman Frederic Wolens told me that, like other free online services, users are afforded the ability to connect with the company by email. Sometimes, you just want to speak to someone because, well, there was an injustice and filling out a web form just doesn’t seem sufficient. Perhaps it would be reasonable for those who have been locked out for some reason to be sent a phone number to call to appeal.

Cornwell said she is gratified by the outpouring of support and says she’d like two things to result: a better way of policing the site and for “Facebook (to) sponsor next year’s Davidson County Special Olympics.”

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