“Keeping our platform safe from bad actors is our highest priority,” said a Facebook spokeswoman. “Our detection technology isn’t perfect and sometimes we make mistakes. But we offer people the tools they need to regain access.”
When Facebook reviewed 14 disabled accounts belonging to users contacted by The New York Times, the company said that just five had been banned with cause. Facebook suggested that the others should simply go through the appeals process again; most did, but none of their accounts have been reactivated so far.
Some of the excommunicated have woeful tales, such as Colton Berk, 23, a barista in Portland, Ore. His account was disabled in 2017, a few months after his older brother was killed in a car accident. “It was a real panic moment,” Mr. Berk said. “I hadn’t saved a lot of photos that I had posted of my older brother and me, and I lost it all.” He appealed to Facebook, which told him that his account was permanently disabled for “fraudulent activity.” Mr. Berk has since gotten back online with an alias: Bolton Cerk. “I had to assume a fraudulent identity to rejoin,” he said. “Ironically, I am now doing what they accused me of.”
Some frustrated Facebook exiles have turned to the courts. Mustafa Fteja, of Staten Island, sued Facebook in a New York court in 2011 after his account was disabled; Mr. Fteja, who is Muslim, alleged religious discrimination. Facebook got the case moved to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, the region where the company is based, and the case was ultimately dismissed when Mr. Fteja, who was representing himself, failed to file the proper documents. In May, an antidrug abuse group sued Facebook in Poland for disabling its Facebook page, alleging violation of the group’s free speech rights. While the suit is ongoing, the court ordered Facebook to preserve the group’s data and followers until the case is resolved; usually Facebook deletes an account’s data six months after it’s been disabled.
One Facebook user in Sweden found a way to reach a human at Facebook after his account was disabled. His first name is Jonatan; he asked that his last name not be published, so that he wouldn’t be contacted by a deluge of other users seeking help. “I did it through the job applications,” he said, laughing. Jonatan went to Facebook’s careers page and filled out an application for a lead developer position, but instead of talking about his qualifications, he wrote about not being able to reactivate his disabled account.
A couple of days later, Jonatan got an email from a Facebook recruiter who told him that, while it wasn’t the proper channel for the problem, he would look into Jonatan’s account. It was soon reactivated. “I rarely use Facebook now,” he said.
Mr. Reeves, of Seattle, is not so blasé. After reviewing his account at the request of The Times, Facebook determined he was inadvertently “caught in a security checkpoint.” But Mr. Reeves remained stuck in light-blue purgatory. At one point in early August, he apologized for contacting me so often, explaining that he was “desperate” to have his account reactivated by Aug. 15, his birthday.
On Aug. 14, Reeves went back to the Seattle Facebook office to beg them again for attention. The receptionists repeated that they couldn’t help him, and said that no one in customer support worked in the building. “I was frustrated, but I stayed calm,” Mr. Reeves told me. “I didn’t scream or anything. I didn’t want to spend my birthday in jail.”