Frustrated by Facebook's decision to stop her boosting posts and promoting her business-to-business-focused Facebook sites after she declined to share confidential proof-of-identity details with the social networking behemoth, Lesley Springall sought answers on what to do when you're left in the lurch by Facebook.
Facebook is huge! It was a different era when an arrogant but talented young geek called Mark Zuckerberg took on Harvard's elite to set up an online, inter-university club site in 2004.
Since then the social networking site has become the most famous on the internet with a significant grip on the world's population over the age of 12. It is the world's third-most visited website, only outranked by Google and YouTube, and attracts more than 10 million paying advertisers who use a variety of Facebook-developed tools to reach their target audience from Facebook's more than 2.74 billion monthly active users.
As other businesses floundered in the Covid-19 onslaught, Facebook reaped the rewards of lock-downed populations glued to their screens. Its revenues leapt 22 per cent to US$85.965 billion ($119.9b) in 2020, netting shareholders more than US$28b, up 58 per cent on the year prior.
Almost 100 per cent of its revenue comes from its mainly small business advertisers who spend on average US$200 to US$800 a month on ads and boosting posts, the vast majority without ever speaking to a single Facebook employee!
The sheer size and scale of Facebook, and its popularity, is its biggest attraction and its biggest problem, says Antonia Sanda, Facebook's head of communications in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific.
"Like many companies, we have sales teams that support some businesses, but our online tools help us scale and support the more than 10 million advertisers and 200 million businesses that use our apps and services," Sanda said.
Why Facebook wants your ID
Its Facebook's reach and popularity that has also caused it to start insisting on proof-of-identity from many of its advertisers.
"In an effort to increase accountability of pages, Facebook is requiring people who manage high potential reach pages to get authorised to publish as their page", it says in one of its many hundreds of online help articles.
But it's not just managers of "high-reach" pages being targeted, it also randomly targets others, which is what is most likely to have happened in my case.
Those targeted receive a pop-up note from an anonymous Facebook bot when they log on to their page, telling them to send over an official form of photo ID, such as a passport, driver's licence, or some other official government ID to prove who they are.
If you don't deliver in the timeframe given, Facebook stops you boosting posts (as in my case), advertising or commenting or "liking" something as your page, ie, as your business name.
Facebook introduced the new authorisation measures following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, when the British consulting firm used an app to collect data from nearly 87 million Facebook profiles to try to influence the 2016 US election campaigns.
Writing in 2018, Rob Goldman and Alex Himel, Facebook's then vice presidents of ads, local and pages, said, "We believe that when you visit a page or see an ad on Facebook it should be clear who it's coming from… These [changes] are designed to increase transparency and accountability, as well as prevent election interference."
The automated ID-request programme at Facebook promises that when you send it your ID it will be encrypted and stored securely. But given high profile security breaches, such as Cambridge Analytica's, and Facebook's regular appearance as one of the most impersonated brands in phishing-attack rankings, its understandable businesspeople may feel concerned when asked to send over confidential ID.
Phishing, when a cybercriminal contacts you via Facebook, email or phone, hoping to make you part with personal information such as banking or credit card details and passwords, is another problem Facebook is attempting to thwart by asking you for ID information.
It's a lucrative steal for someone to hack your Facebook account as that not only gives them access to spam your followers but likely those on other Facebook-associated apps.
These include three of the most downloaded apps today, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, all directly owned by Facebook, as well as a host of third-party apps allowing advertisers to promote their wares directly to targeted Facebook users.
Even more confusing, one of the most common forms of Facebook phishing asks you to "confirm your account" by instructing you to enter your account details on the cybercriminals' often convincingly similar-to-Facebook-looking phishing page!
To counter these threats and assess the validity of its own advertisers, Facebook employs an increasing array of automated, artificial intelligence (AI) systems.
"Our enforcement isn't perfect, and we do get things wrong, as both humans and machines make mistakes" says Sanda. "We use human reviewers to improve and train our systems and, in some cases, review specific ads."
In the past few years, Facebook has employed several thousand reviewers to help tackle the issues, in addition to the 35,000 or so who were already employed on safety and security across the company, she says.
The system is constantly evolving, says Sanda, and if you know where to look you can appeal decisions by Facebook blocking you from boosting posts or advertising.
But finding out how to do this is a problem in itself. In my case, I spent several hours over a few different days over a few months working through Facebook's various "help" sites, both via my personal Facebook page and the pages I manage; all to no avail.
Facebook's heavily curated help pages are aimed at the most common questions its anonymous staffers think you might ask. These primarily relate to things that will help Facebook (not your business) grow, such as how to set up a page, boost a post, become an advertiser, adjust your settings and manage your personal privacy.
The most common help request Facebook receives is from individuals wanting help to remove a picture they don't like of themselves from someone else's site.
To avoid all the personal help pages, Sanda recommends businesspeople start with the Facebook Business Help Centre. "In addition, any advertisers can get one to one support via a chat concierge or email channels by clicking 'Support' from our help resources page," she says.
In my experience, however, finding that one-to-one support is tricky, with the business help pages cleverly designed to send you around in circles until you lose patience or run out of time and return to the business of actually running your own business.
Given Facebook is dealing with about one-third of the world's population, it's not surprising its help system is designed as an automated triage system. But with some dogged perseverance and patience, it is possible to track down a real person (first name only, no country given) to have an onsite conversation (see Facebook business support box). But even if you do track this elusive online-chat concierge down, you might find that they too are not as useful as you'd hoped.
The end of the help line?
For me, I took so long dipping in and out of Facebook's help maze, attempting to find answers about why I had to send over ID and what alternatives there were, that when I eventually did persevere (out of pure frustration) and find an online person to "chat" to, they couldn't help me. Apparently, by not responding in the time frame set by Facebook, I'd left it too long to fix the problem and that was that; nothing they could do!
But surely that shouldn't be possible? Surely a problem can always be fixed? Especially by one business attempting to pay another business money? Sources close to Facebook say it should. There should never be an end of the road for help, but no one was willing to actually go on the record to say it as Facebook is simply too big for there not to be exceptions, they say.
"From a business perspective we try and offer email support and tech support and I do think in your particular case it didn't work terribly well. At the end of the day we want to help businesses," says Sanda, adding Facebook is always looking at ways it can do things better.
"A few years ago we weren't able to identify nudity; we're pretty good at identifying nudity now. Machines do a lot of these jobs for us, but sometimes machines get it wrong too, so we're constantly adding new people into the process as well."
So if Facebook says "no" to you, just persevere with its help system until someone does help you. It might not get it right today, but given its size, the scale of its evolution might mean it gets it right tomorrow.
As for the business-to-business Facebook pages I manage, these have been returned to business as usual. Strange thing is, after all this, I haven't boosted one post since my sites were unblocked. I have, however, done a lot more posting on the more business-to-business-focused LinkedIn professional networking site and that doesn't cost me a cent!
Facebook business support:
• For generic business problems, search the help pages here.
• For more specific help, log in to your Facebook page or a page you manage, click the 'down' arrow at the top right of the screen, select 'Help and support', select 'Report a problem' and then 'Something went wrong' and send an onsite email and wait! You can check for replies through the same process, just click on, 'Support inbox' to see if someone at Facebook has got back.
• To find a person, click here, and follow the links, or click on 'Other Page issue' and then at the bottom right of that page click on 'Start chat' for the elusive chat concierge. And if they say 'no, they can't help', say 'thanks,' close down that help thread and then start the process all over again until you find someone who can help you!
- Lesley Springall is an Auckland-based business journalist, publisher of New Zealand's leading ophthalmic trade publication NZ Optics and its online Australasian sister sites eyeonoptic.