Lucas Choi Zimbel joined Facebook 10 years ago for one reason: to find work.
“I’m not a person who uses Facebook for personal things,” said the 32-year-old, Montreal-based musician. “I don’t post pictures of cats, or news about my social life. I only use it for my job.”
So when the social network disabled his account in September after he was hacked — his profile picture was replaced by the flag of the terrorist group ISIS — Zimbel was desperate to get the problem sorted out quickly, in order to earn a living.
He says he made multiple attempts to communicate with Facebook, without success.
Zimbel says that, like a lot of musicians, he uses Facebook to promote performances and get bookings. He’s also been hired for recordings and music videos, thanks to producers and other musicians contacting him via its Messenger service.
But when he tried to reach the company to have his profile reinstated, he discovered that there’s no support line to call, or even an email address where users can report a problem. Companies that pay to advertise on Facebook are able to get prompt attention when needed, but Zimbel said regular users who pay nothing are left high and dry.
“I’ve lost work, but I have no way of knowing how much or what work I’ve lost,” he told Go Public, noting that he’s eager to book engagements as restrictions related to the pandemic are eased.
“The music scene is coming back and I just have no way of getting on that train.”
Zimbel isn’t alone in his predicament. Thousands of small business owners rely on Facebook, a reality that came into sharp focus in early October when it, and its sister networks WhatsApp and Instagram, went offline in North America for six hours.
Entrepreneurs who use social media to reach customers said the outage cost them thousands of dollars in revenue.
Claire Tsai, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business, says it’s risky to depend exclusively on one social media platform.
“It’s like putting all your eggs in one basket,” she said. “It’s better to be on a large number of social media platforms, including Twitter and TikTok. You want to diversify.”
Tsai said she understands that small business owners are eager for the kind of low-cost marketing they can accomplish through a free platform such as Facebook, but says it’s not a “reliable” resource.
“The company could make changes that would affect small business owners,” she said. “If you’re paying, you have the right to demand what you’re paying for; otherwise you’re vulnerable.”
But like Zimbel, others have had to struggle to make contact with Facebook after being disabled due to a misunderstanding. CBC News recently reported the case of a Vancouver real estate agent who was also banned from the platform, and spent weeks trying to figure out why, and to have her account restored.
Facebook acknowledged in a statement to Go Public that losing access to an account can cause “distress,” and recommends users employ a variety of tools to keep their accounts safe, including turning on two-factor authentication and alerts for unrecognized logins.
‘Not good for business’
Zimbel’s ordeal began when he tried to log on in late September.
“My profile picture had been changed to the ISIS flag,” he said. His background picture also showed an ISIS symbol, and the social network alerted him that two posts had been flagged as contravening its policies.
Zimbel said that he has no idea how the hack was accomplished, as he didn’t share his password with anyone.
The ISIS symbols were a big problem — “it’s not good for business,” Zimbel pointed out. And they were a problem for Facebook also. The network’s Community Standards page prohibits “organizations or individuals that proclaim a violent mission or are engaged in violence.”
Zimbel agrees his account should have been suspended — temporarily. “If you’re posting that kind of content, you will be banned from Facebook and rightfully so. It’s just that in this case, I didn’t post the stuff.”
When he followed the steps recommended on Facebook’s help page, in order to explain what had happened, he met with nothing but frustration.
“I wrote emails to various Facebook email addresses, but have not had any answers,” he said. Zimbel realized his situation wasn’t uncommon when searched online for solutions, he said, and discovered a lengthy discussion on Reddit about how to break through to get support.
Unfortunately, the so-called solution involved purchasing a $400 Oculus Virtual Reality headset — made by another company owned by Facebook’s parent, Meta. Zimbel said he didn’t want to incur the expense and wasn’t convinced it would work.
He said he doesn’t find it surprising that the popular social media company doesn’t invest in the type of massive call centre that would be required to deal with individual customers’ issues. Close to three billion users worldwide — more than a third of the earth’s population — pay nothing to use the platform. The company’s revenue is generated through advertising.
“Since you’re not paying Facebook, they don’t have to take care of you,” he said.
Go Public gets action
After Go Public contacted Facebook, Zimbel’s account was restored. It had been out of service for six weeks.
The company recommends visiting its Help Center for tips and best practices to keep accounts secure. It offered no advice for users whose accounts have already been suspended due to a misunderstanding, and are unable to make contact.
Ritesh Kotak, an independent cybersecurity analyst based in Toronto, believes the company can do better. He has been consulted on similar cases in the past, and points to the $9 billion in profit Meta reported during its last quarterly financial results.
“If Facebook is going to create a platform that people are going to leverage for their businesses, there is a responsibility that comes with making these types of platforms,” Kotak said.
Kotak says that although hacking is a criminal offence, it’s unlikely anyone who is locked out of their account will have success trying to pursue a solution through the courts.
“Can you imagine walking into your local police service and saying ‘My Facebook account has been hacked?'” he asked. “Their intention is not to restore your account. Their intention is to find out who the hackers are.”
Kotak says Zimbel’s issue may seem small, but “when you take it and you multiply it with the hundreds, if not thousands, of people that are experiencing similar situations, this actually has a hit to our economy.”
Zimbel said he wanted the company to solve his problem. He didn’t consider setting up an alternate Facebook account in order to get work because that would mean he’d lose the community of fans and friends he’s spent years building.
“My network would disappear if I started a new account, so I wouldn’t even really solve my problem,” he said. “I’ve toured Brazil four times, but I could maybe find one or two of all my Brazilian friends on Facebook. The rest would be lost.”
Now Zimbel is relieved to be back in business, and hopes to be performing again soon. He’s taken the company’s advice and enabled two-factor authentication on his account. But he’d like to see Facebook change how it handles hacks.
“I just think they need to do it in a way that doesn’t affect individuals who depend on Facebook for their livelihood,” he said. “If they would just give us some sort of customer support in the situation where you get hacked, that would be immensely helpful.”
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