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Exposed: gaping holes in Facebook’s procedure to report abuse

March 12, 2010 20 Comments

Facebook claims that it "maintains a robust reporting infrastructure that leverages our hundreds of millions of users to look for offensive or potentially dangerous content."

Picture 204

But I've discovered that this is rubbish. Facebook's methods for reporting inappropriate comments are confusing, flawed or missing. Problems I've uncovered include:

  • Content that's impossible to flag.
  • There's no way to explain why content is inappropriate, which means Facebook has to work out itself (as you'll see from the examples below, this is highly unlikely).
  • Confusing error messages that tell you you can't report content, even though you can.

How Facebook's system works (supposedly)

Facebook's terms of service state:

"You will not post content that is hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence."

If you do spot inappropriate content, there are "report" links allowing you to flag the content, like this (I've blacked out people's names):

The "report" link

The "report" link

To test the system out, I found Facebook pages or groups which contained the following:

  • Claims that the parents of Baby P were responsible for his murder (they weren't - it was the mother and boyfriend).
  • Claims that someone called David Calvery is, in fact, Jon Venables (who murdered Jamie Bulger) - even though he can't possibly be.
  • Claims that Madeleine McCann's parents were responsible for their daughter's death (there is no suggestion from the Portuguese police that this is the case).

Why Facebook's reporting process is not fit for purpose

You can't report content that the owner of a page created

You can't report new comments by the person who set up a page. There's a page called "I hope Jon Venables gets his head kicked in now hes in Adult Jail..." If the creator / administrator of that page posts a new comment, there is no "report" link by their comment, as these pictures (one for that page, one for another one called "all pedophiles should hang") show  - there's no "Report" link next to the information on the date/time the comment was made.

Another comment that can't be reported

Another comment that can't be reported

You can't report comments by a page's Admin

You can't report comments by a page's Admin

If anyone replies to this comment (or if the page's administrator replies to another comment), then there IS a "report" button - but it's not there for new comments by the creator of the page.

This makes it impossible to flag this comment incorrectly accusing an innocent man of being a child murderer.

You can't say why you're reporting pages

Let's say you decided to try to work around that by reporting the whole page - in the left hand column of these pages is a "Report page" link. But, crucially, this doesn't ask WHY you're flagging content. Here's what the reporting box looks like:

Reporting a page

Reporting a page

Yes, they really have spelled categorised wrongly. You can put inappropriate content - but if you're trying to flag up one comment on a page with hundreds on, there's no way to explain this. Because once you've chosen an option and pressed to continue, you get the thank you screen. How do Facebook imagine they are going to work out which bit of content I wanted to flag up?

Once you've reported it, you see this box:

Yeah, thanks

Yeah, thanks

Yes, they're not going to tell you what action they took.

This issue applies on a bigger scale if you actually do disagree with the entire page.

This page is called "Let Baby P's abusive parents get what's coming to them".

Baby P's dad was innocent

Baby P's dad was innocent

I've reported it - but because there's no way to explain why I've reported it, I'm relying on Facebook employees working out that it was Baby B's mother and her boyfriend, and not his mother and father, who were found guilty of murder.

This is, again, not a "robust" system as Facebook claim - it's relying on them working out what the issue is - and what happens if they miss the problem? Well, they don't get in touch, as we've seen. (They may remove the page because of its threats of violence, but this doesn't undermine the point - if these threats were missing, how would they know what I was reporting?)

You can't say why you're reporting comments

This problem applies to the reporting of individual comments, too. Take this one, incorrectly describing an innocent man as actually being a child murderer.

Incorrect accusation

Incorrect accusation

I reported this - again, I'm not asked why. How are Facebook employees going to know why? Will they bother looking into the case - how will they even know that there is an issue with David Calvert being falsely named as Venables? The options don't even make sense: "attacks individual or group" isn't really why I'm complaining.

Reporting a comment

Reporting a comment

You can't report discussion topics

If you want to report an entire discussion, you can't. Here's a screenshot from a rugby songs group - apologies for the racist language (believe me, there are worse).

Racist language

Racist language

Alternatively, here's one accusing Madeleine McCann's mother of being her killer:

Acusing Kate McCann

Accusing Kate McCann

Discussion topics' problem is that you have to report them one comment at time - there is no way to report the entire topic. There could be hundreds of them, and you have to report them one at a time.

And, again, when you do, you're not asked WHY you're reporting them. It might be obvious to you - but what if it was a less obvious topic, or what if the Facebook moderators aren't in the UK and don't know about the McCanns?

You're told you can't report content

You might notice inappropriate content when you're not logged in to Facebook. If you try to flag it, you see this error message:



This doesn't tell you that you have to log in to report it - it just says you "don't have sufficient permissions to do that". This leaves the user none the wiser that they could report the content if they logged in.

How it ought to work

Facebook do have the tools in place to improve these systems. If you try and report a group, the system works slightly better, as you have to answer two questions. The first is a proper list of reasons:

Groups: what's the problem?

Groups: what's the problem?

The second is to be more specific about where the inappropriate content is:

Groups: where's the problem?

Groups: where's the problem?

It's not clear why this more informative way of reporting content isn't standard.


You may think these examples are obvious. But that's because I've chosen extreme ones. In less obvious cases, Facebook has a system where people can't report content and can't explain why they've reported it.

Its reporting system is a sham. It needs to change.

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  • Darika says:

    Great post, I like the way you've actually mocked up suggested reporting ideas and was surprised about the error messages you found.

    Another facet to this discussion is that even when reported, Facebook is not necessarily obligated to take it down. The majority of offensive content online is protected by our rights to freedom of speech and then a sites own Terms of Use. Facebook have been pretty clear on their position to this.

    We looked at types of user-generated content and legal obligations recently in a free guide. Would love to hear your thoughts?

  • Iain says:

    In a similar vein, can I refer you to this piece I did for the Record last month?

    It's the sort of laissez-fair attitude that gives social media a bad name.

  • Paul Lomax says:

    Interestingly, the whole system is broken on the flipside of the coin - when Facebook remove your content for 'violation of terms of use'...

    All you get is an email like this:

    You uploaded a photo that violates our Terms of Use, and this photo has been removed. Facebook does not allow photos that attack an individual or group, or that contain nudity, drug use, violence, or other violations of the Terms of Use. These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children who use the site.

    If you have any questions or concerns, you can visit our FAQ page at

    The kicker is that they don't tell you /which/ photo they have deleted! And the reason for deletion is not given either. To add insult to injury there is absolute no right to recourse of any way to contact anybody at Facebook.

    Try finding an email address, phone number or even a 'contact us' page anywhere on the Facebook site. I couldn't. I even asked a Facebook employee - the contacts page link he sent me apparently only works internally. Externally it redirects to the totally useless FAQ pages.

    Facebook also stick a massive warning about your 'violation' at the top of your facebook pages which only goes away when you click "I acknowledge this". Of course, there is no "I don't acknowledge this" button!

    Facebook claim they have a team that investigate every abuse report, and nothing is removed automatically. Frankly, I don't believe them - it wouldn't scale.

    I definitely didn't have any photos on Facebook that breach the terms of use, yet I've had six deleted by them so far. I suspect somebody reporting them for 'a laugh'. Probably somebody from high school that I never liked but I'm Facebook friends with for some unknown reason ;-)

  • Jaz says:

    All good points

    another problem is the amount of time it takes for them to remove offensive groups, last week someone pointed out a group to me that was highly offensive about people with downs syndrome, they had already reported it earlier in the day, I reported it, other friends reported it and it was 3 days before it was removed. I understand some things need further investigation before removal, but it only takes one look to see something like this shouldn't exist why does it take so long, investigation team unessessary in these cases.

  • Denny says:

    I don't think it actually matters, because I don't think they read the abuse reports anyway. I've reported several instances of extremely obvious trademark violation and virus-like behaviour (a group of applications which claimed to be from various well-known companies, but whose only purpose was to send out notifications to your friends without your permission so that they would spread further) and when I checked back weeks later, the same applications still existed.

    If Facebook won't deal with a very straight-forward case of trademark violation inside of a fortnight, which they have strong commercial motive to do, then they're not going to deal with anything.

  • [...] Exposed: gaping holes in Facebook’s procedure for reporting content [...]

  • Tia Fisher says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for this. I'd already blogged about the Facebook CEOP button issue, and have added this helpful analysis of Facebook reporting procedures to the blogpost at I hope you don't mind that I borrowed your screengrabs (credited)?

  • Tia Fisher says:

    Um, that should have started - "Hi Malcom" - I just answered the phone to someone called Peter, lol!

  • michael coyle says:

    Facebooks reporting process in not acceptable.
    I recently pointed out a spoof name with offensive entry,
    offensive to someone I know-they take no action
    We need active Government intervention on Facebook

  • [...] there are just as many spammers, trolls and idiots as there are anywhere else. [Check out this blog post from Malcolm Coles for some especially horrible [...]

  • [...] Exposed: gaping holes in Facebook’s procedure for reporting content [...]

  • Rhonda says:

    I reported a comment on facebook, and facebook just made it so I could not see the comment, everyone else can still see it. I think they really need to make some changes.

  • Alison says:

    Four days ago an abusive picture of my daughter was put on someone's website. It was very distressing for her as it tooka about two hours to go throughout her school. She is being ridiculed and insulted over this picture. (someone's body with her head on it - not sexual - drug related with innuendo captions to an eating disorder). All her friends reported the photo. They removed it from his Wall, but left the photo and all the comments in his photo file. I reported every which way I could, though there is no direct way to do this as you say. Eventually I found an email address re. abuse, emailed about six times finally got a reply 2 days ago saying they were going to deal with it immediately. So far - nothing. Meanwhile this has totally destroyed my daughter, she won't go out, won't go to school. I don't think Facebook are being held responsible for the things that are happening and how their website can affect peoples lives. This is serious stuff and there is no way to make them accountable. I am thinking next step police or a lawyer because we live in a small town and this picture is everywhere and i've no idea how to deal with this and facebook are no help at all. I believe there should be rules and timelines in place for abuse and it should be a lot easier to report. I am computer savy, what if I weren't? No way would I have found an email - so what - I would just have to live with it - or rather my daughter would?

  • [...] they tend to pretty-much blow caution to the wind s lot of the time. Look at any number of horrible hate campaigns on Facebook for plenty of evidence of people behaving badly despite their comments being linked to [...]

  • Anette says:

    Hi Alison, can you let me know what that e mail address is please? I am not a facebook member but have been told that there is a current thread naming myself, husband and seven year old son that is very abusive and threatening towards my son. I want to get it removed quickly. Tx.

  • James says:

    Its not just inside facebook but prats on face book targeting peopel who are not even mebers

    The following email came to me from inside Facebook
    spam from facebook should be monitored and it impossible to report it i have forwarded it yahoo control
    -------------------The email as follows-------------------
    Sunday, 22 August, 2010 16:36From: This sender is DomainKeys verified"Real Gumtree People - Over 8500 Members!" Add sender to Contacts
    To: withheld
    Do you know you can post to facebook from our new site? Why not come online now and have a chat?

    Administrator of Real Gumtree People - Over 8500 Members! sent you this message. To visit the group:

    To unsubscribe, sign in and go to your email preferences panel.

    This is an automated email, please do not reply this email.
    Privacy Policy - 530 University Ave, Suite C, Palo Alto, CA 94301, USA

  • Oh I could NOT agree more! Good article! It *used* to be where you could send an email to Abuse directly, but they've just adopted this "I can't be bothered any more" attitude, it seems. When I needed to report a VERY serious (libellous) allegation struck against the wife, guess what? Generic all the way. Most of the time it is NOT possible to flag individual posts, only use the left-hand button. I'm seriously thinking about just deleting my FB account and be done with it and their ilk.

  • chris says:

    Agree with this completely.

  • Jade says:

    Agree, more needs to be done. I have tried to report someone who is constantly writing abuse, hateful comments about certain religions mainly muslims but also all the others who are not coptic orthidox and there is no way to write why you are reporting them. Needs to be fixed.

  • angela says:

    hi alison or annette,

    could i please have the email address aswell at the moment my ex is having abusive posting being put up on someone else wall, which also name my two children they are only young and want it stopped as soon as possible x

    thanks angela

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