A city in France has had a real rollercoaster of a week, after its Facebook page was accidentally deleted for violating the terms and conditions of the site. Of course, the city of Bitche, France (in the Moselle department in northeastern France) hadn’t done anything in particular to violate any of Facebook’s rules — it just sounded a whole lot like it did.
According to a report from Radio Mélodie (via Politico), Bitche’s troubles first began on March 19th, when the city’s official page — titled “Ville de Bitche,” which translates to the perfectly normal “City of Bitche” — was suddenly removed. Valérie Degouy, the city’s communication manager, attempted to contact Facebook to try to appeal the decision but was unsuccessful, and she eventually just made a new page titled “Mairie 57230,” after Bitche’s postal code.
“I tried to reach out to Facebook in every possible way, through different forms, but there’s nothing [I could] do,” Degouy said, explaining that she had already run into similar issues with the social media company when creating the page back in 2016.
Following the viral coverage of the confusion, Facebook quickly reinstated the page on Tuesday, telling CNN that it was “removed in error.”
This kind of content moderation mix-up has been an issue on the internet for about as long as spam and profanity filters have been around. It even has a name: the Scunthorpe problem, after a similar incident in 1996 that saw AOL censor the name of the British town of Scunthrope due to filters confused over an unintentional profanity found within the name.
And while, yes, this is objectively funny, there are larger implications here. Another town in the region — Rohrbach-lès-Bitche — has preemptively changed the name of its Facebook page to ensure that it won’t be accidentally caught up in Facebook’s profanity filter. A Facebook page to be able to communicate with residents and tourists is too important of a thing to not have in 2021, but due to Facebook’s broken content filters, towns are forced to change their digital identity to simply stay online.
For its part, the city leadership seems to be taking the removal in good stride. A statement posted by Benoît Kieffer, the mayor of Bitche, to both the reinstated Facebook page and Bitche’s official website acknowledges the difficulties of content moderation and points out the importance of using human moderators to help differentiate between false positives (like Bitche) and more serious offenders.
Kieffer goes on to ask Facebook to be more transparent and fair in how it makes these decisions, in addition to extending an invitation to both the head of Facebook’s French business as well as to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to visit Bitche for themselves.