The word “militia” may have caused Facebook to freeze the Westmoreland Historical Society page

A group whose mission is to preserve and promote the historic resources of Westmoreland County has had its Facebook page shut down, likely triggered by the non-political use of the word “militia” in reference to local reenactors.

Staff at the Westmoreland Historical Society are bewildered and frustrated after the non-profit organization’s Facebook accounts and some of those associated with the organization were disabled last week.

According to executive director Lisa Hays, an “issue” shut down the company’s Facebook page on September 8, as a staff member attempted to post about an upcoming event. When staff tried to log back in, she said, they received a message that the account had been deactivated.

The personal Facebook accounts of Hays, two other staff and a volunteer have also been deactivated. When they appealed, each received a message from Facebook stating that their account was disabled because “it did not meet our community standards.” This decision cannot be overturned.

“No reason was given and no other remedy was offered,” Hays said, adding that the group’s repeated attempts to contact Facebook by phone or email have been unsuccessful.

“Facebook has been a widely used marketing tool for the Westmoreland Historical Society,” Hays said.

“I feel bad for the historical society, but I feel bad for them too,” she said of those whose personal Facebook pages have been closed. “They had a family album… photos that were shared. It’s terrible. “

One of those involved “tried to create another Facebook page with a different email, but they tracked it down and deleted it,” Hays said.

When the Tribune-Review inquired about the disabled accounts on Thursday, a Facebook representative said she would look into the matter.

Hays suspects the accounts may have been closed because the company used the word ‘militia’ when it posted descriptions of Revolutionary War reenactors involved in events at its historic Hanna’s Town site in Hempfield .

“Their activities and protests have absolutely nothing to do with anti-American activities,” she said, but cited media accounts from reenactors in other areas that depicted historic militia groups and had closed the associated Facebook pages.

The New Republic reported on a War of Independence-era militia reenactor active in New England who was banned from Facebook in October. His accounts were restored following an investigation by the magazine.

Scott Henry of Greensburg, captain of an Independence War reenactment group that often participates in the events of Hanna’s Town, said the group specifically avoided using their popular name – Proctor’s Militia – when they created a private Facebook page, so as not to trigger a possible shutdown. by the social media giant.

Instead, the group uses its more formal name, the Independent Battalion of Westmoreland County in Pennsylvania.

“It just doesn’t make sense to attract undue attention,” Henry said, adding, “It’s so ridiculous.”

Heather Starr Fiedler, professor of multimedia who chairs the department of community engagement at Point Park University, said the algorithms used by social media companies are good at picking up words like “militia” that could be a sign of misuse of the platform. But, she noted, these algorithms cannot provide context.

“These rules are in place, so hate groups are not using the platform and people are not spreading false information,” she said. “The rules are in place for good reason, but there isn’t a very good escape net for the people who have essentially been caught up in these algorithms.”

Fiedler said groups such as the local historical society may find themselves in a short-term “David and Goliath” situation when they attempt to appeal an account closure.

She said Facebook’s creation of a 20-member supervisory board last year to hear appeals is a step in the right direction. But, she noted, “They mainly deal with much larger cases that have the potential to impact many users around the world.”

In most cases, she said, “There isn’t a lot of recourse other than asking for a review and filing an appeal, and it takes time. From what I’ve heard, people usually don’t hear in a fast way.

Jeff Himler is a writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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