Editor's note: This story contains references to child pornography that some readers may find disturbing.
It's tempting to think of Facebook as pure entertainment — the dumb game you play when your boss looks away, or your date goes to the bathroom. But that's underestimating how powerful the Facebook empire has become. For some, the app is more important than a driver's license. People need it to contact colleagues, or even start and build businesses.
It's hard to know how many people rely on Facebook for work, but NPR interviewed dozens who do. Their stories reveal an unsettling fact: This Silicon Valley giant — one that has woven its way into the lives of more than a billion people — can be a black box, silent about how it makes decisions.
While some have been frustrated about censorship, for a number of users, there is another concern — livelihood.
Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School and author of The Attention Merchants, says it's as though Facebook were an industrial park. Users started setting up offices in the park, using the roads to travel, treating it like a public utility. But legally, it's private. So when Facebook shuts off the road that goes to your shop, or puts in a new toll, he says, "That's it, you're done."
Two very different people — one is a meme-maker in Florida, the other an investigative journalist from Zimbabwe — got stopped in their tracks as they were doing their work on Facebook, because of the company's decisions and refusal to talk, human-to-human. That caused them tangible harm. Their stories illustrate how much Facebook controls people's access to the online world, and how opaque the company is about this power.
A fascinating cottage industry
Tim Lawler considers himself a regular American. "If Bruce Willis and The Rock had a baby, it would look like me," he says.
He doesn't have a computer science degree from Stanford, yet he managed to make a six-figure salary on Facebook. His job is something you've likely never heard of before: He makes and shares memes — those dumb, funny pictures you see all over the Internet — for money.
Lawler previously worked as a manager for Harley-Davidson, but he lost his job when his store got bought out. He was 40, a tough age to make a career change.
He first got on Facebook just for fun. He had a regular account. Then one day he decided to try out a special feature — to make something called, simply, a "page." Anyone can do it. It takes just a few seconds.
Lawler made one in honor of a personal passion: skulls. "I think that skulls are just a universal symbol of our either mortality or immortality; and every person that's ever been around in this world, past, present or future, has a skull," he explains.
Turns out, it was a stroke of brilliance. Lawler built a base of 350,000 fans — fellow skull-lovers. And then he started making more pages for more passions, amassing about 4 million "likes" total. (By comparison, NPR's Facebook page has 5.6 million likes. So Lawler is a serious one-man shop.)
His most popular page was called "Unlawful Humor" — an edgy title, but with PG content. One day, a Facebook friend told him she was making money off one of her pages, and he should get in on the business.
Here's how the money part works: Just like Google and Facebook get paid to post advertisements (in your search and your news feed), Lawler gets paid to posts ads too — in his Facebook page — by a third party, an entity known as an "affiliate link" company. In the complex world of online advertising, these companies are middlemen between big brands like Home Depot and publishers. It's a standard practice for businesses on Facebook to post these advertising links. He'll share a link — it could be for a juice company or a news site — and every time a fan clicks on that link, he gets less than a penny.
But the money adds up. Lawler made anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars a day, to $1,000. Last year he raked in about $100,000. (He showed NPR proof of his earnings.)
Before it became lucrative, Lawler felt he had a knack for this work because he saw celebrities sharing his memes.
In 2010, according to a former senior employee, Facebook had only 100,000 of these pages. Now, according to two employees, there are roughly 60 million. And they're a vital part of the corporate strategy. To keep growing, Facebook needs people to do more than set up personal accounts. It needs small businesses to set up digital shop. That brings in more traffic and opens the doors to Facebook mediating (and getting a fee for) financial transactions.
If Facebook is the publisher, the most dedicated page owners are the army of reliable writers. They post multiple times an hour.
NPR interviewed dozens of people who operate pages. It's an intriguing world of niche interests. Mikael Giagis started "The Ultimate 80s" (he loves Molly Ringwald); Cole Larocque started "Wicked Diesels" and Jason Karpowich did "Fool Injected Off-road" (they love their cars); Jess Eagon Cook started "Mommy Doesn't Have a Filter Honey" (to help cope with motherhood); John Sweeney had "102.7 WSNR" (to promote his Internet radio station).
Maureen Camfield, a nurse, started a page for the brokenhearted. It was called "Broken, Beaten and Scarred But Not Giving Up." We often hear how the Internet is full of bullies. Camfield says there are so many lonely people online who just want a friend, you can build a real business by being kind. She'd sometimes refer a fan on her page to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and get a message in return like: "You helped. You made a difference. I wanted to kill myself that night and I didn't."
It all comes crashing down
The technology sector gets criticized for killing jobs, for having robots and algorithms replace human labor. These page owners sound like success stories — exactly the people Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would want to brag about. While algorithms take over boring, repetitive work, Facebook is making new work that is creative. This is the very promise of technology.
But that is not where this story goes. Lawler and the other page owners listed above got shut down. Lawler remembers he was sitting on his couch, posting to his Facebook pages. And all of a sudden, he saw a stream of notifications: "This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. And I was like, 'Oh my God.' "
He remembers the date: Oct. 25. Around the same time, others tell NPR, they received similar, generic messages. They'd violated Facebook's Terms of Service and their pages are not allowed to operate. The notices did not state what the person did wrong exactly, what the offending posts were, or whether there was a way to rectify the situation (to get the page back). They read like form letters.
When Lawler opens his Facebook account, he can still see his old pages (the rest of the world can't). It makes him sad "because there's nothing happening over there. All that's happening is I'm [losing] likes that I built," he says.
You could say tough luck. Facebook is a free app. People don't pay, and they're not entitled to use it. But Lawler and others did pay.
Facebook makes money in different ways. The company sticks its own ads on pages — meaning the ads other businesses pay Facebook to place. And it charges page owners to "boost" a post — pay $5 to get your post in front of more people. (Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams.)
Lawler paid thousands of dollars in ad money. He thought it was a kind of a safety valve. When you advertise, you get a point person, a human at Facebook. Lawler tried reaching that person, and even got a call back — which he missed. His emails to Facebook went unanswered.
In April 2016, Facebook posted a new rule online stating that users have to get special approval from corporate headquarters to post advertisements independently. Furthermore, Lawler got dozens of notices that his account was sending out spam. Facebook declined to discuss the specifics of any case, citing privacy concerns.
Lawler says he didn't know about this new rule (Facebook didn't tell him), and the spam notices he got are just little pop-ups that disappear in seconds. If he were in bad standing, he figured, someone in the advertising department would have warned him — and not let him keep paying to promote his page.
Trying to track a child abuser
The difficulty in reaching the company to have access restored doesn't just affect people who created pages.
In Zimbabwe, about 8,000 miles away from the Florida meme-maker, there is a user named Sandra Nyaira, an investigative journalist. On June 17, 2016, she received three photographs. "Horrible, horrible pictures," she says.
They were of two young girls, perhaps 7 years old. They are on a bed, being sexually abused by a man. It's shot at such an angle that you can see the fear in the girls' eyes.
"When I received the pictures I was pained," she says. "I actually cried because I looked at them and I was like, 'Who does this?' Obviously these kids were being abused by someone who was very, very close to them."
According to news sources in Zimbabwe, the man took his phone to a repair shop and a clerk saw the photos in the photo gallery. Here in the U.S., if you saw such images, you might go to the police. But in Zimbabwe, Nyaira says, people don't trust the police to do their jobs. That's how she wound up with the photos. She's an award-winning reporter, and she wants to get justice done.
Nyaira reached out to a woman in Zimbabwe's Parliament, a feminist who demanded an investigation and who went on Facebook to talk about the case. In less than 24 hours, Nyaira recalls, they had launched a national discussion.
"So many women in Zimbabwe — women activists and ordinary women — started following the debate, and speaking with her, responding to a debate on Facebook," she says.
Facebook users contacted Nyaira, to ask how they could help. A fellow journalist said he could tap his sources and get officials he knows involved in the search. So Nyaira decided to share the photos with him on Messenger (Facebook's private chat tool).
That was a big mistake. Almost instantly, Facebook's computer software deactivated her. She thought to herself, "Oh no! The bots think I'm distributing child pornography." She felt mortified.
"Why did you do that? You start blaming yourself, but not for doing anything wrong really; for trying to help," Nyaira says.
She needs Facebook for her job. It's how she communicates with sources and promotes her stories. She told herself: It'll be OK. I'll just contact the company and explain. But she realized she couldn't reach a person at Facebook. There's no hotline to call. So she filled out a form on the website, which asked her to scan and upload a copy of her passport. She did that and still got a generic rejection.
Nyaira became more worried. "OK, I have sent Facebook my passport information, so what are they going to do with it? Are they going to go to the police without even talking to me about why they have blocked my account?" She feared she could be arrested.
In desperation, she turned to one of the most powerful institutions she knows: Harvard University. She used to be a fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, and even sat at a luncheon with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg there.
Nicco Mele, the center's director, reached out to a friend at Facebook and basically said: "Hey, is there anything you can do to help us? I can vouch for Sandra. She is the real deal. She wasn't doing anything untoward or anything bad."
Mele assumed the matter would get resolved quickly. But that didn't happen. He reached out to a second friend at Facebook thinking: c'mon. This is silly. And then "nothing happened," Mele says.
A few weeks after learning of Nyaira's case, NPR happened to be at Facebook headquarters to interview the head of the Messenger app about an unrelated topic. And at the end, we brought up her case. Without hesitating, Messenger head David Marcus said he'd look into it. "Of course, and generally those are cases that are really easy to resolve because we have a really good team that looks into these cases and resolves them generally pretty quickly, so I'm shocked that in this specific case it wasn't done," he said. "But of course, I'd be more than happy to help solve that."
Facebook is now in the process of contacting Nyaira directly about her account. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, a man was arrested as the alleged pedophile. As the country talked about it on Facebook, Nyaira — whose work helped lead to his capture — could not join in. After months of being off the app, she sometimes receives messages from colleagues who wonder why she has disappeared and whether she has left the news industry.
In different emerging markets — like India, Nigeria and Zimbabwe — Facebook leaders make the case that the social network is a tool that helps local economics grow. Nyaira says if Facebook is marketing itself as a vital service, not just a recreational habit, it owes it to users to have local call centers — as other multinationals do.
But it's unclear how much Facebook is willing to invest financially in reliable customer service. Consider the numbers. Facebook is worth about $387 billion, and it has about 16,000 employees. Meanwhile, Comcast, which is worth about $180 billion, has 126,000 employees — so less than half the market cap, but nearly eight times the workforce. Comcast is not exactly the gold standard, but it does have a way for a human customer to reach a human customer representative.
Blocking the roads
A few years ago, a joke started floating around in geek circles about Facebook. It went: You have to use Facebook, out of biological necessity, because if you don't use it, you don't make friends. If you don't make friends, you don't date. And if you don't date, you don't get to reproduce.
That is not the reality, yet. But the insight — that Facebook is far more powerful than we think, and than the company lets on — stands.
Ashkan Soltani is a privacy researcher and software engineer (who has also won a Pulitzer Prize and served at the Federal Trade Commission under the Obama administration). He thinks Facebook leaders downplay the company's power. While they broadcast their user numbers, they don't disclose how much people rely on Facebook. If the company revealed data showing Facebook is the primary mechanism by which people communicate online, Soltani says, "that would be a very precarious thing for them to say, particularly given competition law and all the responsibilities with it."
Many people fear technology is destroying jobs, not creating them. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg posted a New Year's resolution on his page: He's going to tour Middle America — visit the 30 states he hasn't visited yet — and talk to real people about their concerns.
Columbia's Tim Wu, when asked what he would say to the CEO on tour, poses these questions: "What are you doing for the economic development of Middle America? What can you offer them other than a chance to see their friends' kids and make ad revenue off people's children? He can do better. He can do better."
He's asking not just about individual cases, but about how Facebook — one of the 10 most valuable companies on Earth — sees its role in promoting commerce and creating opportunities for others.
A few months ago, onstage at Stanford University, Zuckerberg got asked pretty much the same thing by former President Barack Obama. Zuckerberg did not talk about Facebook's role. Instead, he defined the word "entrepreneurship."
"You know the most effective entrepreneurs who I've met care deeply about some mission and some change that they're trying to create. And often they don't even start because they're trying to create a company," he said.
Of course, lots of people do want to create a company, earn a living and use Facebook to help them do it. Zuckerberg will have many more opportunities to explain to them how — even if — Facebook can help as he tours the U.S.
NPR requested an interview with him, to discuss the situation of users who rely on Facebook for work. The company declined.
NPR's Aarti Shahani has started a page on Facebook for people to share concerns about the platform. It's called Tell Zuck. If you use Facebook for work, and find you're unable to reach the company, tell her your story at www.facebook.com/tellzuck.