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Facebook Temporarily 'Bans' RT After Presumed Technical Failure

Facebook temporarily banned the RT media outlet from posting images, videos, and links to articles on the social network. RT said the ban, which was originally supposed to run until the morning of January 21, resulted from a technical failure involving the company's online streaming rights algorithms.

The problem arose when RT live-streamed President Obama's final press conference on January 18. RT said it received a notification about the stream being stopped by Facebook because it "may contain audio or visual content" belonging to another Russian media organization dubbed Current Live TV. These notifications are part of Facebook's efforts to make sure movies, news broadcasts, and other videos are streamed only by their rights holders.

RT later had its ability to share content via its Facebook page revoked until 2:55pm ET on January 21. Speculation about this ban was rampant--was it somehow motivated by a desire to censor the Russian media company during president-elect Donald Trump's inauguration on January 20? Did the U.S. government use Facebook to poke Russia in the eye? RT, which has supported Trump and is often critical of the United States, seemed to think so.

But that doesn't appear to have been the case. "All the features for this page owner have now been restored," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement to Tom's Hardware. "We are looking into the reasons behind the temporary block." The company pushed back on claims that any outside force had any involvement with the incident; the ban truly appears to be the result of a malfunction in the systems meant to protect rights holders.

RT said both Current Live TV and the Associated Press--whose stream of Obama's press conference RT was sharing--denied any involvement with this episode. Nobody will know for sure what happened until Facebook completes its investigation into what happened, but right now it seems like a simple mistake, and the company was quick to remove the restrictions on RT's page. It appears this wasn't a grand conspiracy so much as it was a simple malfunction.

Yet the incident's timing couldn't have been worse. RT's ban arrived before the presidential inauguration, sure, but it also followed the announcement of the Facebook Journalism Project. That effort is meant to help Facebook's billion-plus users get their news by halting the spread of misinformation, educating people on critical news analysis, and creating new technologies for media organizations so they can better take advantage of the platform.

As we explained when the Facebook Journalism Project was revealed:

This matters to Facebook because it needs the media to give its users something to do besides post memes, look at baby pictures, and decline friend requests from people they barely knew in high school. It matters to the media because Facebook is currently one of the best ways for journalism to find an audience while also bringing in the revenues needed to fund that reporting. And it matters to Facebook users, because they should have access to news.

A technical failure that could have prevented a media outlet--even one created by the Kremlin to serve the Russian government's interests--from reaching Facebook users threatened to undermine those goals. Facebook didn't take an editorial stance on RT's quality. Its algorithms merely intervened where they probably shouldn't have, which has become all too common on the platform, where content is often mistakenly flagged by faulty technology.

Facebook has every right to police its platform. But as the company becomes ever more important to the media industry, and as it promises to find ways to help more than 1 billion people get their news, algorithmic failures like this one are harder to brush aside as mere technical issues. The company has positioned itself as the center of social discourse; at the very least it should be expected not to silence media organizations, however briefly, by mistake.