Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well. The latest example? Facebook’s rules to takedown content deemed to be people trying to price gouge medical supplies like face masks resulted in tutorials on how to make your own face masks being taken down:

Facebook’s systems threatened to ban the organizers of hand-sewn masks from posting or commenting, they said, landing them in what is colloquially known as “Facebook Jail.” They said it also threatened to delete the groups. The issue has affected do-it-yourself mask makers in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, they said.

As the NY Times notes, Facebook, like most other social media sites, has been aggressively trying to block price gouging medical supplies:

At the top of its list were ads for masks, hand sanitizer and others looking to profit from the sale of safety equipment. Facebook banned advertising for such equipment last month, and has taken down nearly all posts related to the sale of masks across its Craigslist-like section, called Marketplace.

But as the company ramped up efforts to crack down on scammers and other miscreants, volunteer coordinators may have been caught in the crossfire.

“The automated systems we set up to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers have inadvertently blocked some efforts to donate supplies,” Facebook said in a statement. “We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward. We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people doing a good thing.”

This is not an attack on Facebook, but, once again, it’s important to recognize just how impossible it is to do these things well, especially at scale, and especially in the midst of a pandemic where things are changing daily. With the US only changing its recommendations on face masks last week, demand for any kind of face mask, including homemade ones, has sky-rocketed. And if you trying to build systems that are trained to look out for posts “advertising” things having to do with face masks — which was important in the first few weeks of the pandemic — they’re inevitably going to lead to false positives flagging those who are actually trying to help.

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