Facebook offers curt apology over blocking tool bug

A coding glitch allowed some accounts that had been previously blocked to see public posts and contact blocked accounts. Is the social media platform doing enough to apologize?

In another blow to Facebook’s privacy and safety cred, the organization announced a bug had unblocked thousands of accounts.

Facebook broke the news in a blog post, which read in part:

Starting today we are notifying over 800,000 users about a bug in Facebook and Messenger that unblocked some people they had blocked. The bug was active between May 29 and June 5—and while someone who was unblocked could not see content shared with friends, they could have seen things posted to a wider audience. For example, pictures shared with friends of friends. We know that the ability to block someone is important—and we’d like to apologize and explain what happened.

When you block someone on Facebook they cannot see things you post on your profile, start conversations with you on Messenger or add you as a friend. Blocking also automatically unfriends them if you were previously friends. In the case of this bug:

  • It did not reinstate any friend connections that had been severed;
  • 83% of people affected by the bug had only one person they had blocked temporarily unblocked; and
  • Someone who was unblocked might have been able to contact people on Messenger who had blocked them.

The news was troubling to many, and news outlets framed the conversation around the privacy and data misuse scandal that Facebook has been fighting since early this year.

Engadget wrote:

Facebook has been dealing with a number of privacy issues surrounding its platform including the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a bug that changed 14 million users’ privacy setting defaults to public. Unblocking blocked accounts without a users’ consent is a major blunder on Facebook’s part and one that could have caused some users harm.

Recode added:

The big issue here—just like the last bug the company announced which changed the privacy settings formillions of users without their permission—is that, little by little, Facebook keeps eroding user trust. Facebook posts and profile information are often personal, and the ability to control who sees that is an important element of feeling safe on the service.

This year, Facebook has routinely let users down when it comes to protecting their privacy, and even though this recent bug affected a relatively small percentage of users, it will hit some as yet another example of why Facebook can’t be trusted with peoples’ private information.

At the same time, Facebook tried to demonstrate a willingness to crack down on data misuse. In a separate blog post, the organization revealed it was making changes to its APIs to restrict third-party access to user data.

ZDNet noted that marketers may miss some information that was formerly available.

It wrote:

Meanwhile, the Media Solutions family of APIs, used by media companies for things like polling and voting around TV broadcasts, will limit developer data access to a person’s public page content and posts. Many of the media APIs will be shuttered completely on August 1, including the Topic Search, Topic Insights and Topic Feed and Public Figure APIs.

Elsewhere, the Pages API will soon require feature permissions to Page Public Content Access, which can only be obtained through the app review process. The Marketing API will require developers go through an app review process before use. The Live Video and Lead Ads Retrieval APIs will have new app review permissions as well.

However, Facebook’s tactic of releasing both blog posts on the same day didn’t fool observers. Critics were still ready to lambast the organization for the blocking tool flaw on social media.

Some saw the scandal as part of Facebook’s ongoing reputation crisis:

Others were upset that important safety tools were disabled:

At the end of its release, Facebook offered links to more information about safety and blocking accounts, but with its reputation under assault, a more robust response might have been more convincing. Links can point to an organization’s well-established position or identity, but on a subject where an organization is struggling to reframe the narrative, just offering links risks looking lazy or half-baked. Facebook was ready to add more information when people asked for it on social media.

Take note, crisis communicators: Social media listening can buoy a lackluster first response and demonstrate a level of care from your organization. What do you think of Facebook’s crisis response efforts, PR Daily readers?

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