The Shade Room’s Disappearance Shows the Dark Side of Facebook Benevolence

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Yesterday, in an instant, the popular news site the Shade Room disappeared from Facebook without explanation. The Shade Room, which tracks celebrity gossip, is the first big news service to live entirely on social media: It started as an Instagram account, before expanding onto Facebook and other platforms. It has a website, more or less as an afterthought. Which means that a disappeared Facebook page isn’t just a lost source of traffic — it’s an entire lost arm of the publication.

According to TSR’s advertising kit, the brand has more than eight million followers across all of its web platforms, which include social networks and the dedicated website. Instagram and Facebook are, by far, its most popular presences, with follower counts on both hovering in the mid-four millions.

Much of what the Shade Room does is take and compile content from elsewhere, laying its own watermark on each image. For the most part, the service uses screenshots, but, as Jezebel points out, it occasionally posts professional photos that it doesn’t have the rights to, without attribution.

Angie Nwandu, who runs the Shade Room, confirmed that her Facebook page had been shut down but told the Nieman Lab that no explanation had been given (the Instagram account, which Nwandu briefly took private, is still live). A rep for Facebook later told Jezebel that TSR had violated community guidelines, but did not elaborate further.

Today, the company told CNN that the page was in trouble for repeatedly violating intellectual property rights. The move makes a bit more sense when placed next to Facebook’s newly unveiled Rights Manager tool, meant to give IP holders the ability to monitor unauthorized use of their work. Facebook is cracking down on copyright violations — a huge issue that had gone largely untouched until this year.

But Rights Manager is of little comfort to the thousands of pages that have built a following upon generous interpretations of “fair use” — Facebook pages that could disappear in an instant for a single alleged infraction.

That swiftness with which TSR’s Facebook page disappeared, and the lack of explanation that accompanied it, really encapsulate the current moment of media’s relationship to platform holders. Facebook’s big pitch is that by placing video and articles directly on their network, and thus the site’s weighing them more heavily in the News Feed algorithm, media organizations will experience increased readership. This is, for the most part, true — participants in the Instant Articles program are seeing compelling increases in reach, as are those making a big push into video.

But that can all disappear in an instant (no pun intended) if one runs afoul of Facebook’s nebulous community guidelines or practices. When companies take advantage of Facebook’s platform offerings, they’re also ceding a lot of editorial control to Facebook, which has been inconsistent when it comes to enforcing its rules. (For instance, Facebook is institutionally terrified of female nipples in almost any context.)

Plus, the company’s response to the Shade Room has been wildly disproportionate. Rather than take down the offending posts or warn Nwandu beforehand, Facebook removed the publication’s presence entirely. It plays into the media’s worst anxiety toward the tech companies trying to lure them: If Facebook doesn’t like something, it can just disappear it. When you run a publication on someone else’s platform, you let them have the final say. For news organizations, that’s never a good position to be in.