Up to 60 Facebook accounts of several high-profile bloggers and activists in Tunisia were deactivated without warning over the weekend, including that of journalist and political commentator Haythem El Mekki.
At least 14 accounts have since been restored, but no explanation has been given for the action by the social media giant.
El Mekki first became aware that his account had been deactivated last Friday. “It just said that my account had been deactivated and that was my final notice,” he said. “There wasn’t really any negotiation.”
Given his high profile and occasionally incendiary comments, El Mekki is not a stranger to controversy. However, having his account arbitrarily deactivated came as a surprise.
“They received no warning, no advance notice and still have no explanation,” said Emna Mizouni, an activist and journalist who campaigns for an open internet. “In the end we were able to get 14 restored by going to [the anti-corruption watchdog]IWatch … but know nothing about the rest.”
Facebook use is high in Tunisia, with many people crediting the platform for providing a rallying point for activists and bloggers during the country’s 2011 revolution that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“In Tunisia, the internet equals Facebook,” said Mizouni. “It was a really important tool during the revolution. We used it to organise events and share videos of what was happening across the country.”
After cementing itself at the centre of much of Tunisia’s public conversation, politicians and ministries use Facebook to communicate directly with the people.
According to online advocacy group AccessNow, around 60% of Tunisians are Facebook users, one of the highest uptakes of the platform within the region.
“I still don’t know what happened,” El Mekki said about the deactivation. “It would be flattering to believe that we had been targeted, but I think it’s just as likely that an algorithm got out of control.”
Whatever is the cause or reason behind the deactivation, over the past nine years the country’s relationship with Facebook has changed.
“I think one of the main dangers is that it’s not transparent to Tunisians,” said Mizouni. “For instance, during last year’s elections, we were unable to find out who was paying for what political adverts and why, despite several requests from NGOs to do so.”
Facebook did eventually respond to the NGOs’ requests some months later, although its letter failed to address the specific concerns raised.
When contacted by the Guardian about the deactivated accounts, the company said: “Due to a technical error we recently removed a small number of profiles, which have now been restored. We were not trying to limit anyone’s ability to post or express themselves, and apologise for any inconvenience this has caused.” (Source: The Guardian)