Don’t let you your book promotion get your book banned on social media
It might sound alarmist, but the world is changing, and big online Internet companies and social media networks are increasingly taking aggressive action against many forms of content.
For authors, it will have consequences because fiction ranges so widely in content and subjects, and some of it will possibly be filtered or perhaps banned by some sites.
Authors of books that have sexual content, erotic themes, contain acts of violence or are politically based will be especially susceptible.
Famous books that have been banned in the past were mainly a result of government actions or social attitudes. But that was principally in the 20th century.
You can view a list of the top ten banned classics here.
Think of the children’s book Huckleberry Finn and The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Both reside in school districts libraries and are part of school curriculums. It is difficult to remember that they were once banned books.
Since 1982 Banned Books Week has been drawing attention to famous books that have been banned.
Wikipedia gives this brief outline of the event in the United States.
The annual is sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, the American Booksellers Association, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), American Society of Journalists and Authors, Association of American Publishers, National Association of College Stores, and endorsed by the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.
Since 2011, the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has designated the Wednesday of Banned Books Week as Banned Websites Awareness Day. Their goal is “to bring attention to the overly aggressive filtering of educational and social websites used by students and educators.” Source Wikipedia.
The last line is the most relevant for authors using social media, in particular, to promote their books. Overly aggressive filtering of social websites.
Not books now, but filtering and banning content
Online censorship of the freedom to read is nothing new. China blocks so many sites and so much content that it has earned the nickname, The Great Firewall of China.
There was never a thought that the type of control of Internet services and censorship in China would come to the Western world.
But slowly Internet services we use and take for granted every day are changing. The Global Internet is dominated by a handful of huge corporations. Think here, Google, Facebook and Twitter and for authors especially, Amazon and Apple.
All of them have their own interpretation of the limits of freedom of expression and freedom of speech and are not clearly ruled by any single government or institutional set of regulations.
At least with China Internet, it is clear that the rules are dictated by the Chinese Communist Party.
For Internet users in the West, we have no idea who is in control, nor what the rules are.
If you are publishing books challenging the status quo, or that might contain offensive language to some, who decides if your content is appropriate?
Your content has violated our Terms of Service
Get ready to receive more and more emails with this subject line.
Social media is now closely monitoring content due to the failure of Facebook, in particular, to respect users’ privacy and control politically motivated content.
Pressure is notably being applied by the US government and the European Union. The Index on Censorship tracks the results of this pressure. You can also check the Office for Intellectual Freedom, which is run by ALA, the American Library Association.
But each of the big Internet companies has vastly differing standards, which are expressed in their Terms & Conditions. This page is hardly ever read by users, and even if they do, one would need to be a lawyer to understand it.
But we all tick the box and agree.
Worse is that these Terms & Conditions are changing constantly, and usually change without notice. If there is a notice by email, however, it rarely says more than “our terms have been updated”, with no clue as to what has been changed.
But if you do something that does not conform to the rules, which you have no way of really knowing what they are, you might receive a notice such as this.
Now the mystery begins because the message gives no clue as to what you have done wrong. Was it a post or a comment? Which post, which comment?
When you click on the links to the Conduct Policy and Terms of Service, there are pages and pages to read. If you contact the Help Centre, you are told to read the Terms & Conditions.
I received a similar notice from Google Adsense a little while back stating that I had contravened its policy with a post I published that contained sexually explicit material. I was a bit shocked.
I discovered that the offending article concerned promoting ebooks. The post is titled, Attracting Readers To Buy Erotica Ebooks, and contains no sexually explicit material whatsoever. Except for the word erotica in the title and once or twice in the text.
But this one word is obviously considered explicit under Google’s Policies. So it was banned. End of story. It didn’t matter that the content was more than suitable for a high school student to read or that one could find in a public library.
Puritan, moralistic or prudish? It doesn’t matter. It was Google’s decision. So the post was banned.
How you are monitored, filtered and banned
In 99.999% of cases, your comments and posts on social media are not checked by humans.
The words or images you use are checked by a computer program called an algorithm. In testimony to the US Senate, Mark Zuckerberg even said that Facebook was using artificial intelligence to monitor content on Facebook.
So all it takes is for a computer program to come across a small word sequence in one of your posts that it has been programmed to find, and your post is blocked or filtered or worse, your account is suspended or closed.
Have you noticed that even the New York Times is being curtailed on Facebook? Yep, don’t mention politics.
Twitter is suspending or closing accounts at an astonishing rate using computer algorithms. But try to learn how it is applied, and to who and why. It’s a secret.
But if you are unlucky enough to be the target of an algorithm, you will be arguing in the first instance with a computer if you want to complain.
Then, unless you are a celebrity or a president, don’t expect to be able to escalate your complaint to a human.
The first point to make is that every site you use has different rules.
If your book is published on Amazon, don’t think that Apple will necessarily accept to publish your book. I have had this happen on two occasions.
Amazon can and does remove or ban books from the Amazon Store if it thinks it recognises behaviour or content that is contrary to its policies. Think here also about book reviews that are removed without reason or warning.
You might have no problem with posting a racy post on Twitter, but Google+ or Facebook may filter or block a similar post.
Facebook might allow you to add a post with a reference to your book about guns, shooting and a killing that sets the scene for your detective story. But Twitter may not.
Your provocative book title might be okay for Amazon, but on social media, you might strike a problem. There is also the possibility that Google or another search engine might not index your blog posts that contain your title.
Some sites will give you an adequate warning if you break the rules, while others may close your account without notice.
In other words, every site has different rules, and it is impossible to know what these rules are unless you want to spend hours per day reading pages and pages of Terms & Conditions.
If you do spend all that time, it will be wasted because the conditions might well have changed before you have finished reading them all.
Quite honestly, if these big Internet companies were monitoring school libraries, they would probably ban the mention of a lot of books.
Algorithms are really not that smart.
Never have all your eggs in one basket
Your primary protection mechanism is to have a range of accounts.
If you are concentrating your book promotion on one social media network, you should diversify your promotional posts on to other platforms.
If you have only one account on a platform, try creating an additional account as a safeguard.
As far as content is concerned, avoid using words and images that are provocative, sexually oriented, violent or political.
It is not the content of your book that is being monitored, only the words you choose to use to promote it.
I have had a few posts filtered or deleted by social media filters even though I never use words, phrases or images that anyone could consider offensive.
One was because one of my book covers has a gun as part of the cover image. Another was because there was a short reference in the text to two police officers shooting a suspect who was supposedly possessed by an evil spirit.
Both in the context of fiction, but computer algorithms can’t tell fact from fiction. That’s the problem.
And of course, my article about erotic ebooks.
In all three instances, it was only one social media network or Internet company that objected or banned my content. For the rest, everything was just fine.
You only have to read the news to know that there will be more and more censorship, filtering and removal of online content in the future.
Freedom of expression online will not be the same, so you need to think before you post anything now. Even then, don’t be shocked if you receive a blocked content notice.
Your book will not be banned, and you won’t become famous for it, but you could get banned from a social network quite easily if you are not very careful with how you manage your book promotion.
Further reading: Amazon Self Publishing Book Review Policies Are Bad For Authors