Facebook Bans Human Rights Activist for Commemorating Christians Slaughtered by ISIS

Update: The ban has been lifted.

Last week, Facebook permanently banned a human rights activist right after she updated her profile picture to commemorate 21 African Christians slaughtered by the Islamic State (ISIS). Inspired by the new book The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs, she featured the photo on February 15, the fourth anniversary of their tragic deaths. Minutes later, she lost her Facebook account.

"It happened within 10 minutes of me posting that photo that they logged me out and when I tried to get back on, bam!" Faith McDonnell, director of the international religious liberty program and church alliance for a new Sudan at the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD), told PJ Media.

McDonnell filled out a form to appeal the decision and Facebook denied her appeal. She wrote an open letter to the social media company, recalling the appeal effort. "Then, you big impersonal, non-human entity allowed me to appeal through a little, impersonal, non-human form — yet one which demanded of me a photo of my driver’s license, or other I.D. So I did, with great trepidation. But you sent another impersonal, non-human, farcical email."

Hi, we’ve reviewed your account and determined that it hasn’t followed the Facebook Terms. This has resulted in the permanent loss of your account. One of our main priorities is the comfort and safety of the people who use Facebook, and we don’t allow credible threats to harm others, support for violent organizations or exceedingly graphic content on Facebook.

"Wow! So what had I done? Well, Facebook, even you could not accuse me of 'credible threats to harm others.' That’s definitely not my gig," McDonnell added. "Anyone who sees the photo I posted of ISIS killers standing over praying Christians and assumes I 'support violent organizations' would have to be an idiot. And, incidentally, how many supporters of ANTIFA, Hamas, etc. have had their accounts disabled?"

As for "exceedingly graphic content," the IRD religious liberty director admitted to have shared "very important information about people persecuted in places like China, Pakistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, and Libya" by posting "photos demonstrating their suffering," but she argued that these photos were far from "exceedingly graphic."

"I share heartbreaking pictures of hungry children in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, girls held captive by Boko Haram, Christian women prisoners like Meriam Ibrahim and Asia Bibi, members of Falun Gong beaten by Chinese officials, and Assyrian Christians and Yazidis in unfinished, concrete shelters because they are in danger even in refugee camps," McDonnell wrote.

As for the 21 martyrs in the photo, 20 of them were Egyptian Christians — Copts — and one was a Christian from Ghana.

Facebook did not specify exactly what inspired the ban, but it did say McDonnell had violated the community standards. "They said I had violated community standards and said what those standards are but did not point to any particular photo," the IRD religious liberty director told PJ Media. But the ban followed 10 minutes after she made the photo of the martyrs her temporary profile picture.

"I have never had a warning before about violating community standards. And as I mentioned in the article, I had posted that photo in past years with no problem," she added. "I am sure that when I appealed they probably went back and looked at other persecuted Church photos I have posted."

While many Facebook users have experienced temporary bans before any final ban, McDonnell told PJ Media "they have never temporarily blocked me."

"I can only think that because some of the photos may have been public access and not friends only that they went to people who reported me," she said.

The ban has caused McDonnell no small amount of personal distress. As she wrote in her letter to Facebook in The Stream, "February 15 became the day you cut me off. Cut me off from over 2000 friends and thousands of photos on Facebook, from communicating on Messenger, and even from using my extremely innocuous Instagram."

"But Facebook, I have valued you," she wrote. "Many times I have said to myself and others, 'Thank God for Facebook!' I have reconnected with old friends from high school and college, and with men and women who were 'my kids' on three 1980’s mission trips to Northern Ireland. Facebook has given me the only way to communicate with valiant men and women in places like Iraq, Syria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan working to make their world better."

All of that is now lost because the social media platform decided her photo was off-limits.

Facebook has long censored conservative and Christian voices on the platform. Christian sexuality scholar Robert Gagnon has experienced many temporary bans. The social media platform deleted PragerU videos and did not fire the staffer responsible. Facebook even blocked world-famous evangelist Franklin Graham on Christmas week — for a transgender-critical post from 2016. Christians have begun to fight back, calling for legal reform to make social media companies vulnerable to lawsuits.

Few such incidents seem as horrendous as the blacklisting of Faith McDonnell, a champion of human rights and the persecuted church.

Update (February 21, 2019 7:50 p.m. ET): 

Facebook has lifted the ban and restored Faith McDonnell's account. She announced the restoration late Wednesday night.

While the ban has been lifted, Facebook still needs to explain itself.

Follow Tyler O'Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.