Table to Table has been hard at work throughout 2020, continuing the mission it started in 1996 to help feed people in need by preventing food waste. But since the beginning of October, the Iowa City-based nonprofit has been all but invisible on social media, because Facebook unpublished Table to Table’s page.
“It happened on a Friday and we didn’t realize it had happened for a couple of days,” Table to Table Executive Director Nicki Ross told Little Village.
Table to Table had received no notice from Facebook about its page disappearing from public view, and hasn’t been able to extract any information from the social media colossus about it.
“The entire appeals process consists of one thing,” Ross said. “You click a button that says, ‘I disagree.’”
In response, Table to Table received an automatically generated message saying that, due to COVID-19, Facebook is not reviewing all appeals of unpublished pages.
“We tried to contact them a number of different ways, but we literally can’t speak to a human,” Ross said.
In March, the company cut back on the number of humans monitoring Facebook and Instagram accounts for inappropriate content, because it was having people work from home to try to limit the spread of the virus. Facebook content monitors work at secure location, so unlike other employees they can’t work from home, according to the company. And as people went home, Facebook used an algorithm to fill their places.
There have been numerous examples of Facebook unpublishing pages that any human would have realized weren’t violating its terms of service. It seems likely the algorithm interpreted something inoffensive on Table to Table page as grounds for unpublishing. Ross thinks she knows what the problem might be.
“We’ve found some organizations that had pages unpublished because of photos of vegetables,” she said.
The algorithm, apparently, confused vegetables with similar-shaped objects that aren’t considered appropriate for a general audience to view.
“Those organizations didn’t find out why their pages were unpublished, but the pages were republished after the pictures were deleted,” Ross said. “It seems you can get automatically republished it you remove whatever is considered offending content.”
“But if its pictures of vegetables, I’m not sure what we can do,” she added with a little laugh. “Almost all our photos are of vegetables.”
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Table to Table collects food that would otherwise be thrown away from such sources as restaurants, grocery stores and farms, and distributes it to organizations that serve people experiencing or on the cusp of food insecurity.
Its estimated that Iowa’s food-insecure population has doubled during the pandemic. COVID-19 has also caused Table to Table, which largely relies on volunteers to collect and distribute food, to operate with fewer hands; many of the people who normally volunteer can’t due to concerns about the virus.
“We’re rescuing the same amount of food as we did at this time last year, but we’re doing it with half the number of volunteers,” Ross said. “Our volunteers are working longer shifts, stopping at more places and picking up much more food in a single load.”
“At the same time, our partners are seeing a huge uptick in the number of people who are looking for food and needing help.”
“We’re headed into winter, and winter is always a lean time for volunteers,” Ross added. “Our social media has been a huge resource for recruiting volunteers.”
And for Table to Table, social media has always meant one thing: Facebook. Its small staff doesn’t have time to manage a larger social media profile, so Table to Table has no presence on Twitter or Instagram. And if Table to Table launched new social media accounts, it would take a long time to create a noticeable presence.
In addition to helping it recruit volunteers, Table to Table’s Facebook page played an important part in its fundraising.
“Giving Tuesday is primarily Facebook-driven for us,” Ross said.
Table to Table didn’t go public with its Facebook problem until last week, hoping to give the company a chance to reverse its decision to unpublish the page. Little Village emailed Facebook to ask about the status of Table to Table’s page, but has not yet received a response.