Facebook's Largest Atheist Community Just Had a Near Death Experience

Atheist Republic
The idea of an atheist community is an interesting one. While it certainly adds up for religious groups to form online, atheism might not be the most obvious choice, as it's characterised by a lack of belief, apart from the belief that there's no such thing as god. In the USA, atheism is still something of a dirty word, and in some States it's something you really wouldn't want to admit to in public, so in that sense, online communities are very useful.

With 1.6 million members, Atheist Republic is the biggest one on Facebook, and last week it almost got taken down by Facebook themselves. The page's administrators were informed that it was going to be 'unpublished'; the reasons for this weren't entirely clear, but it seemed to be a result of the page being reported for abuse.

A few hours later, the page was back up, and the narrative became clear - Atheist Republic had been the victim of a mass reporting attack. Facebook added the ability to log personal abuse reports a while back to help combat online abuse. In regular practise, it works fine, but it can be weaponised if a large enough group of people decide that they don't like a particular page, as in this case.

It's hard to say exactly who banded together to get the page taken down, but the two most likely culprits are religious people who consider atheism an affront to their beliefs (they're an exception, not a rule, but there are still plenty of them around), or 'militant atheists' who think the page is too much of a soft touch.

In reality Atheist Republic has nothing to do with attacking organised religion; it's a place where atheists can discuss ideas and provide support for one another. They do criticise religion, granted, but they talk about the ideas behind it, not the people who engage in it. That in mind, they've ended up in a kind of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't' situation where they're represented as a rabid group of priest-punchers by one side, and a neutered attack dog by the other.

Although this particular story had a happy ending, these reporting attacks actually happen more often than you might think. One particular group - Free Thinkers of India - has been taken down six times. Although the decision was reversed every time, it's still a significant oversight within Facebook's framework, and it's only going to keep happening, likely on an ever greater scale. 

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