Facebook promotion of WitchsFest USA blocked

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NEW YORK –WitchsFest USA has been held each summer for the better part of a decade on Astor Place, but this is the first time the event has been deemed “spam” on Facebook, or at least the first time that a flag has impacted promotional efforts for the day-long street fair. According to co-founder Starr RavenHawk, posts touting the event have been widely removed as spam, and she herself has been subject to filtering that prevents her from even using the word “witch” on the social media site.

From WitchsFest 2016 [Ron Frary].

All seemed well the morning of June 18, RavenHawk recalled, but when she got home at the end of the day she discovered a number of automated messages in her Facebook account. “All the posts, videos, and event pages had been removed as spam,” she said. Moreover, the same thing happened when those posts were shared by presenters, vendors, and others seeking to encourage attendance.

Many friends and associates tried to come to RavenHawk’s aid when she posted about the problem. Some offered advice, others theories about the cause. However, since direct responses from Facebook staff members are exceedingly hard to come by, it all amounts to speculation or hearsay. For example, one friend of RavenHawk’s advised — based on the opinion of another, unnamed friend who reputedly works for Facebook — that given the thoroughness of the removals, it was almost certainly the actions of a human being, not an algorithm.

Those removals cut through RavenHawk’s recent posts with the skill of a surgeon, putting the kibosh on anything she shared that promoted WitchsFest USA, its vendors, presenters, or entertainers, while leaving references to the Wiccan Family Temple — which she also founded — completely untouched.

Starr Ravenhawk, WitchsFest 2016 [C.Weber Hoover]

What was affected were Facebook events to promote the event, and posts originally placed on event pages highlighting particular vendors and presenters. RavenHawk sees a common element in that they all contained the word “witch.” However, the WitchsFest USA page itself, from which the event was hosted, has not been removed.

“They’re literally banning the event,” RavenHawk said. She’s followed the same format as in years past for how and when she posts on the event page, but without any substantive feedback she is in the dark as to what went wrong. Left guessing, she’s been “walking on eggshells,” trying to promote the festival through its Facebook page without creating events, but not entirely sure what might be taken down.

As it happens, RavenHawk herself seems to be given an extra level of scrutiny./ She can’t post the web address for WitchsFest USA, or even the word “witch,” on Facebook at all. When she tries — even in a private message — she gets a message advising that it’s blocked instead. An attempt to follow that link from the fair’s Facebook page returned a message, “We believe the link you are trying to visit is malicious. For your safety, we have blocked it.”

Other associates offered guesses as to why this has happened. One suggested that, in the wake of a recent post on an NRA site about Witches, the word “witch” itself is perhaps being targeted, presumably by unknown conspirators. RavenHawk also wondered if an individual, barred from contacting her by an order of protection, has anything to do with it; attempts at contact were recently made, she said.

In addition to following the online appeals process, RavenHawk said that a letter was drafted on Wiccan Family Temple letterhead, in which it was explained that WitchsFest USA is a fundraiser for the temple. While that’s true, it’s a difficult way to get money, as a considerable amount must be paid into city coffers to pay for the street fair permits, among other expenses.

The situation is frustrating, since a good deal of people still use Facebook to connect and other marketing avenues will need to be explored in short order if it isn’t resolved. It can also be seen as infuriating, because advertising on Facebook has been part of the marketing plan.

“They took our money, and were fine with it,” RavenHawk said, and have been since 2012. On the other hand, the price for the witchy keywords they’ve always used skyrocketed this year, starting at $750, and it was decided they were no longer a good choice given the narrow margins for the fair.

Despite these issues, WitchsFest USA 2018 will go on as schedule. It is being held July 14 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Astor Place between Broadway and Lafayette, and will continue on July 15 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Hell’s Kitchen on West 39th Street between Ninth and 10th avenues.

WitchsFest 2015 [From www.witchfestusa.com]