The Facebook accounts of several high-profile bloggers and activists in Tunisia were among those deactivated without warning over the weekend.
Up to 60 accounts are understood to have been deactivated, including that of journalist and political commentator Haythem El Mekki.
At least 14 accounts have since been restored, but no explanation has been given for the action by the social media giant.
“They received no warning, no advance notice and still have no explanation,” said Emna Mizouni, an activist and journalist who campaigns for an open internet. “In the end we were able to get 14 restored by going to [the anti-corruption watchdog] IWatch … but know nothing about the rest.”
Facebook use is high in Tunisia, with many people crediting the platform for providing a rallying point for activists and bloggers during the country’s 2011 revolution that overthrew Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“In Tunisia, the internet equals Facebook,” said Mizouni. “It was a really important tool during the revolution. We used it to organise events and share videos of what was happening across the country.”
After cementing itself at the centre of much of Tunisia’s public conversation, politicians and ministries use Facebook to communicate directly with the people. According to online advocacy group AccessNow, around 60% of Tunisian are Facebook users, one of the highest uptakes of the platform within the region.
El Mekki first became aware that his account had been deactivated last Friday. “It just said that my account had been deactivated and that was my final notice,” he said. “There wasn’t really any negotiation.”
Given his high profile and occasionally incendiary comments, El Mekki is not a stranger to controversy. However, having his account arbitrarily deactivated came as a surprise.
“I still don’t know what happened,” he said. “It would be flattering to believe that we had been targeted, but I think it’s just as likely that an algorithm got out of control.”
Whatever the causes, over the past nine years the country’s relationship with Facebook has changed. “I think one of the main dangers is that it’s not transparent to Tunisians,” said Mizouni. “For instance, during last year’s elections, we were unable to find out who was paying for what political adverts and why, despite several requests from NGOs to do so.”
Facebook did eventually respond to the NGOs’ requests some months later, although its letter failed to address the specific concerns raised.
The Guardian contacted Facebook about the deactivated accounts and the company said it was investigating.