Local history buffs beat hackers and regain control of Seattle Vintage

Mar 27, 2024, 8:45 AM

Facebook Seattle Vintage...

Seattle Vintage was hacked in early March, but the Facebook page's administrators regained control last week. (Via Facebook with graphics added by KIRO Newsradio)

(Via Facebook with graphics added by KIRO Newsradio)

As KIRO Newsradio first reported two weeks ago, the popular local history Facebook group Seattle Vintage – which has more than 150,000 followers – was hacked and taken over by malicious actors.

If that wasn’t bad enough, there was no remedy available. There was (and still is) no way to report the hacking to Facebook via Facebook, and no way to get immediate help from Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office or from the FBI.

More on the Facebook hack: ‘Seattle Vintage’ Facebook page taken over by hackers

Erin McAllister-O’Malley became one of Seattle Vintage’s Facebook group administrators several years ago. Being an administrator of a Facebook group means having special privileges as far as managing the group membership, and approving or rejecting material posted by users. Erin and the other admins are all volunteers, and all bring to their position a passion for Seattle history.

McAllister-O’Malley told KIRO Newsradio that once word of the March 8 hacking spread, one of the Seattle Vintage Facebook followers – just a local person who loves sharing old photos and stories and seeing what others share – got in touch with her. This person, who she hadn’t previously known, offered to track down a real-live human at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, in order to try and get direct personal assistance to reverse the hacking and regain control.

And that’s exactly what happened. McAllister-O’Malley said it all came together quickly late last Tuesday afternoon.

But it only lasted for a few minutes.

McAllister-O’Malley received “an email from Facebook, saying we have given you control again,” she explained. “However, I had control for about three minutes.”

What happened next, McAllister-O’Malley explains, is that she started acting like an administrator again – flexing the muscles like she used to do in order to keep Seattle Vintage from being overrun with posts outside its usual territory of local history.

And that’s what got her into trouble almost immediately.

“I removed a post from somebody who was not supposed to be there, and I was instantly blocked,” McAllister-O’Malley said, meaning she was booted out of the group again, just as had happened when the hack first began. “Apparently, admins can be hidden, they can hide themselves, which none of us knew about (before).”

Erin was so upset at losing control of the page again, she tossed her phone and swore.

Fortunately, through some crazy and almost vertigo-inducing online maneuvers within the Facebook group administrator environment – and with help from that “Facebook Angel” who had originally reached out to offer to help – McAllister O’Malley and a core team of longtime Seattle Vintage group administrators regained control, once again, last Wednesday, and kicked out all the “hidden” administrators.

Everything now is slowly getting back to normal at Seattle Vintage, and at Seattle Vintage 2.0, a new alternate Facebook group launched by Seattle Vintage admins after the hacking as a way of trying to reestablish the online community.

News of the popular page being wrestled away from the evil hackers is good, of course, but it also highlights some of the challenges that social media companies haven’t yet quite figured out how to address.

Social media companies justifiably get a bad rap for many problems that didn’t exist or didn’t exist on the same scale 20 years ago, whether spreading misinformation at incredible speeds or supercharging the effects of unchecked schoolyard bullying. It’s no exaggeration to say that consumers and many experts have a clear sense that social media is responsible for  – or at least complicit in – a lot of bad things.

But as KIRO Newsradio has reported, individuals and groups working or participating in local history appear to benefit from social media unlike just about any other sector of the population. Social media and Facebook in particular enable people from all walks of life to share their photos and vintage documents and memories with each other in ways previously not possible, and often to do so alongside, mingled with or in response to similar materials shared by museums, libraries and archives.

More on social media saving local history: How crucial pieces of Northwest history are being preserved via Facebook

McAllister O’Malley agrees, and knows why this is true.

“Because everybody’s walking around with their own history, everybody’s walking around with their own pieces of the thread that tie us together in ways that we didn’t imagine in the old days because it took longer to get those threads together,” McAllister-O’Malley said. “Social media allows those threads to be woven together in a platform that keeps it together, it’s in your pocket.

“If you move to another country, you can have Seattle with you, because all these other people have those pieces together in one spot,” McAllister-O’Malley continued.

Still, positive aspects of local history on Facebook aside, the tale of Seattle Vintage’s takeover and rescue is a cautionary tale. Erin McAllister-O’Malley says the experience has made it abundantly clear that she and her fellow group administrators can never be anything but extremely diligent and always alert.

It’s easy to get distracted, she says “when you’re busy and you’re multitasking and you don’t realize that the person [you think] you’re speaking to is not actually the person you’re speaking to because you’re not paying close enough attention.”

“It really can happen to any of us who are aware of how social media works,” McAllister-O’Malley said. “But maybe not all the way aware that there are ways that people can sneak in without you knowing.”

The biggest takeaway from the troubles faced by Seattle Vintage is that Facebook needs to do something to make it easier for groups to get help when there’s trouble like this. There is currently no online form to report a group being hacked, and no way to even initiate such a complaint.

More from Feliks Banel: Baltimore bridge collapse reminds Washingtonians of past disasters

And while Erin and all the Seattle Vintage admins and members – a total of more than 150,000 Facebook users – are probably happy that their “Facebook Angel” stepped in and found a way to get insider help, that model is imperfect, not sustainable, and just not scalable to address the level of hacking taking place every day.

So come on, Facebook, it’s past time to do something to make it possible for your users to report hacking attacks like this and more easily get their groups back. That would make history, local and otherwise, and would be something we all could “LIKE.”

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks.

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Local history buffs beat hackers and regain control of Seattle Vintage