Reuters ran a stunning headline on 10 March, “Facebook and Instagram to temporarily allow calls for violence against Russians”, which quickly went viral on social media, especially among populist Right-wing figures in the United States and elsewhere who believe “Big Tech” is against them and who have, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, taken a generally pro-Russian perspective on the conflict—in some cases because of ideology, in many more cases because the “mainstream” is so sympathetic to Ukraine and for this contrarian set it means that the anti-Ukraine case must be correct, or at least have something to it.
Of course, the contents of the Reuters story were more complicated than the irresponsible headline suggested—and the headline itself has now been amended to better reflect this, “Facebook allows Ukraine war posts urging violence against invading Russians, Putin”. Nonetheless, the decision itself raises some serious issues about how social media companies regulate hate speech and incitement to violence on their platforms, and about how the media reporting impacts on radicalization.
What Did the Reuters Story Actually Say?
If the perpetually-outraged users of Twitter had read only as far as the first paragraph of the Reuters article, they would have discovered that Meta, as Facebook is now formally known, “will allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion, according to internal emails seen by Reuters on Thursday” [italics added].
The countries where this exception will apply are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine—which is to say those countries who have been attacked by Russia, are currently being attacked by Russia, are threatened with attack by Russia, or are Russians who object to their government carrying out these attacks and threats.
If readers made it as far as the third paragraph, they would have discovered a statement from the Meta spokesman saying: “As a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine we have temporarily made allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate our rules like violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders.’ We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians” [italics added].
Thus, the notion that this was a generalized permission to incite violence against Russian people was nonsense, as was further clarified later in the article. The leaked emails showed that “T1 violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the Hate Speech policy” was now being permitted “when: (a) targeting Russian soldiers, EXCEPT prisoners of war, or (b) targeting Russians where it’s clear that the context is the Russian invasion of Ukraine (e.g., content mentions the invasion, self-defense, etc.)”, and this was being done because “in this specific context, ‘Russian soldiers’ is being used as a proxy for the Russian military. The Hate Speech policy continues to prohibit attacks on Russians.”
It should be noted that Russia recently banned Facebook as part of Vladimir Putin’s government transforming under the cover of this war he has launched on Ukraine from a reasonably open authoritarian system to a far more closed autocracy.
Reporting and Radicalization
“A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” This line, often (wrongly) attributed to Sir Winston Churchill, captures an important reality, and one that certainly applies in this case.
For the Putin government, which is spinning a narrative wherein it is protecting Russians from a global attack, the distorted first-headline version of the story is very helpful, as are the bans in some Western countries on Russian cultural events and figures that have no link to the Russian state. This is damage that is not easily undone in a Russian domestic situation that is now stripped of independent media and social media; there is simply no way of conveying the nuances of this story to a mass audience in Russia now, where the state has a near-monopoly on the information supply.
In the West, the distorted version of the story will now serve in radical Right-wing circles as one more piece of “evidence” that “mainstream” institutions are irreparably corrupt and untrustworthy, and that all the codes implemented by social media companies—on hate speech, disinformation, and so forth—are merely pretences of objectivity to cover-up a systemic targeting of certain political groups. This faction was already enraged that Donald Trump has been kicked off Twitter, while Russian, Chinese, and Iranian officials—all of them from countries that ban Twitter for ordinary people—remain, where they frequently say things far worse than the former President ever did. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this critique, as there always is with the best propaganda, and it might prove to be enough to convince more people of their radical worldview.
There is a real question about how precisely Facebook will be able to police the boundaries of this new policy, distinguishing Russian soldiers and leaders from ordinary Russians, but the most serious danger in the exemptions was buried at the end of the Reuters piece:
Emails also showed that Meta would allow praise of the right-wing Azov battalion, which is normally prohibited …
Meta spokesman Joe Osborne previously said the company was “for the time being, making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov Regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.”
The Azov Battalion is a neo-Nazi outfit concentrated in the city of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine and was incorporated into the Ukrainian security forces in 2015. Azov has about 1,000 men; in a National Guard comprising 200,000 soldiers, this makes Azov an insignificant military factor.. The Azov Battalion has been a focus of Russian propaganda, however, which seeks to portray the Ukrainian government as a NATO puppet run by a “Nazi junta”. Indeed, Vladimir Putin’s speech announcing the invasion defined the war aim as the “denazification of Ukraine”.
The falsity of the Russian propaganda about a Nazi-dominated Ukraine can be seen very easily, most obviously in the fact that Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish, and that there is not a single far-Right member of the Rada (Ukrainian Parliament). There is also more than a hint of projection about the Russian claims. There are fascists in the Duma (Russian Parliament), of whom Vladimir Zhirinovsky is only the most prominent. Moreover, Moscow has dispatched its Wagner Group, a unit controlled by military intelligence (GU, better known as GRU) and named for Hitler’s favourite composer by members who adore the Fuhrer, to assassinate Zelensky. In other words, Russia’s government is using Nazis to try to murder the Jewish President of a state it claims to be “denazifying”. And this is without itemizing the other far-Right elements the Russian state uses, at home and abroad, as part of its policies.
Ensuring that the scale and context is properly understood, the Azov Battalion problem can be addressed properly. There is an issue with Azov drawing Western foreign fighters to itself, and forging international links that can provide opportunities for far-Right elements in the West to receive military training, as a recent analysis at EER documented. As Ukraine now asks for volunteers to come to its defence against the Russian invasion, watchfulness is needed that Azov cannot recruit from this pool and that far-Right extremists do not take advantage of this situation to gain military experience. Since Azov has been known to use Facebook to recruit, the lowering of the safeguards against praising Azov—even the “narrow exception … strictly in the context of defending Ukraine”—has the potential to be abused by radicals and this is a serious concern.