In a dramatic change of policy, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) will temporarily allow users of Facebook and Instagram in twelve countries to post hate speech and death threats directed toward Russian and Belarusian military personnel and political leaders within the context of the conflict in Ukraine.
The change was first reported by Reuters on Thursday morning. A Meta spokesperson told Reuters, “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.”
Calls for violence against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko are permitted, so long as it’s not a credible threat that specifies time or location.
Meta spokesperson Drew Pusateri spoke with HuffPost regarding the decision: “These are temporary measures designed to preserve voice and expression for people who are facing invasion. As always, we are prohibiting calls for violence against Russians outside of the narrow context of the current invasion.”
According to Reuters, the email sent to Meta content moderators announcing the abnormal suspension of the policy states:
We are issuing a spirit-of-the-policy allowance to allow T1 violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the Hate Speech policy 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.).
We are doing this because we have observed that 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.Munsif Vengattil and Elizabeth Culliford, “Facebook allows war posts urging violence against Russian invaders” at Reuters
This policy change only applies to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Putin has also been waging a technological battle against social media platforms. Last week, Russia banned Facebook and Twitter. Now, in response to Meta’s latest policy change, Russia will likewise block Instagram. Further, Russia has opened a criminal investigation against Meta and labeled it an “extremist organization.”
Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs posted to Telegram that, “Meta’s aggressive and criminal policy leading to incitement of hatred and hostility towards Russians is outrageous. Media corporations have become soldiers of the propaganda machine of the Western establishment.”
WhatsApp, owned by Meta and the most popular mobile messaging app in Russia, has not yet been targeted by the Russian government.
Reports The Guardian:
The crackdown on the social media giant will further limit most Russians’ access to outside information on the war, increasing the influence of state media. Putin last week signed off on new legislation that threatens Russians accused of sharing “fake information” about the war to up to 15 years in prison.Andrew Roth, “Russia to block Instagram after Meta relaxes stance on Putin hate speech” at The Guardian
Meta’s decision raises some important questions about the power of Big Tech to allow and disallow certain speech in certain situations. Hate speech has been one of social media’s greatest targets, with American legislators often pressuring the CEOs of the largest platforms to put greater efforts into managing online speech.
While the West largely condemns the actions of Russia against neighboring Ukraine, some are uneasy with the power social media has displayed to decide who gets to use hate speech and who doesn’t. Matt Walsh of the Daily Wire voiced his concern that “social media companies got together and decided that actually it’s okay to call for violence as long as it’s against Russians.”
In scenarios where the bad guy is easy to spot, we might shrug our shoulders at Big Tech letting some rules slide. But do we want to set that precedent – that technology CEOs in Silicon Valley can decide who gets to use death threats against who – for all domestic and international conflicts going forward?