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Meta dials back hate speech policy relaxations on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after backlash

It all began when Meta reportedly decided to allow forms of political expression that would normally violate its hate speech policy.

Meta has said that it will be tweaking its content moderation policy on Ukraine to weed out calls for the death of a head of state, according to a Reuters report on March 14. The company had earlier decided that it would temporarily allow posts clamouring for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Russian soldiers, and politicians, on Facebook and Instagram.

Meta had reasoned that a temporary change in its content policy would allow users to fully express their discontent against Russia’s invasion, as per Reuters. The posts would only be allowed in Ukraine.

“We are now narrowing the focus to make it explicitly clear in the guidance that it is never to be interpreted as condoning violence against Russians in general,” Meta global affairs President Nick Clegg was quoted as saying.

Clegg clarified that the company does not permit calls to assassinate a head of state, Reuters reported. The move to tweak its content moderation policy was to eschew the ambiguity present in the earlier announcement.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has invited swift condemnation across the world. However, one can argue that Meta providing leeway for violent speech against Russians sets a dangerous precedent for future conflicts. The content can turn out to be potentially incendiary which can have catastrophic ripple effects. Meta’s reversal only confirms the fact that the company should not have made such concessions in the first place.

Where does Facebook’s hate speech policy stand now?

Nick Clegg said that there is no change to hate speech policies for Russians, the news website revealed. He added that the company will evaluate its policy guidance on a regular basis to keep up with the changing context.

He informed the employees that the company will refer its guidance to the independent oversight board, the report stated. The guidance is crucial because it is shared with content moderators who then use it to decide how to deal with incendiary posts.

“Meta stands against Russophobia. We have no tolerance for calls for genocide, ethnic cleansing, or any kind of discrimination, harassment, or violence towards Russians on our platform,” he declared in an internal document accessed by Reuters.

Understanding Meta’s temporary relaxations

The problem started when a Meta spokesperson told Reuters that it was making temporary allowances for forms of political expression that would normally violate its hate speech policy. It effectively said that violent speech such as ‘death to the Russian invaders’ will not be taken down.

What was not allowed?

  • Credible death threats not allowed: Death threats to Russian soldiers and politicians will not be allowed if they contain other targets or have two indicators of credibility, such as the location or method, Reuters said.
  • No attacks on Russian civilians: “The Hate Speech policy continues to prohibit attacks on Russians,” the email showed by Reuters stated.

The temporary policy change was effective in the following countries:

  1. Russia
  2. Ukraine
  3. Armenia
  4. Azerbaijan
  5. Estonia
  6. Georgia
  7. Hungary
  8. Latvia
  9. Lithuania
  10. Poland
  11. Romania
  12. Slovakia

The announcement enraged Russia which initiated a criminal case against the firm. The Russian embassy in the US responded by tweeting that the US authorities must put a stop to the extremist activities of Meta.

What are the other measures taken by Facebook against Russia?

Many tech companies including social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, announced a number of measures against Russia in the aftermath of the invasion. Some of the measures specifically targetted the spread of misinformation by Russian state-owned media RT and Sputnik. Here are some of the measures taken by Facebook:

Meta has published a blog that is updated every day with the various measures taken by the company including:

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  • Restricting access to RT and Sputnik across EU: On February 28, Meta said that it will restrict Russian state-controlled media RT and Sputnik across the EU given the exceptional nature of the current situation.
  • Demonetisation of state-controlled media: Meta said that it is prohibiting ads from Russian state media and demonetizing their accounts.
  • Fact-check labels on posts by state-controlled media: Meta said that it has refused an order from the Russian authorities to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state media organisations.
  • Restrictions on accounts based on Ukraine government request: Meta on February 27 said that it restricted access to several accounts in Ukraine, including those belonging to some Russian state media organisations at the request of the Ukrainian government and is reviewing more requests.
  • Takedown of network spreading misinformation and fake news: Meta on February 27 announced that it took down a network run by people in Ukraine and Russia for coordinated inauthentic behaviour. “They ran websites posing as independent news entities and created fake personas across many social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Telegram, Odnoklassniki and VK,” the company said.
  • Working with local experts: Meta said it is working with a network of local and international partners to address emerging risks. “We recognize that local context and language-specific expertise is essential for this work, so we will remain in close communication with experts, partner institutions and non-governmental organisations,” the company said.
  • Outdated images warning: Meta is warning users in the region when they try to share some war-related images that its systems detect are over one year old.

Facebook and Instagram are banned in Russia in retaliation to these measures.

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I cover several beats such as Crypto, Telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I can be found loitering at my local theatre when I am off work consuming movies by the dozen.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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