Every day, most of Facebook’s 11 million Ukrainian users see the familiar blue and white interface on their computer screens or smartphones. Most, that is, since some of them simply don’t use any social nets on a daily basis. But there are also those who cannot see it because they are being prevented from doing so. The current wave of Ukrainian accounts being banned and blocked by Facebook is only the latest in a series that began in 2015. Officially, this is supposedly connected to the new security policy Facebook has introduced since a slew of political scandals emerged over its sale of users’ personal data and accusations that it was “fostering” interference in the 2016 US election. Now Facebook is trying to be the model of proper security, but these efforts are having some unexpected side effects for Ukrainians.
The reasons given for blocking an FB account can be several. Right now there are no clear indications of what exactly users cannot do in the network. However, the most widespread is the blocking of the use of language that is insulting towards specific groups of people or nationalities. Moreover, the degree of offensiveness is determined by the social network itself, often in a fairly inconsistent manner. More than likely, there is a list of “red flag” words that are supposed to be caught by moderators.
Based on observations of user activity, however, there is a well-developed network of bots that begin to file hundreds of complaints about a specific post or individual on order. This leads to a far faster rate of blocking against that person. Today, the most popular insults, based on the frequency of notifications about being blocked, are words like “moskal” or “katsap,” terms that historically have referred to Russians in a pejorative manner, just like “maloros” and “khakhol” are used against Ukrainians. A person using such terms can end up on the wrong side of Facebook and find their account blocked for 3, 7 or 30 days, depending on their previous track record.
In their hunt for compromising evidence, moderators can review that individual’s timeline as far back as the critical 2013-2014 period. Plenty of Ukrainians have been blocked for posts that are as much as four years old. What’s more Facebook’s administration has been very unpredictable: a ban can be issued simply because someone reposted news about Zakarpattia Governor Ghennadiy Moskal whose last name sounds exactly like a pejorative name for the Russians mentioned above. Another person can leave numerous absolutely aggressive comments using the entire range of offensive language and be left in peace.
Ukrainian users have noticed one particular trait: more attention is being paid to leaders in Facebook, not to ordinary users, people with very large numbers of friends and followers. Typically these can be show business or sports stars, politicians or community activists. Where professional politicians avoid “hate speech”, volunteers feel such constraints far less. Because they, and even more so those who are taking care of the needs of the front in eastern Ukraine or soldiers who have managed to return from the front alive, have plenty of reason to call things by their names. Those who have seen war first hand and not just during a news program, or who have buried a brother at arms are unlikely to be cautious about what they say in their comments.
And so nearly all well-known activists already have several reserve accounts in order to be able to communicate with their friends uninterruptedly. Sean Townsend, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s Cyber Alliance, recently himself returned from the latest ban, admits that he ended up in the moderators’ bad books through “hate speech” that was found in posts about war crimes in the self-proclaimed proxy republics in occupied Donbas, “DNR” and “LNR”, which had been exposed by hackers. Townsend notes that Facebook’s community rules allow users to condemn unacceptable things. But trying to contact the social network’s censoring commission to get an explanation has proved impossible.
Yet not everyone is blocked simply for offending Russians. Some Ukrainians have been blocked for relatively neutral posts and even illustrations. Sometimes these are not even expressions of their personal opinion: people have been blocked for reposting someone else’s post or comment. Fortunately, there are fewer complicated and absurd instances like the case in 2015 where an MP was blocked because he shared another MP’s announcing that he had been blocked for sharing a video from the first MP! Veteran bloggers have been banned for publishing excerpts of books they have written or for expressing their views about the system of benefits for participants in the ATO.
Moreover, it’s not just Ukrainians who have been victims of blocked accounts. A similar situation has taken place with activist Georgian users. One blogger told The Ukrainian Week that his account was blocked on April 1, 2018 for something he had posted in 2011, in which he expressed his position about the then-upcoming Georgian parliamentary election... without anything that could be called “hate speech.” The comment made no direct mention of Russia or its inhabitants: it simply criticized Georgian political parties that were under the sway of pro-Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. This blogger thought that the blocking of his account was connected to his anti-RF news activity. He and his team had apparently fallen under the sights of the Russian secret service after Georgia had established news resources to counter Kremlin propaganda in the early 2000s. The latest was the 6th ban in the last four years.
It appears that Ukraine’s and Georgia’s common enemy is active not just in the real world. Blocking activist users or members of Ukrainian or Georgian volunteer communities such as InformNapalm just before controversial studies are about to be published is nothing more than an attempt to shut people’s mouths so that they can’t disseminate information about Russia that Moscow doesn’t like. And although Russian Facebook users are also banned—which they blame on the insidious US State Department, global conspiracies and Mark Zuckerberg himself with his “digital concentration camps” —, such incidents are significantly fewer than in the Ukrainian segment of Facebook.
The moderators have also raised many eyebrows, as the company has not revealed who they are, what their personal motivation and interests are, or who supervises their activities and how. Zuckerberg was questioned about this very aspect in recent hearings in the US Congress, where he stated that the company was working on an AI system that would evaluate online content in real time. Despite statements such as this, so far the moderating is done by humans and not always objectively.
Last but not least, the behavior of Facebook administrators could well be dictated by the fact that the company has no national representative office in either Georgia or Ukraine. Despite a direct appeal by President Poroshenko to Zuckerberg and an announcement by the Facebook founder in 2015 about considering opening an office in Ukraine, nothing actually happened. The owner of the world’s most popular social network noted that Ukrainian users were being served by the company’s Dublin office, whose employees have no political position regarding the conflict between the Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Clearly, Ukraine’s government has no leverage over such a powerful global and, most importantly, private company. Deputy Information Minister Dmytro Zolotukhin says that his agency has sent enquiries regarding blocked accounts to Facebook’s European offices. According to the responses, the blocking was taking place “because of violations of Facebook’s policies.” Still, the ministry continues to find ways to present its views of the problem to Facebook’s management. The main obstacle, says Zolotukhin, is the lack of effective legal and regulatory means that might force the company to uphold free speech principles.
For Ukraine, foreign experience might come in handy here. For instance, Germany recently passed a law on combating aggression and hostility in social networks that indicates just how the network’s administration should respond to the dissemination of distorted information and manifestations of disrespect. But there will always be a dilemma between moderating content and freedom of speech. This was evident in a suit against Facebook brought by a citizen of Germany who was able to persuade the court that the deletion of his comment and the blocking of his account were wrong. Facebook now has to either challenge the court ruling or pay a €250,000 fine. As long as the necessary legislation is not in place, users have to themselves keep track of what they are writing or have written in the past. To help users search for the kinds of phrases that might catch the eyes of censors, a plug-in has already been written for browsers that automatically finds information about all the user’s publications. Meanwhile, in order to express their opinions, Ukrainians can always take advantage of the fact that their language is rich in synonyms.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj