An unprecedented spree of policy changes and carveouts aimed at protecting Ukrainian civilians from Facebook’s censorship systems has earned praise from human rights groups and free expression advocates. But a new open letter addressed to Facebook and its social media rivals questions why these companies seem to care far more about some attempts to resist foreign invasion than others.
In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Meta Platforms, which owns Facebook and Instagram, rapidly changed its typically strict speech rules in order to exempt a variety of posts that would have otherwise been deleted for violating the company’s prohibition against hate speech and violent incitement.
Internal Meta materials reviewed by The Intercept show that in early March the company temporarily enacted an exception to its hate speech policy permitting Facebook and Instagram users in Ukraine to call for the “explicit removal [of] Russians from Ukraine and Belarus,” posts that would have otherwise been deleted for violating the company’s ban on calling for the “exclusion or segregation” of people based on their national origin. The rule change, previously reported by the New York Times, was part of a broader package of carveouts that included a rare dispensation to call for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin, use dehumanizing language against Russian soldiers, and praise the notorious Azov Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard, previously banned from the platform due to its neo-Nazi ideology.
While Meta has argued that these unusual steps are necessary to ensure that Ukrainian civilians can speak in their own defense online, critics say the changes highlight the extent to which non-Western civilian populations are neglected by the platform and illustrate the pitfalls of a California tech company equitably dictating what’s permissible in a foreign war zone.
In a statement signed by 31 civil society and human rights groups, this criticism is directed squarely at American internet titans like Facebook. “While we recognize the efforts of tech companies to uphold democracy and human rights in Ukraine, we call for long term investment in human rights, accountability, and a transparent, equal and consistent application of policies to uphold the rights of users worldwide,” reads the letter, which was shared with The Intercept ahead of publication. “Once platforms began to take action in Ukraine, they took extraordinary steps that they have been unwilling to take elsewhere. From the Syrian conflict to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, other crisis situations have not received the same amount of support even when lives are at stake.”
The open letter calls on Facebook and other American social media platforms to increase the scope and transparency of their human rights due diligence and to apply it equitably. “Currently, platforms are devoting greater time, attention, and resources to their users in the United States and Western Europe,” the letter says. “This happens both because of the potential for greater regulation by the United States and the European Union and because media based in the United States plays a significant role in influencing public discourse about companies, prompting greater attention to issues of public interest for the United States.”
Dia Kayyali, a researcher who studies the offline effects of content moderation at the nonprofit Mnemonic and organized the open letter, said, “While initially it seemed like platforms were responding rapidly and forcefully, it became clear that the reality was more complicated.” Kayyali noted that “like activists from so many other conflict zones, Ukrainian civil society tried to get platforms to take their concerns seriously after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014. It wasn’t until media pressure and interest from the U.S. and Western European countries that platforms really started taking action.” As a result, civilians suffering in conflict zones that draw comparably little attention from Western media are still waiting for hands-on treatment from the American companies that dominate so much of the internet.
The fact that Meta finds itself in the difficult position of policing the speech of a country defending itself against a foreign invader is a sign of its own incredible success and the extent to which it has consolidated control over global communications, with more than 2 billion users worldwide all subject to the company’s definitions of permitted speech. But the frequency of closed-door reversals and carveouts suggests that these rules are not rules at all, but buoys floated by the currents of popular opinion and American foreign policy. Critics say it’s no coincidence that Facebook’s decisions about global good guys and bad guys almost always match the official determinations of the United States, a national political bias that keeps the rules intact when an American ally (or the U.S. itself) is the invader, not the invaded.
After Meta’s hate speech and incitement exemptions expired last month, a new internal policy memo distributed to Meta content moderators outlined the company’s current approach. Headlined “Removing ambiguity — Not permitting hate towards Russian citizens & allowing Ukrainians to call for self-defense from invasion,” the memo, reviewed by The Intercept, explained that the company is “allowing Ukrainians to call for national self defense in the context of the invasion. It applies only within Ukraine and only in the context of speech regarding the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.” Like the hate speech exemptions, the policy is a clear loosening of company rules to spare Ukrainians from running afoul of the company’s own twitchy censorship apparatus: “Our standard rules would limit our users ability to make their voices heard at a critical time in Ukrainian history,” as the company put it to moderators. It’s unclear how exactly Meta is defining a “call for self-defense from invasion,” and the only examples of the sort of speech the company is seeking to protect are very broad: “To call for national defense, discuss Ukraine’s military actions, and react to Ukrainian President Zelensky’s calls for civilians to take up arms in defense of their homes.”
“They pretty consistently create policies that line up with Western goals.”
“The entire guidance and language reeks of double standards,” said Marwa Fatafta, head of Middle East and North Africa digital rights policy at Access Now, a signatory to the new statement. Fatafta noted that the new language was encouraging because it suggested that Meta is “listening carefully, attuning, and adjusting their policies as the situation evolves,” but that enshrining expressions of “national self-defense” in Ukraine should mean enshrining resistance to military aggression outside Europe too. “Meta agrees that they should respect national calls for self-defense for Ukrainians, but they have never granted that to Syrians or Palestinians,” Fatafta said, noting that Facebook was quick to exempt the Azov Battalion from its Dangerous Organizations policy but not other similarly designated groups. “Imagine Facebook making an exception for Hamas calling for resistance or self-defense against the Israeli occupation. It is unthinkable.”
Protecting the ability of Ukrainians suffering at the hands of an invading army to freely express their pain and hope against defeat is uncontroversial. But this license to openly root against the opposing team is not doled out to all civilians equally: “Are Yemenis allowed to call for Saudis to leave their country? Are Palestinians allowed to call for Israelis to leave their country?” asked Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Meta did not respond when asked by The Intercept if it provides similar latitude to other populations to call for self-defense in the face of a foreign invasion or occupation. “We know they have done the exact opposite in Palestine,” York said, citing deletions of content protesting the Israeli occupation. “They pretty consistently create policies that line up with Western goals.”
“There are other wars. Why can’t someone say similar things about U.S. soldiers?”
Meta’s lopsided notions of whose “national self-defense” is worth protecting has spurred strife inside the company too. A Meta source familiar with the company’s content policy discussions told The Intercept that the changes “sparked heated and emotional debate on Meta’s internal Workplace,” a communication tool used at the company. “Voices of Russian employees were joined by the rest of Meta’s internal community, citing divergence from core principles and double standards in relation to other military conflicts.”
Another Meta source, who also spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity to protect their livelihood, noted that internally “there have been a lot of questions about why it is OK to do this to Russians but no one else” since “there are other wars. Why can’t someone say similar things about U.S. soldiers?”
Internal attempts to get any answers out of Meta’s policymaking black box have been as futile as those outside the company. “There is no actual transparency here as to why specifically this is OK for Ukraine but [nowhere] else,” this source said, explaining that Meta’s explanations to corporate staff haven’t gone beyond CEO Mark Zuckerberg tapping Facebook policy chief Monika Bickert “to repeat the talking points” that are provided to the media. The source said that the company response to the war in Ukraine struck them as a reaction to outside pressure — “‘Meta Censors Ukrainian Freedom Fighters’ is a bad look,” they remarked — rather than a reflection of any consistent principles. “We twist ourselves into knots creating incoherent carveouts about ‘public interest’ and ‘right to know,’ but it’s just to save our own asses. There isn’t rhyme or reason otherwise. And that is really, really bad for a company that controls a significant portion of the internet.”
“We twist ourselves into knots creating incoherent carveouts about ‘public interest’ and ‘right to know,’ but it’s just to save our own asses.”
Facebook’s swift tailoring of its speech rules to help the Ukrainian resistance has drawn particularly pointed comparisons to Palestine, where Meta users appear to enjoy no such protections for civilians who have long resisted a foreign military force.
In Palestine, where the ongoing Israeli occupation has seen decades of violence against civilians and international human rights condemnations, Facebook and Instagram users who voice opposition to that unwanted foreign military presence often have their posts deleted without explanation or recourse. “Never, never, ever was there any carveout or exception for Palestinian speech on Facebook,” said Fatafta of Access Now. “I can say that with full confidence.”
The open letter notes how “in May 2021, in anticipation of forcible evictions in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem, Palestinians engaged in protests that Israeli security forces violently suppressed. Social media platforms removed massive amounts of content posted by Palestinians and their supporters, who were trying to document and share these human rights violations, as well as political discussions about Palestine around the world.” The Palestinian digital rights group 7amleh “documented more than 500 violations against Palestinian content on these platforms between May 6 and May 19, 2021. … Speech was removed in this context that may have been left up had it received the kind of contextual analysis platforms are claiming to do in Ukraine now.”
Far from loosening its rules to help Palestinians speak out against their occupation, Facebook has in fact implemented rule changes to aid the occupier: Last year The Intercept reported that the company had created stricter hate speech rules around using the term “Zionist,” a move experts said would make it even more difficult for Palestinians to protest their treatment by Israel.
Just as longtime observers of Meta’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy say the blacklist of terrorists and criminals is an avatar of American foreign policy values, content moderation experts told The Intercept that exceptions to the rule are fundamentally political choices. Civil society groups, including those that have discussed these issues with Meta, say there is no indication that the company similarly fine-tunes its policies to ensure the speech of other civilian populations under occupation and bombardment. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s York argued that in other Facebook-entangled conflicts, unlike Ukraine, “the U.S. has an interest in supporting the occupier. Facebook staff, especially their policy staff, are American and not immune to bias.”