In a move starkly reminiscent of George Orwell’s “two-minute hate” session, Facebook has determined that both hate speech and calls to violence are now acceptable on its platform – as long as they are directed at the right kind of people. This policy volte-face by Meta (the company that owns both Facebook and Instagram) appears to finally put to rest the debate over whether the tech giant makes decisions regarding who can and cannot be targeted by online vitriol.
“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,” a Meta spokesperson said in a statement. The new policy position also allows for users in some locations to call for the deaths of individual leaders, just as long as there are less than two “credibility factors.” These factors include a precise location and a specific method.
At present, the nations permitted to engage in calling for death on the platform include “Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine,” according to Reuters. Whether citizens of these countries living abroad will be allowed to engage in such action is unclear. And whether people in other locations who repost this content will get a pass is also a mystery.
It seems that Silicon Valley will now be the arbiter of who can be hated in the public sphere, and it begs the question: When did the world cede moral authority to a private corporation?
An email from Meta sent to platform moderators – and printed by Reuters – sought to explain the new position on when it is permissible to call for violence. The email reads:
“We are issuing a spirit-of-the-policy allowance to allow T1 [tier 1] 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.”
In response to the new policy allowance, the Russian Embassy in the US demanded that Washington, DC “stop the extremist activities of Meta and take measures to bring the perpetrators to justice.” The embassy missive further stated that “Meta’s aggressive and criminal policy leading to incitement of hatred and hostility towards Russians is outrageous … The company’s actions are yet another evidence of the information war without rules declared on our country.”
The Role Of Big Tech?
The idea that Mark Zuckerberg’s digital colossus should be in a position to determine what constitutes acceptable speech has been resisted both in the courts and the public sphere. Until now, Meta’s defense has been that any kind of calls for violence or hate are blocked when found.
That Russia is the aggressor in the Ukraine war is largely undisputed. And yet, making the conscious choice to allow calls for violence against a group of people on one of the world’s most popular platforms is almost certainly a slippery slope. Today, Russia and her leaders are relegated to fair game; tomorrow, it could be any other group that Meta’s ideology deems undesirable.
~ Read more from Mark Angelides.