Facebook is harassing posters supporting Ukraine

Andres Einmann
, Eesti uudiste päevatoimetaja
Igor Taro's Ukraine-related Facebook posts have also been caught by Facebook censors.
Igor Taro's Ukraine-related Facebook posts have also been caught by Facebook censors. Photo: Kollaaž
  • The cause of blocking the account often remains unclear.
  • Irony and certain expressions should not be used on Facebook.
  • There is a lot of randomness and lack of transparency in how Facebook works.

The social media platform Facebook with its confusing rules frustrates many Estonian users because it has taken down posts supporting Ukrainians fighting against the Russian aggression, or has even temporarily blocked such users' accounts. Although Estonia has contacts for communicating with Facebook, the reasons for blocking posts often remain incomprehensible.

Facebook has twice removed Igor Taro, a popular blogger on Ukraine, from the platform for a short time due to his activities. Facebook imposed a 24-hour posting ban on Taro in May and a 72-hour posting ban in October. According to Taro, there was some strange activity on his account before the last blocking.

“Over the course of about a week, a notification appeared on my account several times that I had been restricted, but within a few seconds this notification disappeared. It stated something like “sorry for the discomfort, we checked, you did not do anything wrong". And all of a sudden, a little while after that, the matter escalated and I got a 72-hour ban,” Taro described.

Both times, Taro contacted people from government agencies who helped him get things right with Facebook and his account was reopened. The most annoying thing about blocking an account is that Facebook does not explain the specific reason for it, only stating that the user violated the platform's community rules. According to Taro, one of the stumbling blocks can be the use of sarcasm in your text.

Irony and certain words are not allowed

"Since the spring, I have started to observe the use of irony in my text. After all, irony is a way of expression, the meaning of which is one hundred percent opposite to what you wrote. It is not possible to prove irony either to the algorithms operating on Facebook, or frequently even to a real person. Perceiving sarcasm is a little more difficult than reading a normal text, and it is often not possible to defend yourself such cases,” Taro said.

Taro has given up using the word “orcs” in his texts, which is widely used in Ukraine as a synonym for the Russian aggressors, because Facebook considers it hate speech. For the same reason, Tarot refrains from using the word “tibla”.

Taro has sometimes written "Russians" and "Ukrainians" in his diary of the Ukrainian war for the sake of brevity, and if one is nitpicking, it may also somehow conflict with the Facebook standards, although an Estonian reader will understand that it means men in uniform fighting on the side of Russia and Ukraine at the front and has nothing to do with hate speech directed against some ethnicities.

Taro believes that his account is more closely monitored on Facebook than some others because his following is quite large. “I am not saying that what I am saying is a hundred times more important than that of someone else who has a hundred times fewer followers. But Facebook must have some considerations because they are monitoring some accounts more closely,” he said.

The moderator’s decision cannot be contested

Once an account has been blocked, the moderators behind the decision cannot be contacted. If an account has been blocked by Facebook's algorithms, there is a link next to it where one can appeal against the decision. However, if the posting has been reviewed by a person who decided that it violates some of the community standards, it can no longer be contested. At the same time, such decisions always involve an element of subjectivity.

“It may happen that the moderator comes from the Russian cultural space and qualifies as hate speech something that another person would not do. From Russia's point of view, every post that says Russia invaded Ukraine is hate speech. According to Russian law, these texts discredit the armed forces of the Russian Federation, and they are punishable by I don't know how many life sentences,” Taro said.

The account of Postimees has also caught the eye of Facebook moderators because of the Crimean bridge. In October, Facebook removed Postimees’ post about the explosion on the Kerch bridge. The post was removed two days after it was posted, and Facebook said the reason for the removal was a violation of the social media platform's community rules.

Estonia has contact with Facebook

According to Madis Vaikmaa, adviser of the Government Office strategic communication department, the Estonian state has contact with large social media platforms. “We talk to them regularly and raise problems if they arise,” said Vaikmaa.

He admitted that Facebook is not a good partner for anyone, as there is a lot of randomness in the activities of this platform and it is relatively opaque.

“We do not know how many people there are who review and moderate Facebook's Estonian-language content. If Facebook takes down someone's post or closes someone's account, it is difficult to communicate with them," he said.

At the same time, according to Vaikmaa, there are also areas of cooperation that work well with Facebook, for example, recently the defense forces were able to verify the pages of their units on Facebook – a blue tick behind the name of the page guarantees that it is a genuine profile. In addition, Facebook supports Estonia’s fact-checking activities.

A related bill is handled by the Riigikogu

Last week, the Economic Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu sent to the plenary assembly a government-initiated bill regarding terrorist web content, which gives the Consumer Protection and Technical Regulatory Authority and the Internal Security Service more precise competence to remove from the web postings glorifying terrorist acts and inviting to commit them and to deal with such calls. For example, it concerns closed groups containing calls to kill infidels or to commit any other acts of terrorism.

In essence, it is a regulation of the European Union, which Estonia is adopting. The EU has reached an agreement on uniform rules with such internet giants as Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In the first reading of the bill in the Riigikogu on January 11, the issue of whether to count posts supporting the Kremlin's policy as terrorist will certainly come up for discussion, since Estonia has declared Russia a state which supports terrorism. In principle, the bill is also related to Facebook's activities regarding posts supporting Ukraine, although this issue is not directly mentioned there.

Kristen Michal (RE), chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, agrees that removing posts supporting Ukraine or describing Russian war crimes from Facebook is nonsense.

"The European Union and other Western countries should definitely consider what the rules and behavior models of large social media platforms are. The problem has been obvious for a long time. Social media platforms are seeking to increase in any way possible the number of contacts and clicks, but this does not guarantee that general human values will always come first for algorithms,” said Michal.

According to him, Russia's aggression in Ukraine and its reflections show that there are still a large number of false accounts owners, there is conscious repetition of false information, and the possibilities of mass media moderation are exploited in an organized manner by submitting, reports and thus restricting access to truthful information.

“This definitely needs to be discussed, because if mass media is a critically important infrastructure, it needs protection, also regarding the rules, and understandable mechanisms, how certain decisions are made and according to which rules they can be contested," Michal said.

The European Union is trying to protect the social media users

  • A European Union legislation designed to protect social media users from the arbitrariness of global giants has been in force for more than a month, but since it has been there for a short time only, it is not yet certain whether it will solve all the problems..
  • On November 16, the Digital Services Act (DSA) of the European Union entered into force, the purpose of which, among other things, is to give users the right to challenge the removal of their posted content from the platform and to reduce the spread of false information.
  • DSA differentiates between major social media platforms like Facebook and messaging applications like WhatsApp and Telegram..
  • Both are regulated, but to different degrees. For example, Telegram, which is a messaging application, has an obligation to designate a point of contact in the European Union, as well as requirements for user terms.