One-sided bans:

Why are Ukrainian users more and more of­ten find­ing them­selves banned by Face­book?

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Yuriy La­payev

Why are Ukrainian users more of­ten find­ing them­selves banned by Face­book?

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.

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

Dif­fer­ent val­ues. Peo­ple who don't shy away from sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal is­sues in so­cial me­dia will hardly be com­fort­able users for the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Face­book, a com­pany fo­cused on the con­sump­tion-ori­ented so­ci­ety

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