Brendan O’Neill

The double standards of Facebook’s ‘death to Russians’ policy

The double standards of Facebook's 'death to Russians' policy
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So, Facebook and Instagram users are now allowed to call for people to be killed. But only if the people they’re wishing death upon are Russian. If it’s Ruskies you hate so much that you feel the urge to go on social media and plead with someone to kill them, then Facebook and Instagram’s normally censorious moderators won’t bat an eyelid. Knock yourself out. Kill the Russians!

This is the news that Meta – the parent company of Facebook and Instagram – has made a temporary change to its hate-speech policy. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it will allow its users in certain countries to make violent comments about Russian forces. If you live in Ukraine, Hungary, Poland, Georgia, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Armenia, Azerbaijan or Russia itself, then you are now permitted to engage in ‘violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the hate-speech policy’.

It won’t be a free-for-all. Demands for death will only be allowed if they are targeted at Russian troops or at Russia’s political leaders, most obviously Vladimir Putin. ‘We still won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians’, said Meta in an internal email to its moderators. How gracious.

And yet there does appear to be room for slippage in this distinction between wanting to kill war-making Russians (fine) and wanting to kill ordinary Russian people (not fine). Meta says it will permit violent speech ‘targeting Russians where it’s clear that the context is the Russian invasion of Ukraine’. That just says ‘Russians’. Not ‘Russian soldiers’ or ‘Russian politicians’. So, what about Russian writers or artists or celebrities who actively support the war? Is that in ‘the context (of) the Russian invasion of Ukraine’? Can we agitate for their deaths?

In a sense I can’t believe we are even having this discussion. We need to take a step back and consider the chilling consequences of what Meta is doing here. The owner of Facebook and Instagram is essentially decreeing that there are some people who are so despicable that it is okay to say violent and threatening things about them. It is accruing to itself the power to determine who we, the web-using public, are allowed to express violent fury against. It is essentially playing the role of Big Brother, preparing the ground for a Two Minutes Hate against certain individuals. Roll up, web citizens, and spit bile at these evil people.

Even worse, it is singling out one nationality, and one nationality alone, for violent speech and hatred. You don’t have to be a supporter of Putin’s barbarous war in Ukraine to find this a tad disturbing.

Let’s consider the double standards here. If Facebook users in Eastern European and Baltic countries are now permitted to wish death on Russian forces, will Facebook users in Yemen be allowed to say violent things about the Saudis? After all, Saudi Arabia has subjected Yemen to unspeakable violence and deprivation over the past seven years.

What about the 20 million Iraqis who use Facebook? If they’re still feeling aggrieved by the disastrous American invasion and occupation of their country, can they say ‘Death to US troops’? ‘Death to Joe Biden’? ‘Kill Kamala’? Can Libyans call for the death of Britons considering the UK’s involvement in the 2011 military intervention there, the consequences of which are still being felt by Libyan people?

Facebook and Instagram have got themselves into a situation where they forbid violent speech against representatives of the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, etc, but they allow it against certain Russians. They are judging Russians by a double standard, marking them out as more wicked, and thus more deserving of menacing, violent commentary, than other nations. Hip social-media oligarchs who pose as anti-hate, anti-violence and anti-racist have given millions of people a green light to wish death upon people associated with the Russian state. Just take that in.

And then there’s Donald Trump. We now have the ludicrous situation where Trump remains banned from Facebook and Instagram on the basis that he incited violence ahead of the Capitol riot of 6 January 2021, while Facebook and Instagram are okaying the inciting of violence against Vladimir Putin and Russian soldiers (many of whom are tragic youthful conscripts, it should be pointed out).

The charges against Trump were always rather jumped up. Facebook banned him after he posted a video saying to the protesters around the Capitol building, ‘We love you, you’re very special’. (When things took a violent turn, Trump told the protesters to go home.) So on social media you can say ‘Kill Vladimir Putin’ but not ‘I love you’ to a bunch of hotheaded MAGA folk? Remember, please, never to look to the social-media giants for moral guidance.

For me, the problem here is not the speech itself that Meta has just given the nod to. I’m a free-speech fundamentalist. I think almost everything should be permitted in the sphere of ideas. If someone in Kiev or Budapest or Tallinn wants to say ‘Death to Putin’, I think that’s okay.

No, the problem is the power that Silicon Valley now wields in the 21st-century public square over speech, thought, emotion, violent beliefs and actual matters of life and death. It can switch hate on and off as it pleases. It can block violent speech and then unblock it when it decrees that some person or some group deserves a bit of brutal hatred. It censors threatening language day to day but uncensors it when a nation is judged to have crossed a line. Today it might be certain Russians that the overlords of the internet have decided may be subjected to violent invective – who will it be tomorrow?