Ukraine: social networks are going into “battle” mode

Propaganda images, fake or abbreviated photos, violent messages … The war in Ukraine has put social networks such as Facebook or Twitter in front of a difficult choice in terms of moderation. Should messages from Ukrainian users be allowed, including those when they are violent towards Russians? And how to ensure the safety of Russian Internet users, after the new Moscow law that threatens the authors of “fake news” about the army with sentences of up to fifteen years in prison?

From the war in Syria to the attack in France, including the attack on the Capitol in early 2021, every violent event puts the platforms on alert. Faced with the size of the task, social networks use algorithms and human moderators to remove content that violates their internal policies. The general idea is not to appear as an arbiter of freedom of expression, but to examine the content of the famous “gray” zone according to the cultural context. This can be problematic, but not necessarily illegal.

Calls for death against Putin tolerated

But in the case of the Ukrainian conflict, some platforms have abandoned this case-by-case approach and instead opted for radical views, or new ones anyway. Meta (formerly Facebook), for example, will temporarily approve violent messages sent against Russian soldiers. Even death calls against Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian ally Alexander Lukashenko will not be deleted unless there are detailed threats, Reuters reports, citing an exchange of emails between the platform’s moderators. “Because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are lenient with forms of political expression that would otherwise violate our rules on violent speech,” Meta said in a statement.

However, this “concession” is temporary and applies only to users located in Ukraine, Russia and several other countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Above all, “credible calls for violence against Russian civilians” will continue to be moderate. However, this is a relatively rare position. The latest example dates back to June 2021, when the network allowed messages from Iranian opponents for two weeks calling for the death of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Russia also reacted quickly on Friday by restricting access to Instagram. Russia’s prosecutor’s office has even taken legal action, demanding that the technology giant be branded an “extremist” organization, which could lead to a ban on all its activities in Russia. Knowing that Facebook has been unavailable in Russia since March 4, when Moscow blocked it after Meta’s decision not to broadcast the content of the Russian state channel RT.


The target is not an isolated case. Following a March 4 Russian law stifling any independent information or freely expressed opinion on the invasion of Ukraine, TikTok, for its part, has suspended live broadcasting (livestreaming) in the country since March 6, as well as publishing new videos. An unprecedented decision for a social network based on the logic of the flow and which could turn it into an empty shell …

Twitter also made a big decision by launching a version on Tor, the main gateway to the “anonymous” Web. This Twitter extension that ends in .onion (not .com) allows it to remain available, while the original version was blocked from Russia by regulators.

These unprecedented decisions can be explained by international pressure on Russia, as well as by Moscow’s turn to the media and digital. A rough wake-up call for platforms that, like Meta, have built a global presence outside of China. Russia’s growing isolation reinforces the “splinternet” scenario – that is, the emergence of a “Balkanized” and fragmented network between several large regional boards.

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