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“Whose side is Facebook on in this war?” Lithuanian activists ask

With little leverage against social media giants such as Meta, countries like Lithuania face an uphill battle in the fight against disinformation online.

April 25, 2023 - Dzmitry Pravatorau - Articles and Commentary

Screenshot from Facebook displaying the fake video clip accompanied by hate speech in the comment section.

On March 27th 2023, well-known Lithuanian blogger and founder of an initiative to combat online disinformation Ričardas Savukynas attracted his followers’ attention to what was most likely a fake account. The account had posted in Lithuanian promoting a video depicting alleged brutal behaviour on the part of Ukrainian soldiers towards civilians. The video has since been confirmed as a hoax created by Russia’s special services on occupied Ukrainian territory. But the post managed to generate plenty of angry comments from many euro-sceptic, anti-elitist or openly pro-Russian Lithuanians, who actively shared the video shortly after its publication. These comments, which Savukynas identified as coming from a mix of real and fake accounts, contained hate speech against the Ukrainian nation, questioned European and American aid to Ukraine and whitewashed Russia’s actions.

By April 1st the video had been flagged by Facebook as “false information”. The user that originally published the video is, nevertheless, still active and generating pro-Russian posts on a daily basis, even fulminating against the decision to flag the video. Some of Savukynas’s followers complained that their attempts to report the account as fake had not resulted in any meaningful outcome — Facebook only replied with a standard message which stated that the user’s actions meet community standards.

Compared to pro-Russian users, pro-Ukrainian activists and bloggers from Lithuania have experienced account restrictions and blocking by Facebook owner Meta on a more frequent basis. The most common reason justifying such measures is content being labelled as “hate speech”.  Lithuanian Chancellor of the Government Giedrė Balčytytė has stated that the most active punitive measures occurred in November and December of 2022. This included the blocking and restriction of accounts belonging to fundraisers, influencers and activists raising money for victims of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Expressions of criticism towards the Kremlin have also been used as the basis for restrictions and bans. Former Lithuanian member of parliament Nijolė Oželytė announced on February 22th 2023 that Facebook had warned her she was going to be blocked for a post dated October 3rd 2022. The platform’s moderators deemed Oželytė’s contribution about a pro-war meeting at a Moscow stadium to contain “hate speech”. The former MP issued a strong response: “Facebook admins – are you on the side of the terrorists or those who fight them?”.

Meta representatives advised Lithuanian politicians at a meeting in February 2023 that Facebook algorithms did not differentiate between the states of peace and war, and that moderation principles were applied equally to both sides of the conflict. According to Balčytytė, Meta considered the use of particular keywords to be hate speech, and that by censoring their use “some groups” — in this case Russian soldiers — “were protected from assault”. According to Lithuanian disinformation analysis centre Debunk.Org these keywords included “orcs”, “Putin’s zombies”, and “Russian Nazis”. Nonetheless, the centre’s chief Viktoras Daukšas states that accounts disseminating pro-Russian viewpoints and disinformation are often spared by the platform’s moderators despite using the same keywords.

This is not the first time that Facebook has been criticised for inaction in relation to information wars waged by authoritarian regimes. As far back as 2015 Ukrainian officials noted the platform’s failure to prevent the spread of Russian disinformation, while the United Nations found Facebook to be a “determining” factor in the genocide of Myanmar’s Rohingya minority. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated once again how multiple non-state actors contribute to information war efforts. From Elon Musk’s controversial tweets to Facebook’s crusade against many pro-Ukrainian activists, not restricted only to those in Lithuania, such activities facilitate the spread of Russian narratives online. Even more concerning, as Savukynas highlights, is that Meta does not appear to differentiate between what is morally right and wrong, instead imposing on its users “random pseudo morals” driven by unclear algorithms.

After February 24th 2022, established geopolitical realities changed drastically as the world saw the atrocities committed by the Russian army. In this context, Meta’s inconsistent efforts to equate the aggressor and victim’s moral positions appear bizarre to many analysts. At this stage, Meta’s representatives have only promised Lithuanian officials that they will raise the issue of restrictions at a higher level of management. Lithuania recognises that the country represents only a small portion of Meta’s market, and thus lacks leverage with the social network giant. In light of this, if Meta’s management decides not to alter its stance, Lithuania plans to refer the issue to the European Commission to discuss further options for tackling the problem.

Dzmitry Pravatorau is a Brisbane-based researcher in Baltic and Post-Soviet studies with a special interest in Lithuania. He holds Bachelor and Master of International Relations degrees from the University of Queensland, Australia.

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