Photo credit: Anthony Quintano (CC BY 2.0 https://bit.ly/3JqVrZW)

On Russia, Big Tech positions itself as arbiter of life & death

Last week, you may have heard that some Big Tech sites are explicitly allowing users to not only call for the deaths of Russian troops and politicians, but to praise actual violent neo-nazis as long as they’re fighting against Russia.

Bear in mind: you can totally oppose Putin, his invasion, and the actions of Russia, and still see this as a very dangerous new step. It’s worth talking about the implications this could have for the future – but realise that nothing I say here is a defence of Russia, or a condemnation of Ukraine.

The move comes amid the ongoing invasion in Eastern Europe, and is actually a reversal of these sites’ previous hate speech policies which forbade such rhetoric.

As reported by Reuters:

“Meta Platforms will allow Facebook and Instagram users in some countries to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion, according to internal emails seen by Reuters on Thursday, in a temporary change to its hate speech policy.

The social media company is also temporarily allowing some posts that call for death to Russian President Vladimir Putin or Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to internal emails to its content moderators.”

Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky thanked Facebook for this decision over the weekend, saying it would help Ukraine win the battle in the “informational space” as well as on the battlefield.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that for over a year it’s been a rule on Twitter that you aren’t allowed to “misgender” a transgender individual, and politicians have even been suspended for using incorrect pronouns when referring to trans users.

So, in other words, misgendering a Russian soldier or politician is a violation of Twitter’s “hateful conduct” policy and liable to get you banned, but saying that the same Russian should be shot in the face is perfectly acceptable and by-the-book. Cue circus music.

In addition, praise for the neo-Nazi Azov battallion will be allowed now online as the group fights Russian troops. Reuters continues:

“Emails also showed that Meta would allow praise of the right-wing Azov battalion, which is normally prohibited, in a change first reported by The Intercept. The Meta spokesperson previously said the company was “for the time being, making a narrow exception for praise of the Azov Regiment strictly in the context of defending Ukraine, or in their role as part of the Ukraine National Guard.”

Bear in mind that these Azov (A3OB) guys are not “Nazis” in the modern PC purple hair sense of being slightly edgy lads who believe in two genders. No – we’re talking about an actual, bonafide, Swastika banner carrying, “Sieg Heil” one-armed salute kind of Nazi. The honest-to-god, Real Deal Holyfield variety who openly hates Jews.

These lads dip bullets in pig fat to disrespect the bodies of Muslim Chechen fighters, for whom pork is haram, referring to them as “orcs.” While Twitter acknowledged that this post violated their rules about “hateful conduct,” they merely put a disclaimer on it and left it up over 2 weeks later.

You might say “Well it’s a war, so of course people are going to be brutal to each other.” Which may be true. But the point is, it’s not the kind of behaviour or rhetoric you’d expect to see Big Tech allowing under any normal circumstances. They’ve deliberately gone out of their way to loosen their standards on what they consider “hateful” content towards people’s religious views.

You can even buy your own Azov Battalion merchandise on Amazon right now if you feel so inclined.

The new rules of what exactly you can and can’t say are a little bit more detailed than outlined here (you can read for yourself in this piece). But overall, Big Tech has decided that endorsements of violent extremist groups, as well as calling for political assassinations and killing of soldiers on their platforms is acceptable in some circumstances, when they deem it appropriate.

Now, maybe you absolutely hate Putin and the Russian army, and you’re totally fine with this. That’s certainly understandable given the situation. But think about the precedent being set here.

Donald Trump was banned from every social media site and app on earth permanently for life, even including Pinterest and Spotify. The man can’t even listen to Lo-Fi Hip Hop playlists in peace, and is basically purged from the internet entirely.

He was accused of “inciting violence” after the capitol riot on January 6th 2021, despite explicitly calling for peace before, during and after the riot in question. At no point did Trump say anything, anywhere, which could have been reasonably interpreted as encouraging people to storm the capitol. And yet, he was basically erased from the web regardless because of the idea that he may have implicitly encouraged violence somehow.

And yet, now you can literally call for heads of State to be assassinated and other acts of violence, endorsing extremist neo-Nazi militia factions, and you will be allowed to do so by the same social media sites with no problems.

A sitting president of the most powerful country on earth can be completely censored for maybe, allegedly, not really hinting at violence. But millions of people actually saying “I want this country’s leader to be straight up murdered, and fair play to those Nazi skinhead lads” is apparently totally grand.

The point here is not that Vladimir Putin does not deserve abuse. It’s not to say “Leave Russia alone! Don’t say mean things about them!” It’s not even to condemn Ukraine or their army.

The point is, we are reaching a moment in human history where a small handful of private companies are deciding who our society can call for violence against.

You can praise violent political extremists if Mark Zuckerberg says you can. You can call for people to be assassinated, as long as Twitter agrees. You can sell extremist memorabilia, if Amazon is OK with it.

But express a particular alternative view about, say, Covid-19? You will be digitally wiped out. It doesn’t matter if you’re a regular punter, a politician, or even the leader of your country. If they want you silenced, you will be silenced – end of story.

Despite telling us they want their platforms to become less political, social media companies decide what is “misinformation,” and what is “fact.” They decide which violent rhetoric is allowed, and what isn’t. And they decide who can speak, and who can’t.

Whatever about Putin’s Russia, it seems like the West has its own would-be autocrats, at least when it comes to speech, right on our own doorstep.

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