Facebook Is Now Allowing Itself to Be Weaponized

Destroyed Russian tanks and the bodies of Russian soldiers are seen after a battle in Gostomel in Ukraine on March 4. Photo: EyePress News/Shutterstock/EyePress News/Shutterstock

Update: On March 14, Meta updated its policy to once again ban people from calling for the assassination of heads of state, after it had briefly allowed people in Ukraine to call for the death of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This week, Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Platforms — the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — decided that people could temporarily use those platforms to call for the deaths of other people. Not anyone or anywhere, to be clear: Users are only allowed to call for the killing of Russian soldiers, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his Belarusian counterpart, Aleksander Lukashenko, and only in specific ways related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is the first time that Zuckerberg has allowed his platform to be explicitly used as a way to incite violence at anywhere near this scale, let alone during a crisis drawing so much of the world’s attention.

The specifics here are important, because Meta is walking an absurdly fine line with these new exceptions to its hate-speech policy. According to internal Meta documents obtained by Reuters, calls to assassinate Putin and Lukashenko will be taken down if they have “two indicators of credibility, such as the location or method” of the assassination, or additionally target other people. The new policies only apply to users in Ukraine, Russia, and other neighboring countries. General statements of violence against the Russian people, or that indicate Russophobia, will also be taken down. All these new rules are temporary, but it’s not clear how temporary, or how and when Meta will decide it is no longer okay for this one specific group of people to call for violence against this other specific group of people. Meta’s “transparency center” still declared, as of Friday night, that “the Facebook Community Standards apply the same to everyone, everywhere.”

In response to the policies, Russia on Friday moved to label Meta an “extremist organization” and open a criminal investigation into the company, as well as ban Instagram. (It had already banned Facebook after the platform refused to stop fact-checking Russian disinformation about the Ukraine invasion; the other Meta platform used in Russia, WhatsApp, will not be banned, as Russia doesn’t consider it social media.)

Corporate America’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been both staggering and weird. The repercussions of Putin’s war have driven many companies into unprecedented, previously unthinkable territory, not only in terms of sanctions and seizures, but in how they even conceive of Russia or their role in its market. Major companies like ExxonMobil and Goldman Sachs seem to be abandoning hope that business in Russia will ever be the same again. A growing list of companies have simply ceased or “paused” all operations in the country, severing Russia and Russians’ access to their products and services. Microsoft and Google have meanwhile actively partnered with the U.S. government to help thwart Russian cyberattacks on Ukraine. With Meta allowing for calls of violence against Russia’s military forces and its leader, Zuckerberg is not only abandoning any pretense that Russia will ever allow them to do business there again, but openly inviting questions about why other leaders or military forces are protected from threats, as well as what other wars the company will or will not deem worthy of intervention.

Mark Zuckerberg is no stranger to killing, but has only personally used his blade on pigs and goats thus far. His platforms have a far bloodier history, as they have been a clearinghouse for just about every act of violence imaginable. Meta’s suite of internet platforms have not only been used to spread hate speech and violent images, but to broadcast actual live killings. Facebook was one of the primary platforms used to organize the deadly January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. In Myanmar, the military used the platform to incite genocide against the minority Rohingya Muslim population. After the violence in Myanmar came to light, Facebook commissioned an outside report and in 2018 acknowledged its role in the bloodletting, admitting that the company wasn’t “doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” Over the next several years, the company continued to allow its platform to be used to incite ethnic violence in India and Ethiopia. Last year during two weeks of anti-government protests in Iran, Facebook and Instagram allowed posts featuring a chant for the death of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei, after being criticized for censoring the protest message.

While the company has previously agreed “we can and should do more” to curb these problems, Meta has in this case decided to do less: Facebook and Instagram can be weaponized to incite violence, for a limited time only, so long as Meta gets to decide who can be targeted, where, and how. When I reached out to Meta for a response, spokeswoman Dani Lever responded by sending me a statement tweeted Friday by Meta president of global affairs Nick Clegg. It says that the new policies are temporary, apply only to Ukraine, and are “focused on protecting people’s rights to speech as an expression of self-defense in reaction to a military invasion of their country.” Without the new policies, Clegg writes, Meta “would now be removing content from ordinary Ukrainians expressing their resistance and fury at the invading military forces, which would rightly be viewed as unacceptable.”

Ukrainians should have every right to speak out against Russia’s invasion and its perpetrators, and if Meta attempted to prevent them from doing so, it would undoubtedly face an enormous PR crisis and backlash from its users, partners, and employees. But there being a business logic for Meta’s new policies doesn’t diminish how deeply troubling it should be that one of world’s most powerful companies, which operates three of the world’s most ubiquitous social platforms, has reached the conclusion that it gets to unilaterally decide who can and can’t be targeted with incitements to real-world violence.

Of course, Facebook and other social-media companies have already been deciding which world leaders are allowed to use their platforms, albeit without taking the stance that it’s reasonable to want them dead. Look at Donald Trump, banned for inciting violence and exiled to his own sad Twitter knock-off that nobody uses. Facebook is also the platform autocratic leaders have often used to suppress dissent or boost their own political messages. Zuckerberg once personally chose to side with an authoritarian crackdown in Vietnam, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi has reportedly pressured the company to remove critical posts, and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro passed a law that would have stopped social-media companies from taking down political posts, even if they contained false information about COVID-19 — though Facebook seems to have ignored that.

Meta has been becoming less relevant, losing users to rivals like TikTok as it tries to build out its video-game-like “metaverse.” But Zuckerberg’s empire is still by far the most important social-media company in the world, with 1.9 billion people who log on every day globally. And even though the company’s user base as a whole has started to shrink, as of last quarter it was still growing, albeit slowly, in Europe and Asia. The point is, this is still an immensely powerful company, and despite its argument that it’s merely a neutral platform, it is continuing to choose sides and is now deciding which violent rhetoric is or is not justified in the midst of a conflict that may have world-historical consequences. Clegg’s statement insists “Meta has no quarrel with the Russian people” and that the company’s decision to have quarrel with Russia’s leaders and military was “taken in extraordinary and unprecedented circumstances.” The Russian people, particularly anyone with ties to any of the country’s conscripted soldiers, may not be very understanding. And unfortunately for the human race, unjustified war is neither extraordinary nor unprecedented. If a U.S.-led war once again elicited a global backlash and a major social-media platform relaxed its policies to allow posts calling for the death of U.S. servicemembers, how would Americans feel about that?

I have to wonder if Zuckerberg has really thought this through. If Facebook suspends its moderation policies so that it can be used to encourage the killing of Russian soldiers, does that make it a participant in the war and at least partially responsible for its outcome? If Zuckerberg’s company looks the other way and effectively makes Facebook a safe haven for people to discuss killing the man who leads the world’s ninth-largest country by population — what kind of implications does that have every other country, leader, and conflict? Meta and Zuckerberg may not realize it, but they’re in the war business now. The rest of us better hope they always choose whatever side we’re on.

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Facebook Is Now Allowing Itself to Be Weaponized