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Moderation of posts about international conflicts

Meta’s Oversight Board overrules moderation of post about Russia’s war in Ukraine

Moderation of social media is a tricky business. What can be said and what can’t? Meta’s Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s original decision in a case that raises issues about content moderation in conflict situations. The board stresses complexities in evaluating violent speech in international conflict situations where international law allows combatants to be targeted. 

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is internationally recognized as unlawful. The Board urges Meta to revise its policies to take into consideration the circumstances of unlawful military intervention.”

The board has changed the management’s decision to remove a Facebook post comparing Russian army in Ukraine to Nazis and quoting a poem that calls for killing of facists.

The board also overturned Meta’s finding that an image of a dead body in the same post violated Facebook’s violent and graphic content policy. Meta had applied a warning screen to the image.

A Facebook user in Latvia had posted an image of a dead body, face down, in a street. No wounds are visible. The person was shot in Bucha, Ukraine.

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The Russian text accompanying the image argues that the alleged atrocities Soviet soldiers committed in Germany in World War Two were excused on the basis that they avenged the crimes Nazi soldiers had committed in the USSR. It draws a connection between the Nazi army and the Russian army in Ukraine, saying the Russian army “became fascist.” The post ends by quoting the poem “Kill him!” by Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, including the lines: “kill the fascist… Kill him! Kill him! Kill!”

The Board finds that removing the post, and later applying the warning screen, do not align with Facebook’s Community Standards, Meta’s values, or its human rights responsibilities.

The Board finds that, rather than making general accusations that “Russian soldiers are Nazis,” the post argues that they acted like Nazis in a particular time and place, and draws historical parallels. The post also targets Russian soldiers because of their role as combatants, not because of their nationality, the board says. 

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“In this context, neither Meta’s human rights responsibilities nor its Hate Speech Community Standard protect soldiers from claims of egregious wrongdoing or prevent provocative comparisons between their actions and past events.”

The board emphasizes the importance of context in assessing whether content is urging violence. In this case, the board finds that the quotes from the poem “Kill him!” are an artistic and cultural reference employed as a rhetorical device. When read in the context of the whole post, the board finds that the quotes are being used to describe, rather than encourage, a state of mind. They warn of cycles of violence and the potential for history to repeat itself in Ukraine.

A majority of the board finds that the image in the post does not include clear indicators of violence which, according to Meta’s internal guidance for moderators, would justify the use of a warning screen.

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Overall, the board finds that this post is unlikely to exacerbate violence. 

The board recommends that Meta:

  • Amend the public Violence and Incitement Community Standard to clarify, based on Meta’s interpretation of the policy, that it permits content that makes “neutral reference to a potential outcome.”
  • Include an explanation of how it determines whether an image depicts “the violent death of a person,” in the public Violent and Graphic Content Community Standard.
  • Assess the feasibility of introducing tools that allow adult users to decide whether to see graphic content at all and, if so, whether to see it with or without a warning screen.
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