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Facebook wars What's the bad blood between the world's biggest social network and Russia's most prominent opposition figures?

Source: Meduza
Photo: Dado Ruvic / Reuters / Scanpix

Ever since December 2014, when Facebook partially conceded to Moscow's demands that it censor an event page advertising a political protest outside the Kremlin, the world's largest social network has been viewed with growing suspicion when it comes to free speech in Russia. Following Russia's slew of repressive laws adopted in recent years and revelations in the media about "Kremlin Internet-troll factories," attention on the practices of networks like Facebook in Russia is greater now than ever before. Meduza looks at the latest phenomenon in this story: coordinated efforts to flood moderators with complaints, in order to prompt suspensions of prominent Kremlin critics.

Facebook has suspended certain privileges and outright deleted some posts by several prominent Russian users. Most famously, photographer Rustem Adagamov was suspended for posting a picture of Nazi-themed Christmas ornaments, and Internet expert Anton Nossik lost some posting privileges for sharing photos containing nudity and images of public executions. Facebook has also suspended others like financier Slava Rabinovich, television personality Anton Krasovsky, and a host of Ukrainian activists. Those banned say an army of pro-Kremlin trolls and bots is flooding Facebook’s moderators with complaints, triggering takedowns where they’re supposedly unwarranted. 

Some of the controversy about Facebook’s curious flurry of censorship stems from apparent confusion about the company’s moderation policies. Sometimes, Facebook’s critics accuse the website of blocking accounts or deleting content “automatically,” after a certain number of complaints are submitted. “You get 100 or 200 complaints, and you’re banned,” Adagamov told RFE/RL’s Russian-language service. “No one understands the merits—it’s all automatic.”

On May 20, Adagamov’s “war with Facebook,” as he calls it, escalated, when he created a duplicate account to circumvent his suspension. The new account was disabled almost immediately. (Facebook forbids users from creating “more than one personal account.”)

Slava Rabinovich told that “hundreds and even thousands” of “Kremlin bots” submitted complaints about his Facebook posts. “Facebook is set up in such a way,” he says, “that an account is automatically banned under such circumstances.”

According to an October 2014 interview with Global VoicesRuNet Echo, however, Facebook's Vice President for Public Policy in Europe says the company doesn’t treat large volumes of complaints as a “good indicator” of whether or not content violates of the site's policies. According to Facebook, decisions to ban, block, or suspend Russian users are made by full-time employees fluent in Russian—not algorithms.

Anton Nossik rejects Facebook’s explanation, questioning moderators’ Russian fluency. “Seeing so many complaints,” Nossik explains, “the network’s English-speaking moderators (who don’t speak Russian and don’t understand the situation) conclude that the post really does violate certain community guidelines. How’s the moderator to know about the [Kremlin’s] spending on fighting traitors online?!”

Nossik says he's faced attacks from "Kremlin bots" before. Roughly six years ago, LiveJournal apparently received 145 complaints about photographs Nossik posted of his own son, flagging the content as child pornography. He says this was part of a larger campaign coordinated by the likes of pro-Kremlin youth activists Kristina Potupchik and Timur Prokopenko, whose dirty dealings and state support have been documented recent data leaks by the online group Anonymous International.

Facebook admits that it does make some mistakes. On May 7, the website briefly deleted a post by journalist Sergei Parkhomenko about Moscow’s likely involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. “As our team deals with thousands of reports each day, we occasionally make a mistake," Facebook spokeswoman Sally Aldous told RFE/RL, apologizing for the error.

On May 26, a group identifying itself as “the worldwide community of Ukrainian and Russian Facebook users” launched a petition titled "Stop Political Blocking on Facebook.” The petition summarizes several high-profile decisions to censor users in Russia and Ukraine, saying, “We don’t know why Facebook seems so eager to block people protesting against the Russian government’s policies. Perhaps its moderator team is not savvy enough, not large enough, or politically biased.”

In roughly three hours, the document has attracted more than 600 signatures. 

Kevin Rothrock

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