It’s generally not considered polite to wish death on anyone publicly. One of society’s great taboos is inciting violence through speech and that has carried over to social media, with good reason. Donald Trump’s snarling about political opponents online was one contributory factor to the riot at the Capitol in Washington on 6 January, 2021. It was also the straw that broke the camel’s back for big tech platforms, who decided Trump’s incitement was enough to permanently ban him from their sites. At the time, the platforms were praised for stepping in to prevent real harm and recognising the sway that social media holds over our lives. A decision this week could undo that goodwill — and, I fear, put people at real risk.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, has temporarily tweaked its rules on incitement and violence to allow users in some countries to call for violence against Russian soldiers and Russian politicians. Users in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine will all be able to say things like “death to the Russian invaders” without consequences. Such statements would previously have got them banned from the platforms. “We are doing this because we have observed that in this specific context, ‘Russian soldiers’ is being used as a proxy for the Russian military,” Reuters reported a Meta internal email to moderators as saying. “The hate speech policy continues to prohibit attacks on Russians.” A spokesperson for Meta pointed out that they still “won’t allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians”.
At first it sounds harmless. Yet this development may indicate the power that these big tech platforms hold over how we live. Social media has long been a theatre of the macabre. News of the capture and killing of Muammar Gaddafi rippled across Twitter in 2011, with photographs and videos disseminated soon afterwards. I remember seeing the bloody face of the dictator shared across my timelines, and there have been plenty of images of horror since. But with their latest policy, Facebook and Instagram are going a significant step further than acting as a platform for users to report on events.
The battle between big tech and big government has been a hard-fought one, with many politicians complaining that they are powerless compared with supranational social media platforms. Meta executives have the power to sway the thoughts of 2.8 billion people every day through their suite of apps. A policy change that allows for death threats — even in limited circumstances — can have a meaningful impact. Last month (February), before the war in Ukraine began, Facebook was accused by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of failing to stop ethnic massacres in Ethiopia by allowing incitement to violence to be shared through their platform — a claim the company denies.
It is telling that no major world leaders are calling for the head of Vladimir Putin, even though they condemn the war crimes he is perpetuating. Meta executives, who oversee a greater population than any president or prime minister, could be construed as tacitly saying it’s OK to do just that.