How Facebook facilitates information wars waged by Putin and other authoritarian regimes
Facebook is blocking independent media
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Facebook says it’s fighting disinformation and blocking Russian propaganda. But independent newsrooms in eastern Ukraine say they’re being restricted under the same rules.
Valerii Garmash, a 42-year-old Ukrainian coder and entrepreneur, remembers the devastation Russians left behind in Slovyansk, his hometown in eastern Ukraine: streets littered with burned cars, shattered glass and pieces of shrapnel.
This was 2014, during the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. After the Ukrainian army pushed Russian-backed forces out of the city, Garmash joined a group of volunteers who quickly got to work, scrubbing and fixing their hometown. But one thing they couldn’t fix was the fallen television tower that had once overlooked the city. Russian-backed militants used it to beam the Kremlin’s message at residents of Slovyansk during the three month long occupation and destroyed it before they left.
“How will we get the local news?” Garmash remembers asking a local journalist as they cleaned up a street in Slovyansk that July. “There will be no local news,” she replied.
She was wrong. Within weeks of that conversation, Garmash launched a new media site and named it 6262.com.ua, a reference to Slovyansk’s city code.
“People really needed local news. And all I needed to provide it was the internet and social media,” Garmash tells me.
By the time Russia invaded again, in February of 2022, Garmash was running the city’s most popular, most trusted local news site. But as Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv and Western sanctions kicked in, local journalism in Slovyansk was silenced once again. This time, it seems that Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — not Russia — was to blame.
“People we serve no longer get our news in their Facebook and Instagram feeds. In that sense what is happening with Facebook is not all that different from what happened with the TV tower back in 2014,” Garmash tells me.
‘We CAN’T GET THEIR VOICES OUT’
Meta has mobilized resources in response to the war in Ukraine, and the company says it is taking the issue of disinformation around the war seriously. Staffers sent us this statement two weeks ago:
“We’re taking significant steps to fight the spread of misinformation on our services related to the war in Ukraine. We’ve expanded our third-party fact-checking capacity in Russian and Ukrainian, to debunk more false claims. When they rate something as false, we move this content lower in Feed so fewer people see it, and attach warning labels. We also have teams working around the clock to remove content that violates our policies. This includes native Ukrainian speakers to help us review potentially violating Ukrainian content. In the EU, we’ve restricted access to RT and Sputnik. Globally we are showing content from all Russian state-controlled media lower in Feed and adding labels from any post on Facebook that contains links to their websites, so people know before they click or share them.”
I read it to Andrey Boborykin, who manages some of the biggest Facebook publishers in Ukraine, in addition to serving as the executive director of Ukrayinska Pravda, one of Ukraine’s largest dailies. He laughs.
The organic reach of Russian propaganda voices in the West has indeed been curbed — Facebook is blocking pages for RT and Sputnik in the EU, as noted above. But for Ukrainian publishers, none of this makes much difference.
Ukrainian newsrooms are being flooded by graphic images from the frontlines of the war. It’s newsworthy, at times vital content that is in public interest but it is impossible for editors to know what they are allowed to publish on Facebook and Instagram because Meta, Boborykin says, “never made attempts to identify key controversial topics and provide additional guidance to publishers on how to treat these topics on their platform.”
And even where there are rules, they are confusing and inconsistent. Here is just one example: it is impossible to cover the war in Ukraine without mentioning Azov Battalion, a key group fighting Russians in eastern Ukraine. But a mere mention of Azov Battalion can be considered a violation of community standards. The punishment for such a violation is a “strike” and several strikes could result in their accounts being blocked or suspended.
Recently, Meta made a temporary change to its hate speech policy, allowing calls for violence against Russian soldiers in the context of the Ukraine invasion. But when Ukrayinska Pravda posted stories about Azov Battalion cheering after hitting the enemy targets in Mariupol their pages got “strikes.”
Things are especially dire for publishers on the frontlines: dozens of small, independent newsrooms in eastern Ukraine, who have recently lost their ability to promote their posts to their communities.
“We woke up one day to the news of invasion, and the next day to the news of all of our Facebook and Google ad accounts being blocked. We contacted both. Google fixed the issue within twelve days. We are still waiting for Facebook,” Garmash told me.
Boborykin says restricting advertisement is normally used by Meta to curb what the company calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior” of state-backed accounts who use ads to promote propaganda, hatred and fake news. Blocking ad capabilities is part of Meta’s effort to combat disinformation on its platform. But what is happening in eastern Ukraine illustrates something else. It is an example, Boborykin says, of platforms applying a “one-fits-all” policy without any attempt to understand the local context.
“If you are a small publisher from eastern Ukraine, there is a high chance that right now you don’t have any advertising capabilities and you have your pages blocked,” says Boborykin.
As a result, Boborykin says 31 newsrooms, including 6262.com.ua, are experiencing a massive drop in Facebook revenue and audience. In addition to his day job, Boborykin works with the Media Development Foundation and is currently running emergency fundraisers for local Ukrainian newsrooms. Limits that Facebook has imposed on them, he says, are affecting wartime fundraising too.
“We can’t promote their pages, we can’t get their voices out,” Boborykin says. “It’s crazy because it means that [local publishers] are cut off from their communities. And many of them are already cut off physically, because they’ve had to flee. If they don’t flee they work under shelling. It’s crazy that they have to be dealing with technical constraints imposed by Facebook on top of it all,” he says.
In early March, in order to continue operations, Valerii Garmash moved most of his 14-strong team away from the frontline in eastern Ukraine, keeping only a few journalists in Slovyansk. “In extreme times like this, people need information more than ever. But they are no longer seeing us on their feeds,” he says.
On Facebook, in what appears to be the result of new company policies on Ukraine, 6262.com.ua has seen an 80% drop in audience since the war began. The numbers are similar on Instagram. Financing independent journalism is never easy, but Garmash has taken a unique approach, providing spin-off services like video production and social media consulting to local businesses.
Garmash says his team runs 25 business pages on Facebook alone. The local vet clinic, the city’s pharmacy and a clothing shop are among 6262.com.ua’s clients. But now they can’t get on the feeds of their community members either.
I asked Meta staffers I am in touch with whether they are aware of the huge losses that their company’s policy brought to small and struggling independent publishers in Ukraine. Their reply reads that “Meta remains committed to building systems that promote and protect news content on our platforms, in order to help news publishers, large and small, better make money and serve their local communities.”
“We can’t respond to the specific claims reported on by Coda Story as these details were not shared with us prior to publication,” the statement goes on “but we do partner with international institutions such as Reuters and ICFJ as well as regional and local organizations — including in Ukraine — to train journalists and newsroom professionals and get a better understanding of the challenges they face.”
In the last two months, staffers at 6262.com.ua have contacted Meta at least 40 times. They have yet to receive a response.
NO ANSWER: A GLOBAL PROBLEM
The experience of the team of 6262.com.ua is playing out for independent media across eastern Ukraine, and even beyond its borders.
We recently profiled two independent newsrooms in Georgia, a country also partly occupied by Russia, that saw their audiences decline by as much as 90%t after Facebook blocked some of their posts about the war in Ukraine. The reasons why the posts were blocked are unclear, but both newsrooms suspect that they were reported by Russian trolls.
After the piece was published, a Facebook representative asked me to pass on his personal details to the journalists we profiled and promised to review their cases. I did and journalists followed up with Facebook directly. Two weeks have gone by, and neither television station has gotten a clear answer from Facebook.
An estimated 26 million people in Ukraine use Facebook every month. “These platforms are crucial for us,” Boborykin says. Having worked across the African continent and closely watched Facebook’s controversies in places like Myanmar, Boborykin says he has no illusions about Meta’s business model, or any issues with it, for that matter. The problem, he says, is the way that Meta deals with people and organizations they like to call partners.
“What they have done in the case of Ukraine is 1% of what they could have done,” Boborykin says. “Have better news partnerships, reach out to local publishers, make lists of people and media organizations that you trust. Reply to their messages.”
Similar situation in Georgia
“Our reach has dropped from two million people to 200,000”, Salome Ugulava, chief digital editor of Formula TV, said in early April.
This happened after the team received a warning from Facebook — the platform’s algorithm labeled a quote from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as “hate speech.” The post was a direct translation of Zelenskiy’s statement into Georgian.
Due to the incident, the channel lost 90% of its audience, as well as money: “Monetization was suspended. This is a severe punishment”, Ugulava said.
A similar situation happened with the opposition TV channel Mtavari. They published an article about the Azov Battalion and immediately felt how coverage began to fall.
“We were already constantly attacked by the Georgian government “troll farms”, but after the invasion, Russian-backed organizations began to complain about us. The Azov incident was one of many,” said Nika Gvaramia, the channel’s CEO.
According to him, the attendance of his channel fell from 22 million to six million in a month.
What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg if you met him? I ask Valerii Garmash, the founder of 6262.ua before we hang up.
“I’d tell him that in Ukraine he is violating his own mission,” Garmash says. “He set up Facebook to give people power to build communities. He is destroying ours.”
After the publication of the Codastory material, a Facebook representative asked to pass on his contacts to the journalists they wrote about and promised to personally look into their cases. The journalists contacted Facebook directly. Two weeks have passed, and none of the publications received a clear answer from the company.