Russian Social Networks Start Courting Russian Users Sick of Censorship on Facebook

Russian social networks try to court Russian users who have opted for American websites. (VKontakte is sometimes represented as a cartoon dog.) Image by Kevin Rothrock.

Russian social networks try to court Russian users who have opted for American websites. (VKontakte is sometimes represented as a cartoon dog.) Image by Kevin Rothrock.

In the latest episode of Facebook's drama with users in Russia and Ukraine, the network suspended accounts and deleted several posts belonging to a handful of prominent pro-Kremlin bloggers, as well as a high-ranking Russian state official. After a wave of complaints from Russian liberal oppositionists and Ukrainian users (including an appeal from Ukrainian Petro Poroshenko himself), it's now the other side's turn to protest Facebook's apparent political bias.

The tension hasn't been lost on other social networks in Russia. VKontakte, the country's most popular social network, and LiveJournal, still a popular blogging service in Russia, have encouraged Internet users to switch to their websites, where moderation polices against supposed hate speech are less strict.

The current bad blood between Russians and Facebook peaked when the network temporarily suspended the accounts of Maxim Ksenzov, the head of Roskomnadzor (the Kremlin's media watchdog), and pro-Putin writer Eduard Bagirov. These two men, along with several others who joined them in solidarity, were punished for posting the word “khokhol,” an ethnic slur directed at Ukrainian people. Later, Bagirov was banned again for referring to a Ukrainian opponent using a similar anti-Ukrainian ethnic slur, “ukrop,” which literally means “dill.”

According to reports in the Russian media, Facebook has said the posts were removed and accounts frozen because users failed to comply with the website's community standards by insulting people based on their ethnicity.

«Слово «хохлы» в такой подаче подпадает под использование таких слов, как «ниггер» и другие, и нарушает правила сообщества».

In this context, the word “khokhol” equates to the usage of such words as “nigger” and others, and it violates community standards.

(Bagirov later stated that he thinks this comparison is unfair.)

Internet users in Russia have expressed surprise about Facebook's decision to censor such material. In protest, many Russian users intentionally began to post content containing the forbidden words.

In one experiment, users quoted a line in a famous 19th century poem, where Ukrainians are identified using the ethnic slur. In another test, users spelled the word “х0х0л,” and several were banned by Facebook for it, according to the website TJournal.

Given that the words “khokhol” and “ukrop” are not always used as insults, some of Facebook's decisions to censor users provoked especially disapproving reactions. For instance, journalist Dmitry Popov was flagged for a hate-speech violation for referring to the famous Cossack hairstyle as a “khokhol.” Later, Popov lost access to his Facebook account because of a waggish message addressed to dill, the herb:

Укроп! Ты, растение,к тебе обращаюсь. До чего же ты, укроп, бываешь противен. Побывал тут в ресторане и понял – укроп способен испортить почти любое блюдо.

Dill! I address you, a plant. How very disgusting you are, dill. I was in a restaurant and it occurred to me that dill can spoil almost any dish.

Following the content takedowns, some Internet users expressed concern that Facebook's moderation team might be mismanaged or under the influence of Ukrainian activists actively (and falsely) reporting Russian bloggers for abusing the website's community standards. Ironically, Ukrainian users have for months now criticized Facebook for being vulnerable to similar manipulation at the hands of pro-Kremlin “trolls” and supposedly Russia-sympathizing censors.

RuNet guru and Russian media expert Anton Nossik says “Ukrainian cyber warriors” might finally be enjoying some success in using Facebook's reporting features against pro-Kremlin accounts. Nossik strongly criticizes Facebook for failing to curb the influence of activists, trolls, and bots in both Ukraine and Russia, when it comes to community moderation.

In a protest against American censorship, Roskomnadzor head Maxim Ksenzov eventually deleted his Facebook account, saying the website abuses its power online, acting “much more stiffly and cynically” than any Russian state agency. Discussing his exit from Facebook, Ksenzov expressed his reservations about putting too much power in the hands of foreigners:

Я бы не хотел, чтобы неизвестные граждане известных стран запрещали гражданам моей страны говорить на родном языке.

I would not want unknown citizens of known countries to forbid citizens of my country to speak in their native language.

Ksenzov is also famous for bragging about the Russian government's power to block Facebook and Twitter “in a matter of minutes,” should the social networks fail to comply with Russian laws. More recently, however, Roskomnadzor's relationship with Facebook has seemed to improve. On July 7, the agency's spokesman told the media that “Facebook is doing everything right” when it comes to community moderation, “but the principle should not be applied selectively.”

Still, efforts to migrate Russian Facebook users to homegrown social networks appear to be growing. On July 10, Sofiya Ivanova, a spokesperson for Rambler and Co, which owns LiveJournal, reminded her Facebook readers that LiveJournal is happy to welcome back Internet users who don't wish to change their writing habits. (Ivanova's post, incidentally, contained the word “khokhol” and Facebook later deleted it.)

VKontakte's press secretary also welcomed anyone thinking about leaving Facebook for Russia's most popular social network:

We're ready to accept all the blocked Facebook users. Welcome! Again :)

Youth activists from United Russia, the country's ruling political party, have also joined the campaign to promote Russian social networks. MediaGuard recently launched a new website called #GoodbyeFacebook (#ФейсбукПока), which offers users instructions on how to save their personal data from Facebook, before deleting their accounts. According to the MediaGuard, more than 6,700 people have used the website to leave Facebook.

Ironically, MediaGuard’s own website still includes links to the group's Facebook and Twitter pages, and even allows visitors to authenticate a MediaGuard account using an existing account on Facebook.


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