Meta’s Oversight Board overrode the tech giant’s decision to delete a Facebook post earlier this year that compared Russian soldiers to Nazis.
The board announced their decision on Wednesday, saying the post, which consisted of an image showing what appeared to be the dead body of someone shot in Bucha, Ukraine alongside a poem that called for killing fascists, had not violated the company’s policy against hate speech and human rights violations.
“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 wrote in its ruling.
Meta removed the controversial post amidst an overwhelming number of comments on the social media platform revolving around the war in Ukraine. The company requested advice from the oversight board in May regarding its policies related to commentary on the war in Ukraine but pulled its request shortly after.
The Oversight Board is a mostly independent entity that consists of academics, rights experts, and lawyers, and was created to rule over content moderation cases and provide advice for current and future policies with the caveat that if the board makes a ruling on a case, its decision is considered binding.
After Meta’s request was withdrawn, the Oversight Board wrote on Twitter, “While the Board understands these concerns, we believe the request raises important issues and are disappointed by the company’s decision to withdraw it.” The post continued, “The importance for the company to defend freedom of expression and human rights has only increased.”
The Latvia-based Facebook user who posted the image and Russian poem appealed to the board to examine Facebook’s decision to initially remove the post in April. Meta reinstated the post after the board selected the case and instead applied a violent and graphic warning to users.
Meta had argued the post violated its human rights policy which the company defines as a “direct attack on people.” The policy states it prohibits “dehumanizing comparisons, generalizations, or behavioral statements” which include both written and visual formats. The policy includes “denying or distorting information about the Holocaust.”
However, the Oversight Board determined the post wasn’t accusing Russian soldiers of being Nazis but was instead drawing “historical parallels” between Russian soldiers’ behavior. “The post also targets Russian soldiers because of their role as combatants, not because of their nationality,” the Oversight Board wrote in their letter.
“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 letter continued.
The user wrote the Russian army “became fascist” and claimed the army “rape[s] girls, wound[s] their fathers, torture[s], and kill[s] peaceful people.” The user said Ukrainians may want to repeat their actions and included excerpts from the Soviet poet Konstantin Simonov, writing, “Kill Him!”
Meta says on its Facebook transparency site that posts potentially violating existing policies are allowed “in certain cases” if “it is determined that the content is satirical.” It continues, “Content will only be allowed if the violating elements of the content are being satirized or attributed to something or someone else in order to mock or criticize them.”
The Oversight Board said they determined the poem’s inclusion in the post was used as a rhetorical device warning of the continuous cycle of violence rather than encouraging it. “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,” the Oversight Board wrote.
“Overall, the Board finds that this post is unlikely to exacerbate violence. However, it notes that there are additional 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 suggested Meta amend its public violence and incitement community policies to clarify how violent and graphic content is determined. It also suggests Meta introduce a tool allowing adult users to determine if these types of posts appear on their Facebook feed and whether they see it with a graphic warning label.
The letter concluded, “The Board urges Meta to revise its policies to take into consideration the circumstances of unlawful military intervention.”