Department of irony? Facebook limits free speech in Russia, says Putin aide

facebook censorship by putin aide vkontakte pavel durov
The Vkontakte page of founder and CEO, Pavel Durov. After accusing Facebook of censorship in Russia, a Putin aide encouraged users to switch to Vkontakte. Credit: Vkontakte
Facebook is a big promoter of free speech, but when it comes to posts containing what it deems as offensive, as a private company it has the right to remove them. Which is what the social network did in Russia when it deleted posts containing derogatory language about Ukranians, according to Fortune. In response, an aide to President Vladimir Putin called Facebook’s action an attack on free speech and encouraged Russians to use local social networks instead. Did Facebook’s actions constitute some form of censorship?

Here’s what happened: Maxim Ksenzov, who runs Russia’s equivalent of the Federal Communications Commission (the Roskomnadzor), used a term, “khokhol,” in a Facebook post. The term is slang to describe Ukranians as backward peasants, Fortune writes, and Facebook saw it as hate speech, removed the post, and placed Ksenzov under a 24-hour ban. (Previously, a conservative Russian writer, Eduard Bagirov, was banned from Facebook for a week after using the same word in reference to Ukrainians.)

Igor Shchegolev, the aforementioned aide, used the situation to urge Facebook users to switch to a Russian network like Vkontakte, where they wouldn’t have content censored. The Moscow Times reports that Ksenzov quit Facebook the following day and jumped to Vkontakte. Which is where the irony comes in: The Roskomnadzor, under Ksenzov, has shut down more than 10,000 websites, often ones opposing Putin or his supporters. It has also threatened to ban Facebook, Twitter, and Google many times (Ksenzov has called Twitter a “political” tool that undermines the states’s authority, writes the Washington Post.) Even Vkontakte, Fortune says, faced pressure when it allowed opposition leader Alexey Navalny to post on the site last year.

But, as the Moscow Times writes, Russian journalists and bloggers, out of curiosity, started posting Facebook posts containing the offending word to see what would happen. Journalist Maxim Kononenko got a one-week ban after posting a poem by Alexander Pushkin, which contained the word “khokhly” (plural for khokhol). A famous blogger, Anton Nosik, got slapped with a 24-hour ban after posting a screenshot of Kononenko’s post. Journalist Dmitry Popov posted the word in context to its original meaning, describing a hairstyle worn in the past by Ukrainians; the post was also deleted. Nosik even suggested that the posts were purposely deleted by Facebook, and not by a computer. These actions led to public outcry and complaints.

Anyone following the news lately is aware that Russia and Ukraine aren’t exactly the best of friends. But while “khokhol” can be used as a derogatory term, the Moscow Times reports that it has also been “widely used in Russian and Ukrainian culture for centuries, often as a humorous, but not poorly intentioned jab.” (We aren’t sure if Ukrainians feel the same way.) Ksenzov reportedly added smiley faces in the post, suggesting the reference to Ukrainians was really in jest. But the recent conflict between the two countries has given the term a negative denotation, and Ksenzov’s use could be viewed otherwise.

Still, it’s difficult to say if Facebook’s attempt to police its site to delete hate speech impinged on free expression (by policy, as mentioned, Facebook can remove content it deems harmful). It’s also hard for outside observers to comment on an unfamiliar situation and culture. From previous actions and threats made by the Roskomnadzor, the Russian government has no issues banning anyone or anything from speech that’s anti-government, but it doesn’t like it when others do the censoring.

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