Facebook will now temporarily allow its users to praise the controversial Azov Battalion, a Ukrainian neo-Nazi military unit, on its platform after formally banning discussion of the group in 2019. The group was previously banned from being discussed under the social media giant’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy.
The move comes after Facebook, which earlier decided to temporarily allow calls for deadly violence against Russians, said it scrapped the policy. Users are now not allowed to call for the deaths of heads of state, including Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
The Azov Battalion functions as an armed wing of the Ukrainian white nationalist Azov movement which began as a volunteer anti-Russian militia prior to formally joining the Ukrainian National Guard in 2014.
The battalion is known for its utlra-nationalism and neo-Nazi ideologies that is said to be pervasive among its members.
The group’s neo-Nazi sympathies are not subtle. Azov soldiers are known to march and train wearing uniforms bearing icons of the Third Reich and its leadership has reportedly courted American neo-Nazi elements. In 2010 the battalion’s first commander, Andriy Biletsky, said that Ukraine’s national purpose was to “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Semite-led Untermenschen [subhumans],” the Intercept reported.
According to internal policy materials obtained and reviewed by The Intercept, Facebook will now “allow praise of the Azov Battalion when explicitly and exclusively praising their role in defending Ukraine OR their role as part of the Ukraine’s National Guard.”
Examples of speech that Facebook has now deemed acceptable include, “Azov movement volunteers are real heroes, they are a much needed support to our national guard.” and “We are under attack. Azov has been courageously defending our town for the last 6 hours,” and “I think Azov is playing a patriotic role during this crisis.”
Facebook has banned the group from using its platform for recruiting purposes or for publishing its own statements and images of the group’s uniforms, banners and other symbols remain banned.
Facebook has acknowledged the group’s problematic ideologies and provided The Intercept with two examples of posts that would not be allowed under their new policy including, “Goebbels, the Fuhrer and Azov, all are great models for national sacrifices and heroism” and “Well done Azov for protecting Ukraine and it’s white nationalist heritage.”
Azov Battalion banned by Facebook in 2019
In 2019 Facebook banned all discussion of the group under its harshest “Tier 1” restrictions that bars users from engaging in “praise, support, or representation” of blacklisted entities across the company’s platforms.
Other blacklisted entities include the Islamic State and the Ku Klux Klan due to their propensity for “serious offline harm” and “violence against civilians.”
In a 2016 report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights the Azov Battalion was accused of raping and torturing civilians during Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine when Russia seized Crimea.
The new policies will no doubt challenge Facebook’s moderators tasked with interpreting the company’s new policies. While users may now be allowed to praise the Azov Battalion’s actions in the battlefield the policy does note that “any praise of violence” committed by the group is still banned. “It’s unclear what sort of nonviolent warfare the company [Facebook] anticipates,” The Intercept wrote.
Dia Kayyali, a researcher who specializes in the real-world effects of content moderation with the non-profit Mnemonic, told The Intercept that Facebook’s new policy on Azov is “nonsensical” in the context of prohibitions against offline violence.
“Their assessments of what is a dangerous organization should always be contextual; there shouldn’t be some special carveout for a group that would otherwise fit the policy just because of a specific moment in time. They should have that level of analysis all the time,” she told The Intercept, adding that “It’s typical Facebook.”
Kayyali noted that while the exemption may permit ordinary Ukrainians the ability to freely discuss Russia’s invasion of their country the policy tweaks reflect the dysfunctional state of Facebook’s secret black-list-based Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy.