The (just about literal) Sovietization of Facebook

The (just about literal) Sovietization of Facebook
Image: LU Staff

LU contributor Joe Newby has a must-read post this week about new content guidelines for users who seek to monetize their Facebook postings (i.e., because that’s how they make a living).  As Joe points out, that field includes a lot of conservative bloggers – such as Liberty Unyielding.

And the new guidelines, instead of bringing clarity or confidence to bloggers’ transactions with Facebook, will apparently function like a minefield.

Joe lays out clearly how the wording of the Facebook guidelines is such that their interpretation can be completely arbitrary.  See this, for example:

We can pretty much agree that over-the-top content like gore and pornography are off limits, but there are a few areas of these guidelines that are quite disturbing to those of us who write and read about current issues.

Under the heading of “Debated Social Issues” is this:

Content that is incendiary, inflammatory, demeaning or disparages people, groups, or causes is not eligible for ads. Content that features or promotes attacks on people or groups is generally not eligible for ads, even if in the context of news or awareness purposes.

That’s it — no definition of what is considered “incendiary, inflammatory, demeaning or disparages people, groups, or causes,” is provided. Additionally, the phrase “even if in the context of news or awareness purposes” is pretty jaw-dropping.

I reached out to multiple people at Facebook for clarification of these guidelines and, as is so often the case, received no response. So I have no choice but to take these guidelines literally.

By the strictest interpretation, these guidelines would prohibit monetizing informational posts about ISIS terror attacks – among many other common types of content, including bashing Christians, or calling for the punishment of “climate deniers.”

But, as Joe observes, there’s probably no reason to worry, as long as you have a perspective approved by the progressive left.  It will be just fine to bash Christians and anthropogenic-climate-change skeptics and keep making money off Facebook.

What almost certainly won’t be fine is highlighting the truth about Antifa violence, or the truth about the Muslim Brotherhood’s connections to terrorism, the truth about the House Democrats’ IT-worker scandal, the truth about endemic anti-Semitism among Islamists and “Palestine” activists, or any other empirically validated truth the progressive left doesn’t want to encounter.

Besides straight news reporting on these matters, opinion posts that come from a viewpoint not approved by the progressive left will also, of course, be taboo. (I.e., ineligible for monetization and promotion.)

Joe points out that, by the terms of the Facebook guidelines, you can’t even safely post about natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

There’s more. Under “Tragedy & Conflict” is this:

Content that focuses on real world tragedies, including but not limited to depictions of death, casualties, physical injuries, even if the intention is to promote awareness or education. For example, situations like natural disasters, crime, self-harm, medical conditions and terminal illnesses.

Again, the guidelines are offered with no clarifying definitions, or examples of how you can run afoul of the Facebook censors by posting on these topics.

Facebook has basically given warning that there’s a broadly-encompassing set of topics on which its censors reserve the right to demonetize you – deny you access to ad revenue and post promotion – but you won’t know what to expect until you hit a mine.

The Sovietization

Read Joe’s whole post.  It’s well worthwhile.  I want to focus here on what principally struck me about the new Facebook guidelines, because they come at a time when another, related discussion of publishing guidelines is fresh in my mind.

The guidelines I refer to are the ones discussed at a Russian media company in July 2016, just after the senior leaders there were sacked over some critical pieces on Vladimir Putin and his family.

Here’s something remarkable.  I wrote about this company, RBC, on 13 September, because of the following very interesting connections:

(1)  An article by the Russian outlet RBC contains the only example we have of the reported “Russian trolling” of Facebook, the pattern that is prompting Facebook to revisit their practices and guidelines across the board at this moment.

My summary from that post:

A number of commentators have noticed that Facebook has been non-forthcoming in terms of the evidence for this [the self-report on Russian trolling], recounting it in statistical terms, but not showing the public what the material in question actually was.

The Daily Beast has stepped into that breach with a series on the topic, giving the only examples cited so far: a Facebook account called Secured Borders, and a Twitter account called Tea Party News.

And it turns out that fingering these accounts as fronts for Russian state operatives is something that was done by a Russian media outlet, RBC.

(2) The fact that RBC was owned by the same Russian oligarch whose investment company, Renaissance Capital, paid Bill Clinton $500,000 for his speech in Moscow in 2010, and was deeply involved in the arrangements for the Russians to buy Uranium One.

Although these facts aren’t directly on point for the question of censorship guidelines, they are still important.  One reason for revising the Facebook guidelines – perhaps not the only reason, but one of them, explicitly acknowledged by Facebook at the link in (1) above – is the self-reported findings on Russian trolling.

The only example we have of that trolling was reported by a Russian media outlet – which was under the gun from the Putin regime at the time, and owned by a Clinton Cash oligarch.

Facebook is a private company, and doesn’t have to be more transparent about the actual data behind its policy changes.  But this lack of transparency and extremely small data-set of trolling examples – i.e., one – is head-scratching enough.  Link the one example back to a compromised Russian source, and it only becomes more suspect.

The Soviet-style standard for “guidelines”

Now we’re in the right frame of mind to compare the guidelines RBC’s reporters were (sort of) given by their new management, when it took over in July 2016.

I linked to this summary of the staff meeting in the second footnote to my 13 September post.  It comes from the media site Meduza, which is run by Russian journalists but operates out of Latvia.  They had to move to Latvia to survive.  They got an audio recording of the RBC staff meeting with the new management, which occurred on 7 July 2016, and published an English transcript of it on 11 July 2016 (much to the chagrin of RBC’s leadership).

This is a somewhat lengthy passage, but I find that it makes for a powerful comparison with the import of the new Facebook guidelines, if you read through it.

RBC journalist: My name is ***, and I represent the financial news desk at the moment. My question is that our chief editors were fired, as you know, and they were fired, we’ve been hearing, because something didn’t come together correctly with [RBC‘s] editorial policy. So obviously our editorial policy won’t remain exactly as it was, as you’ve just told us, because clearly something about it before didn’t work out.

Igor Trosnikov: Quite right.

RBC journalist: If you fire people for something that wasn’t working out, then you probably don’t want anymore of those things, when you hire new people.

Elizaveta Golikova: Look, do you drive a car? Do you?

RBC journalist: Yes.

Elizaveta Golikova: Have you got a license?

RBC journalist: I’ve got a license.

Elizaveta Golikova: Do you ever break the traffic laws? Ever gotten a ticket? Do you pay up?

RBC journalist: Yes, of course.

Elizaveta Golikova: Well, if you drive over the solid double line, they take away your license. Does this [risk] mean you’ll stop driving your car, or that you’ll start traveling by plane, or maybe in something else?

RBC journalist: Where’s the solid double line?

Igor Trosnikov: Unfortunately, nobody knows where the solid double line is.

Elizaveta Golikova: And this is the road. The information space, as you all know too well, is a very sensitive place. And we all find ourselves at a catastrophically difficult moment—not just for RBC, but for the entire mass media. This difficult moment, I don’t know—the traffic is at a standstill, the drivers are growing anxious, and there’s a catastrophic stress overtaking the people outside and inside the cars. Our job is to show our professionalism in such a way that the traffic is safe for the people inside and for the pedestrians [inaudible].

Igor Trosnikov: We all grew up in the same paradigm. I think many of you learned from [the newspaper] Kommersant when I had arrived there and was working. We’re all from the same school [of journalism]—believe me. We share the same relationship with our audience, and respect the same responsibilities before our readers—really, the same.

RBC journalist: But the question was actually about something else.

Igor Trosnikov: And I answered you: no one knows where the double line is.

That’s how journalism gets Sovietized in Putin’s Russia: by laying an editorial minefield for reporters.  How different is it from what Facebook is doing with its new guidelines for monetization?

One more passage:

RBC journalist: I’ll ask a specific question. ***—I’m a deputy editor at the political news desk. I’m not too sure how familiar you are with our work methods, but currently we’ve got only one reason not to run a story: the absence of proof [inaudible] of a story. What I understand from what you’ve said about the double line is that some other factor might emerge that influences how we select our texts.

Elizaveta Golikova: So you think there shouldn’t be rules of the road? Look, once again: the attributes of good reporting that you’ve just summarized will always be the basic features of good reporting. And if all these attributes are present in a report, it means the story should be published. We should understand and accept this, all calm down, and keep going.

The double line here—it’s this remark that twists your approach [to this issue]. I’ll say it again: there are rules of the road. We’re all adults here, and we understand perfectly well that they were invented by someone not because someone wanted it get a bunch of bribes—isn’t that true? They were invented so traffic would be safe, and so people speeding at 180 kilometers [111 miles] per hour understood that they risked their own lives doing this.

RBC journalist: I don’t understand what you mean.

Elizaveta Golikova: Guys, let’s stick to specific questions, and you’ll get specific answers. That way we won’t start talking about the double line again, and we can list the specific qualities of good stories.

In other words: “You’ve been given fair warning about the minefield.  But we’re not going to help you find the mines.  Your call whether to keep trying to do independent journalism with us or not.”

Meduza says a lot of RBC reporters quit after that meeting.  Under Facebook’s painfully similar new guideline regime, the same chilling effect is likely on the reach and viability of conservative blogging in the rest of the West.

Obviously, the right needs to develop alternatives to Facebook and the other social media and search-engine platforms.

Two exit points about the new Facebook move.  One, it’s voluntary on the part of Facebook, as far as we can tell.  Certainly, neither the Trump administration nor the Republican Congress is involved in pressuring Facebook to make these changes.

So Facebook is voluntarily Sovietizing its editorial conditions for monetization by users.

The other point is, again, how oddly this whole set of coincidental events seems to relate to Russia.  Maybe it’s not so odd.  But it’s one darned peculiar sequence of events that starts out with a fear of Russian trolling, ends up taking a Russian source’s word for the single extant example of that trolling, and then plants a minefield for independent media voices exactly the way Vladimir Putin’s Russia would do it.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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