Facebook docs show how it moderates users in repressive regimes, including a list of “recognized crimes” and allowing praise for mass killers in some contexts (Alex Hern/The Guardian)

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Facebook users are permitted to praise mass murderers and “violent non-state actors” in certain situations, according to internal guidelines that underline how the tech corporation is striving to operate in repressive regimes.

The leak also reveals that Facebook maintains a list of “recognised crimes” and instructs its moderators to distinguish between those and “crimes not recognised by FB” when applying the company’s rules.

The list is designed to avoid giving succour to countries where criminal law is considered incompatible with basic human rights. “We only recognise crimes that cause physical, financial or mental injury to individual(s)” such as “theft, robbery and fraud, murder, vandalism [and] non-consensual sexual touching”, the guidelines say.

Crimes not recognised by Facebook include “claims about sexuality”, “peaceful protests against governments” and “discussing historical events/controversial subjects such as religion”. Facebook argues this is the only way it can function in countries where the rule of law is shaky.

But the revelation of its explicit decision to place itself above the law may cause friction with governments round the world. “One of the biggest problems is that Facebook has gone into every single country on the planet with no idea of the impact,” said Wendy Via, the co-founder and president of the US-based Global Project Against Hate and Extremism.

She described Facebook, which was founded in the US, as having “little language capability and zero cultural competency”, adding: “You can’t build secret rules if you can’t understand the situation.”

Even in the US, Facebook has struggled to deal with cultural changes. The documents give insight into how Facebook struggled to define and act against the far-right QAnon movement. Accounts associated with QAnon were banned across the platform in October 2020 after years of growing popularity and controversy.

Defining QAnon as a “violence-inducing conspiracy network”, the company now bans non-state actors that “are organised under a name, sign mission statement or symbol; AND promote theories that attribute violent or dehumanising behaviour to people or organizations that have been debunked by credible sources; AND have advocated for incidents of real-world violence to draw attention to or redress the supposed harms promoted in those debunked theories”, according to the leaked guidelines for moderators, which date from December 2020.

It highlights Facebook’s battle to function in some of the most autocratic regimes in the world. One exception to guidelines on terrorist content, for instance, allows users to praise mass murderers and “violent non-state actors”, a term describing designated militant groups engaged in civil wars that do not target civilians.

According to Facebook sources, the company recognised that in complex conflicts some violent non-state actors provided key services and engaged in negotiations with governments. Praise or support for violence by these groups is not allowed.

In a reference to Myanmar, the Middle East and north Africa in the guidelines, Facebook’s global escalations team – a more elite group of moderators who are typically directly employed by the company rather than outsourced – are told: “Allow content that praises violent non-state actors, unless it contains an explicit reference to violence.” Content “that discusses mass murders” is also allowed provided it is “discussion of the events leading up to a mass murder, even when such discussions take a favourable position towards the event or its perpetrator”.

An example of a legitimate comment is: “Where were the police? Why did it fall to this guy to try and restore order?” The policy was rolled out early in Myanmar and Syria and now applies globally, it is understood.

Facebook’s decision to set its own standard of behaviour above that of countries’ criminal legislation also applies in other areas of its moderation guidelines. In telling moderators how to police discussions on “regulated goods”, for instance, Facebook applies an international set of restrictions to items where national and local laws differ.

Cannabis cannot be bought, sold or traded on Facebook despite being legal in a number of regions but users can “admit” to smoking it and “promote” it. The same restrictions apply to alcohol, although alcohol stores, unlike cannabis retailers, are allowed to advertise to those over 18. All “non-medical drugs” are severely restricted on Facebook, overruling local legislation.

Facebook sources said the medical field had come to be more accepting of cannabis use to treat illnesses while “non-medical drugs” such as cocaine and heroin had no identified medical use.

Facebook’s policy of selectively applying national laws has been reflected by its public actions before. In February the BBC reported on Facebook Marketplace being used to facilitate illegal sales of Amazonian land. According to the broadcaster, Facebook decided that “trying to deduce which sales are illegal would be too complex a task for it to carry out itself, and should be left to the local judiciary and other authorities”.

In the US, the company spent four years deflecting criticism for treating Donald Trump differently to other users and other world leaders. In summer 2020, Facebook refused to take action against the US president over a post declaring “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. Its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said he considered the post a warning of state action rather than a threat that went against Facebook’s rules.

The same accusations of light-touch policing were made regarding how Facebook handled the QAnon movement. Until the platform declared its QAnon ban in October, the community had been largely unaffected by Facebook’s guidelines. Even after the ban, numerous QAnon-linked pages remained accessible on the site.

In 2017, a separate leak of moderator documents to the Guardian revealed that the company only enforced rules against Holocaust denial in a subset of countries where that misinformation was illegal.

Rather than deciding based on the potential harm caused, Facebook focused on those places where the site was likely to face prosecution or be sued. In 2020, Facebook updated its policies to ban Holocaust denial on its platform around the world.

A Facebook spokesperson said: “We don’t allow anyone to praise violent actions and we remove content that represents or supports the organisations we ban under our policies. We recognise that in conflict zones some violent non-state actors provide key services and negotiate with governments – so we enable praise around those non-violent activities but do not allow praise for violence by these groups.

“We also maintain a list of crimes that we apply under these policies, but rather than breaking them down by country or region they are crimes that are recognised globally. Since we’re a global platform, we have a single set of policies about what we allow and apply them to every country and region. While we’ve made progress in our enforcement, we know there is always more to do.” The company had a process for national governments and courts to report content that they believed violated local law.

This content was originally published HERE

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