On 24 February 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, I responded to an argument on a friend’s Facebook page that the West should give in to Vladimir Putin’s demands in order to avoid the prospect of World War III and possible global nuclear annihilation.
A few days later, to my great surprise, I was informed that my comment had violated Facebook’s “Community Standards” and my account would be subjected to multiple restrictions, including a ban on posting or commenting for a week, a ban on participating in groups for a month, and having all my posts moved down in Newsfeed for two months.
Facebook operates a system of escalating penalties, and this was not the first time I had fallen foul of their algorithms. I was reminded that “multiple posts from the last year didn’t follow our standards.” They listed three previous violations. One was for “bullying” (I had the temerity to suggest that to describe COVID-19 as “a little headache” when over 800,000 people had died of it in the United States was “stupid and dangerous”) and another was for “nudity” (I posted a picture of the newly published Czech translation of my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century, whose cover utilizes a collage by Karel Teige featuring a bare-breasted woman). I can’t track down the third violation because “this content is no longer available.” This is hardly a litany of hate speech.
I checked the box disagreeing with the decision over my latest post. Facebook responded confirming that in their view, my post violated their standards. They told me, however, that I could appeal to Facebook’s (allegedly) independent Oversight Board, “which was created to help Facebook answer some of the most difficult questions around freedom of expression online: what to take down, what to leave up, and why.” There is no guarantee the board will review any particular individual case: “The Oversight Board will define the criteria that will ensure it selects eligible cases that are difficult, significant and globally relevant that can inform future policy.”
While I do not think my personal quarrels with Facebook are of any great importance in themselves, I believe how and in whose interests Facebook and other social media control the flow of information on the internet are among the most pressing political issues of our time.
Here are extracts from my submission to Facebook’s Oversight Board. If I get a response I will post it here. I’m not holding my breath.
Summary of case
I am a professional historian and an acknowledged expert on modern European history. Among other honors and awards, my book Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2013) won the George L. Mosse Prize for 2014, which is awarded annually by the American Historical Association for “an outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since 1500.” This book was also chosen as one of the Financial Times History Books of the Year.
The comment Facebook removed read (in full):
“This is my last territorial demand in Europe” (Adolf Hitler, speaking of the Sudetenland, September 1938).
The Sudetenland is the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that the leaders of Britain and France agreed Nazi Germany could annex following the 1938 Munich Agreement in order to achieve “peace for our time” (Neville Chamberlain). It soon became clear that this appeasement policy did not work. Hitler occupied the rest of the Czech Lands in March 1939, and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, triggering World War II.
The context in which I posted this comment was a discussion on a colleague’s timeline of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. People were suggesting that the most prudent course of action was to appease Putin by agreeing to his demands to demilitarize Ukraine and prevent it joining NATO. My point was that Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine was reminiscent of Hitler’s toward Czechoslovakia in 1938, and to appease him now would likely have the same result. Concessions would encourage further aggression elsewhere. I am far from the only person to have made this case on Facebook or elsewhere.
Nothing in my post can reasonably be construed as praising or endorsing Hitler or Nazism. And my scholarly record of opposition to fascism speaks for itself. This decision is preposterous, and sends out a chilling message for scholarly debate.
Why did I post this comment on Facebook
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is arguably the greatest threat to peace in Europe and global security since World War II. As a professional historian of modern Europe, I believe I have a right as well as an obligation to bring my knowledge of recent history to bear on current debates on Facebook and elsewhere. In this case I was drawing attention to the strong parallels between Adolf Hitler’s behavior toward Czechoslovakia in 1938 and Putin’s behavior toward Ukraine in 2022. The quote I chose (“This is my last territorial demand in Europe”) was intended to suggest that Putin’s assurances on Ukraine should be treated with skepticism. Historians know that appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938 did not prevent World War II breaking out a year later. By using this quote I was implying that appeasing Putin over Ukraine is no more likely to stop him moving into (for example) the Baltic states if he is not resisted now.
Did Facebook misunderstand my reason for posting?
Yes, I do think Facebook misunderstood my reason for posing. The context of the debate into which I was intervening should have sufficed to make it abundantly clear that I was in no way endorsing Hitler. For example another of my comments in the same exchange read: “If Joe Biden can seize all assets of Bank of Afghanistan in US and give them away to Americans, he can sure as hell do more to sanction Russia and Russians than he has done to date. Same goes for other western leaders. If they don’t, Putin’s troops may well think the road is open to Riga, Tallin and Vilnius … and who knows, Warsaw and Prague.”
Does this case raise issues of wider social importance?
Yes. It is universally accepted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a grave threat to world peace, and how best to respond has been debated in every western country. The invasion gave rise to the first emergency UN General Assembly session since 1982 (and only the tenth such session since 1950). It is essential that academics be allowed to bring their professional knowledge to bear in commenting on such issues on Facebook and elsewhere. They cannot do so if mere quotation of Adolf Hitler or similar figures, irrespective of context, is treated by your algorithms or adjudicators of “community standards” as tantamount to endorsement. If I know this is how Facebook acts, I will self-censor and avoid even mention of possibly controversial topics in order not to get banned from a network that is useful to me for other purposes (keeping up with family and friends across the world). If everyone responds similarly for fear of having their Facebook account disabled, the net effect will be to close down informed debate on important social and political issues – WITHOUT in any way deterring the real, organized, purveyors of hate speech, like white supremacist organizations, who have proved adept at taking advantage of your platform many times in the past.
Can you suggest improvements Facebook can make to avoid this happening?
The simplest measure you could take is not to treat the mere mention or quotation of a historical figure as an endorsement of their views, but to examine to context in which the mention or quotation is made. And, possibly, employ better educated adjudicators.
10 word summary of complaint
Quotation should not be treated as endorsement irrespective of context.
absolutely right on all points