Extremists thrive on Facebook, despite recent shut-downs

A number of Facebook pages linked to the Slovak far right have been blocked; dozens of others flourish.

Illustrative stock photoIllustrative stock photo (Source: SME)

The Facebook presence of Slovakia’s far-right parliamentary party of Marian Kotleba has been somewhat hindered in recent weeks. The social network has banned the profiles of three of its members over racism and hate speech concerns, yet many similar Facebook pages continue to thrive.

There are about 140 profiles directly managed, related to, or supporting the extremist Peoples Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) on Facebook, according to the counting done by the Denník N daily in April 2017. In April and May, Facebook took down 37 of them, after they were heavily reported by critics of the party, mostly for spreading hate speech, racism, and hoaxes. Yet it is unclear why Facebook chooses to take down some pages while others, with similar content, remain online even after review.

In addition, within a few weeks Facebook lifted the ban from several of the 37 blocked pages linked to ĽSNS. Denník N reported on May 11 that as of that day, nine pages were back online, including the profile page of MP Milan Uhrík and the ĽSNS Banská Bystrica Facebook profile.

“Anyone can have anyone blocked without stating any reason,” expert on social networks Daniel Dočekal told the Sme daily in April. “The blocking cannot be appealed against, Facebook simply does whatever it wants to.”

The increased wave of reporting pages linked to the ĽSNS is rumoured to be in retaliation for the ban on the Facebook page Zomri (Die), a satirical profile which also makes fun of Kotleba’s party. It was taken down in April when it was vastly reported by ĽSNS supporters.

Banning hate from Facebook

The main Facebook page of the ĽSNS, called Naše Slovensko (Our Slovakia) was the second most popular page owned by any political party in Slovakia in recent years, after the page of the opposition Freedom and Solidarity (SaS). It was put up in early 2010 and by the time Facebook removed it in April 2017, it reached over 80,000 likes.

Read also:Analysts: Kotleba uses American campaign tactics Read more 

Through the page, and the dozens of others, ĽSNS voiced its negative stances about liberals, Roma, Muslims, homosexuals, Jews, and other groups that it is hostile to.

“As Marian Kotleba says: when there is a father named Joseph and a mother called Milan, their child will be no good,” for example, was a post that appeared on the page in May 2012.

At the turn of April 2017, Facebook gradually removed the profiles of three ĽSNS MPs: Marian Kotleba (nearly 80,000 likes), Milan Mazurek, and Milan Uhrík (both more than 10,000 likes). Mazurek’s profile was removed first. His followers created a new page but that was taken down in a week. While it was up, however, it was growing fast and in a few days was liked by thousands.

The reason behind the removals, though, is unclear. For instance, the personal profile of another ĽSNS member, Richard Tokusev, had been under review for a few days before it was decided that the profile had not violated Facebook’s community standards. However, the page ‘Richard Tokusev - With Courage Against System’ that he runs, was reported and subsequently blocked.

Similarly, the page Volím Kotlebu, volím správne (I vote Kotleba, I vote right), managed by the ĽSNS’s followers, was reviewed but not removed, and became the most popular support tool for the ĽSNS on Facebook after the main page, along with three leaders’ profiles, were taken down.

Facebook instead of traditional media

Months before the March 2016 elections in Slovakia none of the polls predicted the extremist ĽSNS would make it to parliament. Media generally ignored the party in their pre-election reporting, but many of the live TV debates featured Kotleba too. Following the elections, however, Kotleba has only appeared on television twice, in live debates on the TA3 private news channel. The other Slovak media, apart from “alternative media” usually do not invite the ĽSNS to speak out on general issues.

“Not everyone should speak out in society. Say, not those who put a black flag out on the public building during the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) celebrations,” presenter of the public-service RTVS late-night talk show Michal Havran said in a February 2016 edition of his show to explain why he did not invite Kotleba to discuss the steps the politician has taken as regional governor. The SNP is considered to be the start of the resistance of the citizens of the wartime Nazi-satellite Slovak State against fascism towards the end of World War 2.

Read also:Kotleba not invited to SNP celebrations Read more 

ĽSNS have recently complained that RTVS have not invited anyone from the party to any live debate since the vote. But they also declined to be part of the pre-recorded materials or print interviews for the fear of what they called media manipulation.

Social networking helped ĽSNS to parliament

Meanwhile, Facebook enabled the party, with very little expense or effort, to rouse possible voters over the seven years it’s been present on the social network.

“The party went for a communication strategy which had not been used by other political parties,” Katarína Kollárociová, social media lead at Triad Advertising told The Slovak Spectator. If the “likes” of all the Facebook pages related to ĽSNS, including those that were shut down, were counted, the final figure would be about 450,000, she noted.

Facebook played an important role when it came down to organising the ĽSNS meetings with people, and addressing the growing base of fans already from 2010.

“People’s decision to vote for Kotleba, either in protest, or because they actually agreed with him, indicated already then the potential of the ĽSNS,” Viera Žúborova, political analyst from the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Ss Cyril and Methodius in Trnava, told The Slovak Spectator.

Facebook also markedly contributed to the party’s triumphant win in the 2016 parliamentary elections, gaining slightly more than 8 percent of the votes (209,779 valid votes), which was four times more than previously anticipated by public polls.

Also, many first-time voters cast a vote for the ĽSNS, and these voters, influenced by the online environment, are on Facebook, not reading the relevant media as well as not distinguishing the truth of news stories, said Kollárociová.

Read also:Far right in parliament Read more 

“People want to have everything in one place, and one strong ecosystem functions much more effectively,” Kollarociova explains why the ĽSNS have been so popular on Facebook and why their presence on the social network needs to remain strong if they want to continue being successful.

Reporting to Facebook

In fact, most of the 140 Facebook pages spreading the views of the ĽSNS are still available, while a few of them are under review.

Facebook claims to be aware of global threats, including radicalism, and of the fact that it has got “a unique position to help prevent harm”. In February 2017, Mark Zuckerberg posted a letter called ‘Building Global Community’.

“We know there is misinformation and even outright hoax content on Facebook… Our approach will focus less on banning misinformation, and more on surfacing additional perspectives and information,” he wrote.

In May 2017, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook will add 3,000 reviewers to its community and build better tools to make it faster for reviewers to determine those posts that violate the standards. He has not revealed yet how Facebook distinguishes ‘good’ posts from ‘bad’ ones, though.

Facebook needs to be clearer on editorial policy

Slovak users can currently report posts, pages, and profiles on Facebook and mark them as fake news. One can find plenty of such posts shared on the ĽSNS-related pages from Slovak “alternative media”, remaining there even after review.

In this way, community standards are clear: “Organisations and people dedicated to promoting hatred against the protected groups are not allowed a presence on Facebook”. Therefore, if anyone attacks people based on their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, etc. can be subjected to review.

ĽSNS in their manifesto label the Roma minority as ‘parasites’, defame Muslims and fight against adoptions by same-sex couples whom they call perverts. The party has been attacking these groups for years. For instance, in 2016 the party created an event – a protest against the “perverts” – on its primary page.

“We work hard to ensure that the context of any reported content is carefully reviewed and that is why we have thousands of people working across the globe, 24/7, ready to support people who need our help in over 40 languages, including native Slovak and Czech speakers,” Facebook responded when asked by The Slovak Spectator how many Slovaks work as reviewers and if its editorial policy is clear.

Read also:Police pursue MPs for racist statements Read more 

“Our reviewers are expertly trained to apply our Community Standards across a broad range of issues including hate speech, slurs, nudity, bullying and harassment,” Facebook said.

Mirka Grofová from the Slovak branch of the Open Society Foundation believes that Facebook should define its editorial policy in a more transparent and unambiguous way.

Facebook has recently introduced a new feature that will mark news as disputed in the US, The Guardian daily reported, but so far it has instead produced the opposite effect than intended – the traffic to the story increased rather than went down.

In any case, no such tool is available on the Slovak version of Facebook for now, and Slovaks can thus only rely on other sources disputing news stories in the Slovak language such as demagog.sk, or a new website called blbec.online that publishes and updates a list of Facebook pages containing fake news or propaganda.

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