The removal of certain posts patronizing Ukrainians has led to a campaign to encourage the use of domestic social media.
Government officials are encouraging Russians to leave Facebook and join domestic social media, where they will allegedly enjoy greater freedom of speech.
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Use of offensive term leads to Facebook bans
Facebook deleted a number of posts which contained a slang term for Ukrainians on the grounds that it constituted hate speech, leading to a backlash. Russian news agency ITAR-TASS ran a report in which it cited Igor Shchegolev, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, encouraging Russians to use domestic social media such as Vkontakte in order to maintain their right to free speech.
Shchegolev spoke out on the issue of online censorship after controversy arose around the use of the word “khokhol.” Maxim Ksenzov, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, which is similar to the Federal Communications Commission, received a 24-hour ban from Facebook for using the term in a post.
“Tolerance is fashionable at the moment (and I’m not talking about the religious notion). But I don’t want to be tolerant!!” he wrote. “Soviet people are Soviet People. Sometimes khokhly are khokhly.”
Freedom of speech defended by body which shuts down opposition websites
Khokhol is a widely used, yet offensive, term for Ukrainians. It originally referred to the Cossack custom of wearing a long top-knot of hair, but is now used to denote the idea of someone being backward. Although it can be used affectionately, it is always patronizing. Use of the word is increasingly seen as derogatory in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
Russia’s keen sense of irony is on full display here. Roskomnadzor has shut down over 10,000 websites for offenses related to “extremism,” which often implies nothing more than opposition to Putin and his government. Free speech indeed.
If the regulatory body does not actually shut down websites, there are other ways in which Putin and his allies restrict the dissemination of material critical to the ruling regime. The founder and CEO of Vkontakte, Pavel Durov, was forced to leave Russia last year after coming under increasing pressure because he allowed opposition leader Alexey Navalny to publish material on the site.
Facebook hate speech policy tested by Russian campaign
Vkontakte is the most heavily used social network in Russia, and many people refer to it as the Russian Facebook. So long as you are not criticizing the Russian government, it appears that you can publish anything you like on the site, including the use of patronizing terms about Ukrainians.
Facebook, on the other hand, is able to block anything that it considers to be hate speech under the terms of its community standards. Language which attacks groups based on race, ethnicity and nationality can be blocked, and Ksenzov fell foul of this policy.
A number of bloggers and journalists have stepped up their use of the term “khokhly” on Facebook in order to test the limits of the social networks hate speech policy.
Journalist Maxim Kononenko was blocked for a week after he posted a poem written by Alexander Pushkin which contained the term. A spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, used her page to criticize Facebook’s “censorship” of its users.
Patriotism pervading every aspect of life in Russia
Social media is another arena in which the growing wave of Russian patriotism can be expressed. In June, a Vkontakte page devoted to girls eating shawarma exploded in popularity. The meal is considered to be a more “Russian” alternative to Western fast food, and the Express reported that the page was apparently set up in conjunction with the Russian health ministry. Posts on the page frequently criticize burgers and draw attention to their foreign origin.
As well as promoting patriotism on social media, the government is encouraging a new wave of Russian nationalism which is manifested in a variety of different ways. Families can now visit the Patriot Park outside Moscow, where children can play with military hardware and learn about the importance of a strong Russian military to protect the country against the West.
At the same time, the flow of information is being controlled to prevent the development of a so-called “color revolution” in Russia. The Kremlin defines the phenomenon as the kind of mass protest that has been experienced in several post-Soviet states. By exercising tight control over the media, and promoting patriotism, Moscow presumably hopes to prevent the seeds of discontent being sown throughout Russia.