Valerii Garmash, a 42-year-old Ukrainian coder and entrepreneur, recalls the devastation left by the Russians in Sloviansk, his hometown in eastern Ukraine: streets littered with burned-out cars, shattered glass and shards of shell.
It was in 2014, during the first Russian invasion of Ukraine. After the Ukrainian army pushed the Russian-backed forces out of town, Garmash joined a group of volunteers who quickly got to work, scouring and repairing their hometown. But one thing they couldn’t fix was the fallen television tower that once towered over the city. Russian-backed militants used it to deliver the Kremlin’s message to the people of Sloviansk during the three-month occupation and destroyed it before they left.
“How will we get the local news?” Garmash remembers asking a local reporter as they were cleaning up a street in Sloviansk in July. “There will be no local news,” she replied.
She was wrong. A few weeks after that conversation, Garmash launched a new media site and named it 6262.com.uaa reference to the city code of Sloviansk.
“People really needed local news. And all I needed to provide it was the internet and social media,” Garmash tells me.
By the time Russia invaded again, in February 2022, Garmash ran the city’s most popular and trusted local news site. But as Russian tanks rolled towards kyiv and Western sanctions kicked in, local journalism in Sloviansk was again silenced. This time, it appears Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram — and not Russia — was to blame.
“The people we serve no longer receive our news in their Facebook and Instagram feeds. In that sense, what’s happening with Facebook isn’t all that different from what happened with the TV Tower in 2014,” Garmash tells me.
“We can’t make their voices heard”
Meta a resources mobilized in response to the war in Ukraine, and the company says it takes the issue of misinformation around the war seriously. Staff members sent us this statement two weeks ago:
“We are taking significant steps to combat the spread of false information about our services related to the war in Ukraine. We’ve expanded our third-party fact-checking capability in Russian and Ukrainian, to further debunk false claims. When they rate something as fake, we move that content lower in the feed so fewer people see it and attach warning labels. We also have teams working around the clock to remove content that violates our policies. This includes native Ukrainian speakers to help us review potentially non-compliant Ukrainian content. In the EU, we have limited access to RT and Sputnik. Globally, we display content from all Russian state-controlled media lower in Feed and add tags from any Facebook post that links to their websites, so people know this before clicking or sharing them.
I read it at Andrei Boborykinwho manages some of the largest Facebook publishers in Ukraine, in addition to being the executive director of Ukrainska Pravda, one of the largest dailies in Ukraine. He’s laughing.
The organic reach of Russian propaganda voices in the West has indeed been curbed – Facebook blocks RT and Sputnik pages in the EU, as noted above. But for Ukrainian publishers, none of this makes much difference.
Ukrainian newsrooms are awash with graphic images from the front lines of the war. It’s newsworthy, sometimes vital content that’s in the public interest, but it’s impossible for publishers to know what they’re allowed to post on Facebook and Instagram because Meta, Boborykin says, “n has ever attempted to identify key controversial topics and provide additional guidance to publishers on how to handle those topics on their platform.
And even where there are rules, they are confusing and inconsistent. Here’s just one example: It’s impossible to cover the war in Ukraine without mentioning the Azov Battalion, a key group fighting the Russians in eastern Ukraine. But a mere mention of the Azov battalion can be considered a violation of community standards. The punishment for such a violation is a “strike” and multiple strikes could result in their accounts being blocked or suspended.
Recently, Meta made a temporary change to its hate speech policy, allowing calls for violence against Russian soldiers in the context of the invasion of Ukraine. But when Ukrayinska Pravda published articles about the cheering Azov battalion after hitting enemy targets in Mariupol, their pages received “strikes”.
The situation is particularly dire for publishers on the front lines: dozens of small independent newsrooms in eastern Ukraine, which have recently lost their ability to promote their publications to their communities.
“We woke up one day to news of the invasion, and the next day to news that all of our Facebook and Google ad accounts were blocked. We contacted both. Google resolved the issue in twelve days. We are still waiting Facebook,” Garmash told me.
Boborykin says the ad restriction is normally used by Meta to curb what the company calls “coordinated inauthentic behavior” from state-backed accounts that use ads to promote propaganda, hate and fake news. Blocking ad capabilities is part of Meta’s efforts to combat misinformation on its platform. But what is happening in eastern Ukraine illustrates something else. It’s an example, says Boborykin, of platforms applying a “one size fits all” policy without any attempt to understand the local context.
“If you’re a small publisher in eastern Ukraine, chances are you currently have no ad capacity and your pages are blocked,” says Boborykin.
As a result, Boborykin says 31 newsrooms, including 6262.com.ua, are experiencing a massive drop in Facebook revenue and viewership. In addition to his daily work, Boborykin works with the Media Development Foundation and is currently running emergency fundraisers for local Ukrainian newsrooms. The limits Facebook has placed on them, he says, also affect wartime fundraising.
“We can’t promote their pages, we can’t make their voices heard,” says Boborykin. “It’s crazy because it means that [local publishers] are cut off from their communities. And many of them are already physically isolated, because they had to flee. If they don’t flee, they work under the bombardments. It’s crazy that they have to deal with technical constraints imposed by Facebook on top of all that, ”he says.
In early March, in order to continue operations, Valerii Garmash moved most of his 14-man team away from the front line in eastern Ukraine, keeping only a few journalists in Sloviansk. “In extreme times like this, people need information more than ever. But they don’t see us on their feeds anymore,” he says.
On Facebook, in what appears to be the result of the company’s new policies on Ukraine, 6262.com.ua has seen its viewership drop 80% since the war began. The numbers are similar on Instagram. Funding freelance journalism is never easy, but Garmash has taken a unique approach, providing spin-off services like video production and social media consulting to local businesses.
Garmash says his team runs 25 business pages on Facebook alone. The local veterinary clinic, the city pharmacy and a clothing store are among the customers of 6262.com.ua. But now they can’t access their community members’ feeds either.
I asked Meta staff I’m in contact with if they were aware of the huge losses that their company’s policies have inflicted on struggling small independent publishers in Ukraine. Their response states that “Meta remains committed to creating systems that promote and protect news content on our platforms, to help news publishers, large and small, better earn money and serve their communities. local”.
“We cannot respond to the specific allegations reported by Coda Story as these details were not shared with us prior to publication,” the statement continued, “but we join forces with international institutions such as Reuters and ICFJ as well as regional institutions and local organizations – including in Ukraine – to train journalists and newsroom professionals and better understand the challenges they face.
Over the past two months, 6262.com.ua staff members have contacted Meta at least 40 times. They haven’t received a response yet.
No answer: a global problem
The experience of the 6262.com.ua team plays out for independent media throughout eastern Ukraine, and even beyond its borders.
We recently profiled two independent newsrooms in Georgia, a country also partly busy by Russia, which saw its viewership decline by 90% after Facebook blocked some of its posts about the war in Ukraine. Why the posts were blocked is unclear, but both newsrooms suspect they were reported by Russian trolls.
After the article was published, a Facebook representative asked me to pass on his personal details to the journalists we profiled and promised to look into their case. I did, and journalists followed Facebook directly. Two weeks have passed and no TV channel has gotten a clear answer from Facebook.
Approximately 26 million Ukrainians use Facebook every month. “These platforms are crucial for us,” says Boborykin. Having worked across the African continent and following Facebook pages closely controversies in places like Myanmar, Boborykin says he has no illusions about Meta’s business model, or any problems with it, for that matter. The problem, he says, is how Meta treats the people and organizations they like to call partners.
“What they did in the case of Ukraine is 1% of what they could have done,” says Boborykin. “Have better press partnerships, reach out to local editors, make lists of people and media organizations you trust. Respond to their messages.
What would you say to Mark Zuckerberg if you met him? I ask Valerii Garmash, the founder of 6262.ua before hanging up.
“I would tell him that in Ukraine he is violating his own mission,” Garmash said. “He created Facebook to give people the power to create communities. It destroys ours. – Rappler.com
This story was originally published in Coda Story’s weekly newsletter Disinfo Matters which goes beyond fake news to examine how manipulating narratives, rewriting history and altering our memories are reshaping our world. We are currently following the war in Ukraine. Register here.
This article was republished from History of Coda with permission.