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Why Facebook censored a racist video from Hungary's government — then put it back

The flip-flop highlighted Facebook’s continued struggle to enforce its standards in fraught political environments and countries ruled by authoritarian governments.

by David Gilbert
Mar 9 2018, 4:41pm

Facebook just did something it rarely does: It removed a government video for violating the platform's standards.

The tech giant on Wednesday removed an anti-migrant video posted by the chief of staff to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Facebook said the video, which claimed immigrants had pushed “white Christians” out of parts of Vienna, making it “dirtier” and “poorer,” had violated its user policy by attacking people based on their racial, ethnic, or religious identity.

Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch, called it “a perfectly defensible move” given the far-right Fidesz party’s history of engaging in “the vilest fearmongering and hate-mongering to try to boost their political position.”

But Facebook’s decision didn’t last long. Just a few hours later the video was back up and being shared on the platform. The tech giant justified its reversal as a matter of public interest. “It was newsworthy,” the company told VICE News.

“Facebook must be clearer about its own definitions of ‘hate content’ and ‘extremism.’”

“People use Facebook to challenge ideas and raise awareness about important issues, but we will remove content that violates our Community Standards, including hate speech,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “An exception might be if content is newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest.”

The flip-flop highlighted Facebook’s continued struggle to enforce its standards in fraught political environments and countries ruled by authoritarian governments. In the past 12 months, Facebook has found itself at the center of one political crisis after another: It's been lambasted for its role in Russia’s 2016 U.S. election meddling campaign; its failure to stop the spread of fake news and the promotion of ethnic violence in Myanmar; and for allegedly propping up a dictator in Cambodia. Most recently, the service was temporarily blocked by the Sri Lankan government over fears it was being used to foment ethnic violence.

Facebook’s confused response to the latest incident of hate speech highlights the company's struggle as it's increasingly used by political groups worldwide to amplify their message, said Nikita Malik, director of the Centre for the Response to Radicalization and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society.

“Facebook must be clearer about its own definitions of ‘hate content’ and ‘extremism’,” Malik said. “Perhaps because this video came from a political party and is part of an election strategy, Facebook were reticent to remove it entirely.”

A charged political environment

The political atmosphere in Hungary has grown increasingly hostile in recent years, the country's prime minster has been at the center of it all. Orbán — who recently denounced Middle East refugees as “Muslim invaders” — has sought to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment as he seeks re-election in an April 8 vote.

Orban has drawn strong condemnation from the U.N., with the agency’s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, recently doubling down on calling Orbán a racist and a xenophobe. On Tuesday al-Hussein said he meant “every single word” of his criticism last month.

Despite robust international criticism, the anti-migrant rhetoric has only grown stronger. The saga with Facebook is just the last example. It started when János Lázár, minister of the prime minister’s office, posted the video, which shows him speaking to the camera while walking through the Favoriten neighborhood in the Austrian capital, claiming that Muslim migrants pushed out white Christians to the detriment of the city and its people.

“Evidently the streets are dirtier, evidently the area is poorer, and there’s lots more crime,” Lázár said, before warning that the same thing could happen in Hungary. “If we let them in and they will live in our cities, the consequences will be crime, impoverishment, dirt, filth, and impossible urban conditions.”

“It is indeed important for Europeans to know that an EU member-state government is producing racist hate propaganda.”

The video instantly drew backlash abroad. Vienna’s executive city councillor for international affairs, Renate Brauner, tweeted: “We are bewildered and shocked that a politician verbally attacks the capital of a neighbouring country in such a way. The allegations are wrong in content and a sad example of xenophobia.” The Social Democrats, who govern Vienna with the Greens, demanded an immediate apology from Lázár, describing his comments as a “racist and xenophobic election strategy" aimed at “incitement against certain groups.”

Orbán’s government didn’t see it like that. And before long the video was back online. Facebook would not comment further on why it had reinstated Lázár’s video, but it came soon after Lázár railed against the platform for supposedly violating his freedom of expression.

Soon, Facebook's decision had become a source for conspiracy theories among Hungary's right-wing supporters, who used the incident to launch charges of outside meddling. One right-wing website in Hungary even went so far as to claim that the move proved “Facebook is actively involved in the domestic election campaign, supporting the immigration opposition.”

Calls for action

While Facebook has managed to beat back calls for regulation in the U.S., the company is facing increased pressure in Europe from lawmakers who want to better control how information is spread on social media.

European lawmakers have expressed their concern about fellow politicians who use platforms like Facebook to spread disinformation and discord in the lead up to elections, and have suggested new hate speech legislation designed specifically for social media.

“It is important for Facebook to examine their own role in regulating this space — and to think carefully about the responsibility social media companies have to work together to provide a coherent response to hate speech online,” Malik said.

But there may be one positive to come out of Facebook reinstating the video: it will highlight on a global stage the fact that Hungary’s government is openly promoting this type of racist viewpoint, observed HRW's Stroehlein.

“If Facebook are now saying that they're allowing the video because it is newsworthy, well, it's actually hard to disagree with that: it is indeed important for Europeans to know that an EU member-state government is producing racist hate propaganda,” Stroehlein said.

For Jakub Janda, a researcher from the European Values think tank in Prague, the incident in Hungary highlights another pressing problem for the company: limited expertise and resources in smaller markets, where language and cultural differences create barriers.

“Again, we can see one of the core problems Facebook has: It doesn't have national offices that would understand the local environment and norms, so they often make mistakes,” said Janda.

Cover image: Janos Lazar, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff attends a news conference in Budapest, Hungary, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo