Several media outlets complained that content moderation policies adopted by Facebook in the context of the war in Ukraine are affecting their work – some posts have ended up being unjustifiably blocked, according to journalists, and unlocking them takes time. In order to solve disputes more easily, the interlocutors of Media Azi consider that the representatives of social networks should open local offices for direct communication with clients from Moldova.
Cases in which the posts of some media outlets on social networks were unjustly blocked are reported more and more often lately. “I have been using Facebook for 15 years. During these years, I have posted critical content about corruption, human rights violations, and nothing happened to me. It all started this year. It is the first time I’ve been blocked twice already and I received multiple blocking warnings. My only posts that have been blocked and deleted are about the war,” said Alina Radu, director of the newspaper Ziarului de Gardă (ZdG). Although she challenged Facebook’s decisions to block posts, both actions were dismissed.
Moreover, recently, ZdG Facebok page was labeled by the company as one that is supported by the Government of the Russian Federation, but “a later message explained that they have looked into the case and it is their mistake. They removed this label.” According to Alina Radu, Facebook representatives did not provide details about the case, noting only that they consult with international media organizations, such as Reporters Without Borders.
“I can’t stop writing about the war. It is something we need to write about. I can’t take the comfort of ‘I’d rather write about birds and manicures than be blocked.’ Of course, when I post I somehow worry about whether they will block me or not. I mean, some kind of self-censorship or self-censorship tendencies have appeared that I haven’t had in my life for years,” she says.
ARE SOCIAL NETWORK ALGORITHMS ENDANGERING THE INDEPENDENT PRESS?
Valeria Batereanu, social media manager at Diez.md, notes the speed with which the algorithms of Meta (owner of Facebook) are changing. “What was good, acceptable, and creating impact half a year ago is no longer current today. The change of the algorithms for perceiving materials published on social networks certainly affected our work in a not too nice way, from the perspective of views. New policies, especially in the context of the war in the neighboring country, further restrict our impact. Although we respect ethical standards, strictly follow the policies of social networks, avoid incitement to hatred, shocking images, macabre scenes, and disseminate information in a fair, impartial, and honest way, we are no exception when it comes to restrictions,” she said.
According to her, there are cases when articles that do not violate community norms are not initially accepted by Meta, and later, after requests and explanations, they end up being approved. “The problem is that the examination of requests takes an average of one month, during which our Facebook page is limited, respectively the impact decreases and, directly proportional, visits to the site decrease. Therefore, if Facebook robots identify every month at least one material on our page that allegedly does not comply with community norms, we fail to preserve the quality of the page, which becomes frustrating,” Valeria Batereanu explained.
The Diez.md representative insisted that journalists’ work has become even more complicated once materials are “sanctioned” from the start. “We understand that the primary goal of Meta is to protect the community. Respectively, in the event of a conflict, the company had to come up with an immediate reaction. We hope, however, that the algorithms identifying unsuitable materials and analyzing disagreement requests will advance as soon as possible, because, at present, they endanger the existence of independent press,” Valeria Batereanu concluded.
MATERIALS THAT “BOTHER”
Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism of Moldova (CIJM) Cornelia Cozonac noted that the CIJM posts were blocked several times in different periods: “There is no difference. At certain times we are blocked for a month. You can’t share or post. They say that someone reported our posts as abusive.”
She does not rule out that there could be groups of people reporting their posts on purpose. “In fact, materials bother netizens and they report. A lot is probably being reported. Maybe it is someone’s technique, too, because some trolls do report posts they don’t like. ( … ) Whenever we were attacked, we did not receive any feedback from Meta,” the journalist explained.
Veaceslav Perunov, director of the SP Balti publication and one of the members of the Press Council, told us that their editorial staff, in order to avoid potential conflicts, hired a person who also moderates comments on social networks. “We moderate comments from the beginning of the [coronavirus] pandemic, because some of them could have caused us both reputational and legal damage. I think we will continue doing this in the future, because we are not interested in the flood [a massive flow of messages, usually of questionable quality], calls for war, inappropriate messages against minorities, etc. One of our young journalists deals with these things and, for now, we have money to pay him,” the media manager said.
On the other hand, Alina Radu noted that the problems faced by newsrooms with social networks can be solved by several ways, one of them being the opening of a local communication office. “Let’s insist that IT giants like Facebook and Google take into account that small countries are not second-class. If they operate in these countries, they need to have representatives and respond to emails. To guarantee communication,” Alina Radu said.
“While journalists from France, the UK, Romania, etc. have direct access to the network’s managers, therefore the process of verifying an unfairly restricted material does not take more than five minutes, we, due to the less favorable positioning, have limited resources in this sense, respectively, cases that could be solved in two minutes wait for months, which in the long run affects the impact and well-being of independent journalism,” Valeria Batereanu argued
CRITICISM VERSUS ACTION
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had previously issued a public appeal, urging the main online platforms to take into account the specifics of journalism in the context of the fight against disinformation and the war in Ukraine. For example, Ukrainian television 5 Kanal announced that, on June 17, its Facebook page with 538,000 followers was deleted due to a post. In an article on its website, the broadcaster explained that a post targeting abuses allegedly committed by the Russian military was considered by Facebook moderators to be inciting violence.
According to RSF, the major measures to combat disinformation, announced at the beginning of the military conflict by the most important online platforms, in reality resulted in “obstructing access to truthful news and information in Ukraine.” RSF urged large companies in the IT industry, especially Meta, to rethink their strategies to combat disinformation. “They need to rewrite their algorithms, recruit more specialists, and provide the technical and intellectual resources they need to be able to identify journalistic content on their platforms,” the organization’s call said.
According to press releases by Meta at the end of February, the platform created a special operations center, consisting of all the company’s experts, including native Russian and Ukrainian speakers, who are monitoring the platform around the clock and responding to issues in real time. “This allows us to remove content that violates our Community Standards or Community Guidelines faster and serves as another line of defense against misinformation,” the release said. Meta claims to have made it easier for fact-checkers to find and rate content related to the war, “because we recognize that speed is especially important during breaking news events.” “We use keyword detection to group related content in one place, making it easy for fact-checkers to find,” it said. Also, pages, groups, accounts and domains that repeatedly share false information will receive additional penalties. For example, they will be removed from recommendations and their content will be shown lower in Feed, so fewer people see it.
THE MOST POPULAR SOCIAL NETWORKS IN MOLDOVA
According to the national audience survey conducted in 2021 by Magenta Consulting for the Independent Journalism Center on a sample of 1,341 respondents, representative at national level, two thirds of Internet users access news sites on Facebook. Particularly, 68% of Internet users accessed news sites on Facebook, about 36% access the sites directly, and 20% use site apps, 16% on Instagram, 13% on Odnoklassniki, and 6% on Telegram.
Another study, of June 2021, conducted by Mediapoint (Moldova) and MEMO 98 (Slovakia), reported that Facebook was the most popular social network in Moldova, with about 1.6 million users, followed by Instagram, which then had 0.96 million active accounts, according to Facebook Ads Manager. Odnoklassniki had about 305,150 registered users. At the same time, experts noted that Telegram and TikTok had gained popularity in Moldova, as well as globally. Telegram is used by different categories of users and in different age groups. TikTok, on the other hand, especially attracted young audiences.