Twitter’s new policy misused by pro-Kremlin accounts to block Ukrainian bloggers #SaveUaTwi

A #SaveUaTwi meme. Image: social media 

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Changes to twitter’s policy have resulted in the suspension of accounts of top-Ukrainian bloggers in what observers call a concerted campaign to block critics of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. 

In a bid to stop online harassment, twitter adopted new policies in the last days of 2015. One of the new changes includes prohibition of “hateful conduct.” While the purpose of the new rules was to “protect the freedom of expression,” their outcome for the Ukrainian sector is a banning of top bloggers, some with hundreds of thousands of followers.

A list of the suspended accounts

A list of the suspended accounts. Source: @Andr3ewLVUA

Ukrainian twitter users have launched a campaign called #SaveUAtwi. It has been supported by the Ukrainian ambassador in Finland Andrii Olefirov:

According to observers, this is a concerted campaign of pro-Putin twitter accounts, many of which could originate from the infamous Olgino “troll factory.” This inconspucious building in the suburbs of St.Petersburg is the Russian regime’s hub to social media support for Russia’s policies and state-controlled media, the secrets of which were described by an undercover journalist on a one-woman spying mission. This time, it appears that the trolls are moving from verbal abuse and spreading disinformation to active measures.

Twitter user @geomysl made a summary of how the campaign works. According to him, thousands of fake accounts are sending automatic complaints about tweets of top Ukrainian bloggers containing words that can be red-flagged according to twitter’s new policy.

It appears that the account @Leninkaratel is coordinating the campaign, sharing calls to block “undesirable” bloggers. After that, numerous users target the blogger and report a tweet containing a questionable word. The popular account @Andr3ewLVUA here reports on attempts to block him originating from different users:

Banned for opposing the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine

The main reason for the ban is calls for violence against Russian-backed separatists that are plaguing the East of the country with war. But only users with a pro-Ukrainian and anti-Putin position are being banned, including for tweets made years ago and for citations of other users’ words. Trolls from Russia that call to kill Ukrainians and tweet pictures of disfigured slain Ukrainian soldiers are not getting banned.

Sometimes the formulations of “hateful conduct” are old, vague, and are not directed at any specific person. Here is one by @Reggaemortis1 with nearly 26 000 followers. Otherwise known as Kirill Mikhailov, he is a Russian activist that moved to Ukraine due to disagreeing with Putin’s policies, and a Euromaidan Press author. It was tweeted on 16 May 2015, before the new policy was enforced.

1

Lord, there are Kremlin bots together with Australians that lost their family [in the MH17 crash] in the comments. The situation when I really want to kill somebody.

Mikhailov deleted this and another similar tweet, but got suspended first for 12 hours, then again. Tech support told Mikhailov that it would take 30 days to process the issue.

Reported for venting about greasy haircare products 3 years ago

Because of the automatic searches for “bad” words that could be reported to twitter support, sometimes the attempts to ban Ukrainians get comical. For instance, this post from 1 May 2012, in which @JulieAndreeva tweeted: “[I want to] to kill and dissect those hair care producers that don’t warn that their products are on an oil base”

Twitter finds that Russian users calling to kill Ukrainians don’t “violate rules”

With Russia’s “invasion by any other name” into Ukraine and the accompanying information war dragging into its second year, both (pro)Ukrainians and (pro)Russians users could have exchanged words that could be technically blacklisted by twitter’s new policy. But reports are coming in suggesting that this recent “twittercide” is far from being symmetrical. For some reason, twitter support is rejecting reports from Ukrainian users about incidents of derogating Ukrainians and threatening to kill them coming from accounts saluting Putin’s intervention in Ukraine.

One recent example is user @meesix, who attempted to report a tweet by the account @aab_oven that cheerleads Russia’s war in Ukraine, saying “I understood this question. I answer no. I am a person that is ready to cut khohly [derogatory name for Ukrainians] like pigs for killing children” and received a response that it is “not in violation of the Twitter Rules.”

Will twitter protect the freedom of speech of activists opposing a repressive regime?

To escape the fate of the dozens of bloggers that are already blocked, the Belarus edition of Radio Liberty suggests changing the account language to English and changing the account’s location, erasing all old tweets, ignoring trolls, and sticking to the rules. But the concerted campaign against Ukrainian bloggers shows that the rules can be stretched with mass attacks from fake accounts, and semantics of “hateful conduct” can be concocted out of any post of exasperation. And exasperation is an emotion that many Ukrainians feel when their country is under a covert attack by a Russian hybrid army that goes unnoticed by the world.

“Twitter is an indispensable platform for civic activists under conditions of violations of freedom of speech and repressions against independent media in different countries of the world. Obviously, blocking popular accounts that resist repressive regimes leads to an increase, rather than a decrease, in actual human rights violations. This is why I would like twitter’s management to solve the problem to the advantage of all interested parties, who are willing, I am sure, to follow certain guidelines, if it will allow communicating the necessary information to others,”

Kirill Mikhailov stated in a fb post. It depends on twitter whether people like Kirill that have the courage to oppose the repressive regime of Putin’s Russia and the billions of petrorubles pumped into the troll factory in Olgino, will be allowed to speak freely, or whether the Kremlin will be allowed to carry out its “weaponization of information” strategy now on the world’s top social media platform.

You can help by bringing twitter management’s attention to the problem. Click to tweet:

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