The War in Ukraine, Freedom of Expression and Hate Speech

Mirce Adamcevski




From now on, there may be talk of the disappearance of freedom of speech, but hate speech never disappears.

The former citizens of Socialist Yugoslavia surely recollect the media war that preceded and followed the great military catastrophe in which hundreds of thousands of lives were lost. A war that still lingers in the minds of some hate-speech propagators. In all former republics of the state. Now, there is war elsewhere - Ukraine. Hate-mongering exists there as well.

Journalist Boris Dezulovic, expressing his position on the war in Ukraine in a piece titled "World Homeland War" wrote : "30 years ago, Croatia was not ranked among the top ten countries in the world in terms of a nice and pleasant coexistence. Vukovar fell, Dubrovnik was up in flames, grenades fell on Osijek, Zadar, Shibenik and other cities, and Croats, in their righteous vengeful anger, evicted half of the Serbs from their businesses and apartments, and forced the other half to sign statements of loyalty to the Croatian state and clearly declare "Who is the aggressor and who is the victim." The victims then removed all traces of Serbian literature from schools and universities, burned all Serbian books, banned Serbian language, eliminated Serbian music on the radio and expelled Serbs from the theater, and the primordial hate speech flooded society, the media and the facades of the city."

If you look at social media in Croatia you’ll see that that type of speech has not vanished. It is now also used for confrontations over developments in Ukraine on social media, that are teeming with "Ustashas" and "Chetniks".

The experience in Croatia seems to be mirrored in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Hate speech, and discrimination even more so, has sprouted exactly as it was analyzed there in the past. It has been present in both countries for a long time.

But the authorities did not allow it to lead to outspoken hatred, which would have incited violence. They swept it under the rug. However, after 2014, things changed and open chanting of hate speech began, promising nothing good to come out of it. Just like it was in Yugoslavia before its breakup. In August 2021, at the conference on the topic of "The problem of hate speech in Ukrainian media", the results of a survey were presented showing the terminology that can be assessed as hate speech, which was published by the media.

The nickname "vatnik" was used the most, as quilted jackets are called in Russia, but Maidan supporters use it to belittle their opponents from Ukraine and the Russians. Then comes the word "moskal", derogatory for Russians, then "Russism and Russists", then "Mordor" for Russia. And also "Lugandon" for the people of Luhansk and Donetsk, then "Colorad", which is used as a derogatory nickname for people who wear the "Ribbon of St. George" during holidays in Russia, such as May 9, Victory Day.

And "katsap", formerly used in literature for people with Russian background, but today in general for Russians. The conclusion of the conference was that out of 941 thousand viewed pieces of information, only 4,746 included hate speech, which indicated that the picture was not as complicated as initially assumed. Understandably, it cannot be complicated when it comes to traditional media, where professionalism is at a higher level.

Extremist materials

All these expressions flooded the media and the online world after the beginning of the war. Especially social media. And more slurs ensued. So, we have "Putler" for Putin or expressions about him that cannot be put in writing. Or "Pedorussia" (Pederussia). Here are a few, from the hundreds of thousands of comments on FB, where texts were published in online media several days ago. "All Muscovites are nits, everyone supports Putler. Not everything will be fine with the Muscovites. They must be isolated from the world."

Or: "Fascists and Nazis are in Ukraine? And what are they? Nazism, imperial chauvinism, spirituality and faith are seriously shaken by true clinical schizophrenia and other psychiatric diagnoses."

Or: "Okay, it's great that the killer Putin is not sick of anything. We are extremely happy that he is sick of old age brutality to kill and rape people ... but despite our joy, this inhuman creature will still die of oncology." They added: "All Russists behave in a similar way. Waging a fascist war with Ukraine, they accuse Ukrainians of fascism. By killing civilians, and blaming Ukrainians.” And another example: "Madam, it is impossible for anyone to read this, your stupidity is full of Nazi garbage, you are just a Russian Nazi...".

However, Russia did not twiddle its thumbs in this context and for years they responded or attacked with hate speech. Before the start of the war, a Ukrainian analysis of hate speech was made against Ukrainians on Russian social media. The reason was the ban of the Russian social network "VKontakte" in Ukraine under President Petar Poroshenko.

The ban itself was a cause for hatred. According to an analysis conducted by UkraineWorld and Internews Ukraine, despite the ban, VKontakte remains a platform where hate speech thrives. Terms of use of VKontakte prohibit content that promotes "ethnic, racist, religious hostility or malice", or promotes ideas of "fascism or supremacy" or disseminates extremist material.

The authors of the analysis argue that regulation is a consequence, not a cause of hate speech. Lydia Smola points out that, in Russia, hate speech is supported by high officials. For example, President Vladimir Putin, with some of his statements. Communications expert Tatiana Matichak explains to UkraineWorld: "Russia has a huge state-run communication machine that produces, among other things, propaganda messages that include hate speech. In Ukraine, hate speech against Russia is mainly produced by ordinary people."

Some experts believe that inciting hatred against Ukraine is a tool of the Russian hybrid war.

Hate propaganda

Еxperts distinguish between hate speech against the Ukrainian people and hate speech against Ukraine as a political community. According to them, Russian hate propaganda looks quite "appealing" on VKontakte: users mainly include curse words and insults in songs, use puns and allegories.

Source: depositphotos.com

Calling Ukrainians "ukami" or "uke" (abbreviated and derogatory for "Ukrainians"), the original "hohli" or "ukrop" (dill) is found in the literature, through which some Russian users try to express their "non-recognition" of Ukrainian nationality. Pro-Russian network users often combine "uki" with other offensive words such as freak (Hohlovirodok), scum (Hochlomraz) and insane asylum (Hohlodurka).

Furthermore, the well-known Ukrainian salute or slogan "Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes!" Often translates into some offensive forms, such as "Glory to the fat" ("Glory to salo", where salo is a dried bacon popular in Ukrainian cuisine).

Ukraine is also called "country 404" (page 404). Or they write it in quotation marks and non-capitalized "ukraine". Despite the Russian narrative "Ukraine is a failed state", VKontakte users are sharply critical of all reforms. They often draw connections between the Ukrainian and Nazi authorities, calling them "Nazis", "Fascists", "Nazi juntas", "neonates" (neo-Nazis).

There are numerous references to Bandera and Shukevich (Ukrainian nationalist politicians of the 20th century). Users often call the people who support the Ukrainian language and traditions "Banderas" or "Shukhevichs". But, to be honest, they are also against supporters of Russian-language and Russians living in Ukraine. For network users, Euromaidan participants and supporters are mentally retarded. For example, "Maidowns" (a combination of the words "Maidan" and "person with Down Syndrome") or "Maidanuti" (a combination of an extremely vulgar word).

Again, a quote from Dezulovic: "Primordial hate speech. The “Meta” company stated that Facebook and Instagram would allow hate speech and inciting of violence against Russians and the Russian military "in the context of the invasion of Ukraine" and would allow neo-Nazi Azov to be glorified "in the context of its defense role". The enemy, as you can see, is context. "The European Commission, for example, banned the Russian national media outlets RT and Sputnik, because of the same context."

"META" joins the war

Meta's move (Facebook and Instagram) in March sparked many contradictory views on the protection of free speech and the danger that tech giants could show more power than actual states. Questions were raised. Who are they to dictate what can and cannot be published?

According to which criteria is hate speech allowed for some and forbidden for others? In mid-March, Reuters reported that Facebook was allowing posts about the war in Ukraine calling for violence against the Russian occupiers. The social network temporarily allowed some posts calling for the death of the presidents of Russia and Belarus, Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko.

"As a result of the Russian invasion, we have temporarily corrected the forms of political expression, which usually violate our rules, aggressive expressions, such as 'death of the Russian occupiers.' "We will not allow hate speech against Russian citizens as before," Reuters quoted part of Meta’s announcement.

The Russian embassy in Washington has called on the United States to end Meta's "extremist activities." "Facebook and Instagram users have not given the owners of these platforms the right to set the criteria for truth and to pit nations against each other," the Russian embassy wrote on Twitter. Twelve countries, former Soviet republics or members of the Warsaw Pact, have the right to hate speech on Meta's platforms: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Ukraine.

A Meta spokesperson said that the company was "currently making a minor exception for praising the Azov Regiment only in the context of protecting Ukraine or their role in the Ukrainian National Guard".

The biggest social media followed Meta’s suit. Calls for censorship have arisen. Both the EU and Russia have begun blocking media and social media. Everyone had excuses for the steps taken. No one mentions hate speech. Now everyone is talking about a propaganda war. Professor Djordje Obradovic, Doctor of Communication Sciences and Professor at the University of Dubrovnik, told Al Jazeera that "social media have become the strongest tool for spreading propaganda, but they can also be the strongest tool for countering propaganda, if one wants to "let everyone hear the arguments on both sides."

According to Obradovic, social media earnings will continue to rise and, in the clashes, they will join the side of those centers of power whose actions will bring them more profit. "With the moves against Moscow, tech giants have rejected the previous claims for freedom of speech and adopted policies of companies that could be the new normal in future conflicts," Obradovic claimed.

Social media - Military training ground

With the measures of "Meta" and other social media, the limits of freedom of speech, censorship, hate speech have shifted. The allowed hate speech against the Russians showed the double standards of "Meta" and other networks.

Moving forward, there may be talk of the disappearance of freedom of speech, but hate speech is not going anywhere. On the contrary, it seems to be even more motivated by the steps of social media. Military range. However, the consequences of that are felt by many citizens living in the West.

Elena Brezhneva is president of the Russian Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas. She says Russia's invasion of Ukraine has fueled hatred and discrimination against Russian Americans. She has been receiving messages via Facebook for the past few weeks.

In one of them they called her: "You are a Russian piece that does not deserve to be in this country." "Should real hate crimes occur, for people to start talking about them..." Brezhneva says. She was born in Russia, but is also partly Ukrainian. She has been living in Las Vegas for 25 years.

The topic of hate speech and war was also covered by Time magazine, which wrote that Russians around the world were facing persecution and insults due to the conflict in Ukraine. They told the story of the owners of a Russian restaurant, of phone calls where insults were spewed, of broken windows. And they are spouses, one of whom is Armenian and the wife is from Yakutia.

The husband is from Azerbaijan, from where he fled because of the pogrom of the Armenians. First, he went to Uzbekistan, then Russia, and then America. And now he faces hatred there.

The war in Ukraine will continue. The same will happen with hate speech. It also exists in our country when it comes to Russia and Ukraine. But no one knows how long the legalization of hate speech on social media will last. One thing is clear, "Meta", "Google", "TikTok" and others will use the precedent that will become the rule. But a rule according to their pattern.

Double standards are blatantly introduced. Will anyone keep track on how the owners abide by the ethical norms of social media? Or will it be a case of "I am both judge and jury"?

But ethical norms are only a small part. Social media are now becoming a factor in wars. In parallel with the states.


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Mirce Adamcevski

Mirce Adamcevski is a longtime journalist and media professional. He graduated from the Faculty of Technology in Skopje. He spent most of his professional life (1979-2004) in "Nova Makedonija" as a journalist, editor, correspondent from Moscow (in the period 1993-1999) as well as editor-in-chief (from 2002 to 2004). He is the author of the publication "Macedonian-Russian Cooperation" (January 2003). One of the founders and first editor-in-chief of the magazine for construction, architecture, ecology and investments "Porta 3". From 2006 to 2008 he was the President of the Broadcasting Council of the Republic of Macedonia. He is a member of the Appeals Commission at the Media Ethics Council of Macedonia.