Mar 11, 2022 - Technology
Column / Signal Boost

War makes social media an ethical minefield

Illustration of a damaged and smoking social media heart icon
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is forcing new dilemmas on social media's rulemakers, not just in their efforts to limit the spread of misinformation but also as they struggle to handle graphic images of violence.

Why it matters: Platform moderators face complex ethical and legal calls over photos of dead soldiers, images of teens taking up arms, and videos of prisoners of war criticizing the conflict. Everyday users are confronting them, too.

Driving the news: Facebook and Instagram Thursday temporarily relaxed their rules around violent speech amid the Ukraine war.

  • A company statement said Facebook would allow posts like "death to the Russian invaders," but "we still won't allow credible calls for violence against Russian civilians."

The big picture: War intensifies the human impulse to share powerful images, but leaves users with uncomfortable choices and pitfalls in the social media wilderness.

  • With Russia both spreading misinformation and choking off external news sources, Ukraine has been relying heavily on social media to show Russians, and the world, what is happening in the country.
  • That effort has been effective in helping galvanize a global response. But it can easily cross the line into propaganda, too.

When a video of a Russian soldier captured in Ukraine denouncing the invasion went viral, it wasn't long before observers pointed out that such footage, if produced by a government, might well violate the Geneva Conventions.

  • Detainees "must be treated with dignity, and not exposed to public curiosity — like circulating images on social media," the ICRC said as part of a Twitter thread explaining those rules.

Some Ukraine supporters abroad cheered images showing Ukrainian teens suiting up for war in their skateboarding gear.

  • Others raised questions about how such photos would be received had they come from other parts of the world.

Graphic photos of dead soldiers lying next to blasted tanks, and of wounded and dead civilians, have popped up around the world in countless Facebook feeds and Twitter streams.

  • They are a reality of war and an important part of standing witness to its horrors. But many users aren't prepared or able to verify or analyze them, and outrage frequently overwhelms caution.

How it works: Online speech during wartime is governed on multiple levels.

  • Rules of war, like the Geneva Conventions, cover some of this ground, even though they predate the pre-social media era.
  • Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok have their own rules, along with the challenges of enforcing them amid the fog of war.
  • Governments weigh in, too. A new Russian law imposes severe consequences on journalists within its borders whose reports counter the official government position.

Context: A decade of conflicts in the social-media era, from the Arab Spring to Afghanistan and Syria, have given the platform companies some experience in navigating this terrain.

  • Meta, for example, believes its existing rules have covered much of what it has seen to date.
  • In many cases that means flagging the graphic nature of the content, but allowing it to be shared.

Between the lines: Platforms run into trouble when their policies intended to protect users from trauma and harm end up shaping "an inaccurate picture of what is happening on the ground," according to a new study of TikTok as a source of wartime information.

  • "When bombed buildings are allowed to appear but bodies are omitted, it can give off the the impression that death and injury is not occurring," the study argues.

The bottom line: "What is needed is consensus about what overarching rules, regulation, and norms should be across platforms for handling authentic graphic information online," Emily Dreyfuss, senior fellow at the Harvard Shorenstein Center, told Axios.

Go deeper