KYIV -- Ukraine's militaristic, far-right Azov movement and its various branches have used Facebook to promote its antidemocratic, ultranationalist messages and recruit new members since its inception at the start of the country's war against Russia-backed separatists five years ago.
The American social-networking giant has also been an important platform for Azov's global expansion and attempts to legitimize itself among likeminded American and European white nationalists.
Facebook has occasionally taken down pages and groups associated with Azov when they have been found to be in violation of its policies on hate speech and the depiction of violence.
The first Facebook removals occurred in 2015, Azov members told RFE/RL.
But after continuous, repeat violations Azov -- which includes many war veterans and militant members with openly neo-Nazi views who have been involved in attacks on LGBT activists, Romany encampments, and women's groups -- is now officially banned from having any presence on Facebook, the social network has confirmed to RFE/RL.
Despite the ban, however, which quietly came into force months ago, a defiant Azov and its members remain active on the social network under pseudonyms and name variations, underscoring the difficulty Facebook faces in combating extremism on a platform with some 2.32 billion monthly active users.
'Organized Hate' Not Allowed
For years, Facebook has struggled with how to deal with extremist content and it has been criticized for moving too slowly on it or behaving reactively.
The issue was put front-and-center in August 2017, when the platform was used to organize a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned deadly.
The issue was raised most recently in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre that left 50 people dead. The shooter livestreamed the killing on his Facebook page. The company said it had "quickly removed both the shooter's Facebook and Instagram accounts and the video," and was taking down posts of praise or support for the shooting.
Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at the U.K.-based antifascist organization Hope Not Hate, told RFE/RL by phone that Charlottesville brought a "sea change" when it came to social media companies and Facebook, in particular paying attention to extremists.
For instance, he praised the company for its "robust" action against the far-right founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, who had repeatedly violated Facebook's policies on hate speech.
But Mulhall said Facebook more often acts only after "they're publicly shamed."
"When there is massive public pressure, they act; or when they think they can get away with things, they don't," he added.
This may explain why it took Facebook years to ban the Azov movement, which received significant media attention following a series of violent attacks against minorities in 2018.
Facebook did not specify what exactly tipped the scale. But responding to an RFE/RL e-mail request on April 15, a Facebook spokesperson wrote that the company has been taking down accounts associated with the Azov Regiment, National Corps, and National Militia – the group's military, political, and vigilante wings, respectively -- on Facebook for months, citing its policies against hate groups. The spokesperson did not say when exactly the ban came into force.
In its policy on dangerous individuals and organizations, Facebook defines a hate organization as "any association of three or more people that is organized under a name, sign, or symbol and that has an ideology, statements, or physical actions that attack individuals based on characteristics, including race, religious affiliation, nationality, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, serious disease or disability."
Defending 'Ukrainian Order'
Azov and its leadership consider themselves defenders of what they call "Ukrainian order," or an illiberal and antidemocratic society. They are anti-Russian and also against Ukraine's potential accession to the European Union and NATO.
Their ideal Ukraine is a "Ukraine for Ukrainians," as Olena Semenyaka, the international secretary for Azov's political wing, the National Corps, told RFE/RL last year. Azov's symbol is similar to the Nazi Wolfsangel but the group claims it is comprised of the letters N and I, meaning "national idea."
Human rights groups such as Freedom House have warned that Azov's increasing visibility and impunity is a cause for concern.
"Far-right political forces present a real threat to the democratic development of Ukrainian society," said a recent Freedom House report, referring to Azov and similar groups. That threat is not due to political support -- polls show its political party, National Corps, is supported by less than 1 percent of Ukrainians – but because the far-right is "aggressively trying to impose their agenda on Ukrainian society, including by using force against those with opposite political and cultural views."
Last month, Group of Seven (G7) ambassadors in Kyiv sent a letter to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, urging him to act against the groups which it said threatened to disrupt the country's election and usurp the role of the Ukrainian National Police. The ambassadors asked the minister to also consider outlawing the groups down the road.
Avakov is tied to Azov through his control over the National Guard, of which the group's regiment is a part.
The G7 letter came after the Central Election Commission granted permission for the National Militia to serve as election monitors and hundreds of Azov members in separate instances in Cherkasy and Kyiv clashed with police while protesting President Petro Poroshenko at reelection campaign events over a corruption scandal involving his close ally.
More than 20 police officers were injured in Cherkasy; in Kyiv, the group hurled stuffed toy pigs toward police guarding the presidential administration.
Earlier in March, the U.S. State Department referred to the National Corps as a "nationalist hate group" in its annual human rights report.
Azov has inducted thousands of militant members in recent years in torchlight ceremonies with chants of "Glory to Ukraine! Death to enemies." The movement claims to have roughly 10,000 members in its broader movement and the ability to mobilize some 2,000 to the streets within hours. A large part of its recruiting has been done using slickly produced videos and advertisements of it fight clubs, hardcore concerts, and fashion lines promoted on Facebook and other social networks.
Still On Facebook, But Moving Elsewhere
Many of those may no longer be found on Facebook after the ban. But some are likely to stick around, since many Azov factions and leaders remain on the platform or else have opened fresh accounts after original ones were removed, RFE/RL research shows.
For instance, the Azov Regiment, whose official page under the Polk Azov name was removed months ago, has also opened a fresh page with a new name: Tviy Polk (Your Regiment).
Its leaders have reacted similarly, as have the National Corps and National Militia, opening dozens of new accounts under slightly altered names to make it more difficult for Facebook to track them. A simple search on April 16 brought up more than a dozen active accounts.
Semenyaka has had at least two personal accounts removed by Facebook. But two other accounts belonging to her and opened with different spellings of her name -- Lena Semenyaka and Helena Semenyaka -- are still open, as is a group page she manages.
In a post to the Lena account on April 11, Semenyaka wrote after the takedown of her original account that Facebook "is getting increasingly anti-intellectual."
"If you wish to keep in touch, please subscribe to some other permanent and temporary platforms," she continued, adding a link to her Facebook-owned Instagram account.
Then, highlighting what's become a popular new destination for far-right and other extremist groups, she also announced the opening of a new National Corps International account -- on the messenger app Telegram.