Accessibility links

Breaking News

Pro-Ukrainian Facebook Users In Bulgaria Complain Of Accounts Being Blocked


Critics protest on January 18 outside the Sofia headquarters of TELUS International Bulgaria under the slogan The Blocked are Blocking.

Christo Komarnitski is a famous cartoonist in Bulgaria with a legion of followers, including on Facebook, where he's also been spreading pro-Ukrainian posts since Russia launched its unprovoked full invasion of the country in February 2022.

Recently he shared with his 52,000-plus followers a message from a Bulgarian who said he was in Ukraine and would stay there till Kyiv won the war.

Komarnitski says that soon after that post went up, his Facebook account was restricted.

Komarnitski is not alone. Other Bulgarians, many of them writers, poets, journalists, and activists, all with a pro-Western outlook, a significant social-media footprint, and firmly on the side of Ukraine in the conflict with Russia, say they have faced a similar fate. They say they have been muzzled on Facebook, and they link it to their pro-Ukraine posts or messages critical of the Kremlin or its backers, including those inside Bulgaria.

They do not point the finger of blame at Meta, the parent company of Facebook, but TELUS International Bulgaria, a division of the Canadian-based company, TELUS International, which has been contracted since 2019 to moderate the platform's Bulgarian site.

TELUS International Bulgaria denies any wrongdoing. The company told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service it did not have the authority to block accounts, adding that it was complying with the rules and standards set by Meta.

Despite such denials, critics protested on January 18 outside the Sofia headquarters of the company under the slogan The Blocked are Blocking.

The event was organized by Bulgaria United With One Purpose (BOEC), which was also at the forefront of anti-government protests in Bulgaria in 2020 against the rule of the GERB party and its leader and former longtime prime minister, Boyko Borisov.

BOEC leader Georgi Georgiev has also complained of being silenced on Facebook, indicating the problem may go back further and deeper.

"In the last five years, my account has been banned exactly 50 times. In total, I have spent more than three years banned because of my activities with BOEC and our battles against the mafia and the Kremlin's fifth column," Georgiev was recently quoted as saying.

Facebook operates a strike policy on accounts that it determines violates its policies. A first violation will usually result in a warning. Subsequent infractions will result in being unable to post content for a set number of days, the maximum being 30 for five or more strikes. For continued repeat offenders or more severe violations, such as posting child pornography, Facebook will disable accounts completely.

TELUS International Bulgaria told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service that it "respects the right to peaceful protest, as well as citizens' concern for freedom of speech," while adding it was abiding by the rules. "The services that TELUS International provides are carried out entirely according to the standards and policies of our customers."

On the other end of the political spectrum, Martin Karbovski and Velislava Dureva, Bulgarian journalists known for their Kremlin-friendly opinions, have been blocked recently by Facebook as well.

In a Facebook post on January 17, a day before the scheduled protest in Sofia, TELUS International Bulgaria highlighted what it said was the support it has provided Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion.

"In addition, Canada as a country where our company is registered, has accepted a number of strict sanctions against the Russian government and a number of Russian individuals, which are being applied and promptly complied by all companies across our group, including TELUS International Bulgaria," it added.

Dozens of people turned out for the protest in Sofia on January 18, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service reported. Amid chants of "This is not Moscow," BOEC leader Georgiev spraypainted a Z -- one of the letters that has been emblazoned on Russian military vehicles and which has become a symbol of Moscow's invasion -- on the sidewalk in front of the headquarters of TELUS International Bulgaria.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, social-media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, have grappled with questions of how to moderate discussion on the war, with much attention focusing on hate-speech policy.

In March 2022, Facebook and Instagram users in some countries were permitted to call for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers in the context of the invasion, the parent company Meta decided.

In one of the latest moves to regulate what can and can't be said, or more precisely posted, Meta, which along with Facebook and Instagram also owns WhatsApp, announced Ukraine's Azov Regiment would no longer be designated a "dangerous organization."

Ukraine's famed Azov Regiment was formed out of a right-wing militia called the Azov Battalion that gained renown in the early days of the war. The group's leaders and founders openly espoused xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Its logos bore a close resemblance to some used by Nazi units during World War II.

Later incorporated into Ukraine's National Guard, Azov has toned down its extremist rhetoric, but retained a reputation as a formidable fighting unit.

Cartoonist Komarnitski says he was informed by Facebook that his post from the Bulgarian who said he was inside Ukraine was deemed to have violated "community standards regarding dangerous individuals and organizations." However, he notes, the original post -- from an individual identified as Kalin Dimitrov in the social-media account -- was not apparently flagged or taken down.

Among other Bulgarian personalities to face account suspension are Ivo Balev, a famous satirist; Radoslav Bimbalov, a writer; and Manol Glishev, a poet and social activist.

While the circumstances appear unique in each case, all have been outspoken in their support of Ukraine and criticism of Russia, including its backers inside Bulgaria, not least Kostadin Kostadinov, the outspoken leader of the Russian-friendly, far-right Revival Party.

"This is censorship," poet Glishev told RFE/RL, who said the post that landed him in hot water "was pro-Ukrainian and even anti-Russian."

"It's pretty easy to tell whether you've been blocked for a rude word or for your thoughts," Glishev said, noting those penalized by Facebook inside Bulgaria shared much in common: they all had large followings and have spoken out against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Glishev noted Iranians living in Germany have protested at the local branch of TELUS there over social-media moderating issues as well. A Persian-language content moderator for Instagram and a former content moderator told BBC Persian that Iranian intelligence officials offered them money to remove Instagram accounts of journalists and activists.

Manol Glishev (in hat) says the post that landed him in hot water "was pro-Ukrainian and even anti-Russian."
Manol Glishev (in hat) says the post that landed him in hot water "was pro-Ukrainian and even anti-Russian."

Jacob Turovski, Meta's director of public policy for Central and Eastern Europe, spelled out how material is flagged on Facebook in a recent interview with the Bulgarian business website Capital.

Besides obvious cases of hate speech, ad hominem attacks, blatant misinformation, or so-called "fake news," Turovski pointed to the company's community standards to "protect our users."

"If a user notices content that they don't think should be on the platform, they report it, then it's reviewed and analyzed," Turovski explained. According to him, content management "is always a combination of our employees, AI (artificial intelligence), and machine-learned tools."

Facebook content moderators review posts, pictures, and videos that have been flagged by AI or reported by users about 3 million times a day, a June 2020 report by the New York University School of Business found.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a white paper that moderators "make the wrong call in more than one out of every 10 cases," which means mistakes happen 300,000 times a day.

Many suspect that Facebook's algorithms actually tolerate controversial posts. "Because it generates more engagement, therefore [they] can sell more ads," an IT expert with knowledge of the issue told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service on condition of anonymity.

Glishev called it "political censorship," and said he was looking for other like-minded people to launch possible legal action against TELUS International Bulgaria "to demonstrate how unprincipled and uncritical they are censoring public figures in Bulgaria."

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by Georgi A. Angelov of RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service
  • 16x9 Image

    Georgi A. Angelov

    Georgi A. Angelov has been a journalist for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service since 2022. He started his career 20 years ago at the Smolyan newspaper Otzvuk. He then worked for a number of national newspapers. He was a reporter at Dnevnik, an editor at OFFNews.bg, and a writer and correspondent at the Bulgarian section of Deutsche Welle.

XS
SM
MD
LG