Facebook's massive purge of goat-related slur in the Balkans

Foto: 123, Facebook

Two weeks ago, the Balkans Post published an article concerning the usage of Islamophobic bestiality slur ('gf-word'), its Medieval roots (the antisemitic 'Judensau'), and all the dehumanizing effects and consequences. On the same day, a member of our staff personally contacted the Facebook Help Center, attached the article, and requested the inclusion of the term on the blacklist. A very friendly staff responded positively and some 40 different South Slavic words, i.e. derivatives, the nouns and adjectives in the singular and plural forms, with all the grammatical cases, were included in the list of unwanted derogatory terms that violate Facebook's community standards. Gf-word therefore gained the same status as the n-word, a racial slur directed at black people.

The Help Center further informed us that term input itself will not automatically get censored, but once it gets into the system and the scanning is done, the vast majority of already published public posts will be deleted and users who posted it will get penalized with temporary blocks ranging from a few hours to a couple of months. This can be really frustrating for frequent users since the blockade deprives them of public commenting, private messaging and even liking, basically any activity which shows they're alive. Furthermore, in the case of multiply or repeating violations, the duration of temporary blocks are getting longer.

Merely a week after the accepted inclusion of gf-word, the Facebook algorithm purged the vast amount of inappropriate content and the results were striking: hundreds of users were blocked, including some prominent activists and public personalities. The impact on social networking in the Balkans was so strong that purge received media coverage by Index and N1 HR in Croatia, 24h ba, Nezavisne novine, Buka, Avaz ExpressMag, ATV, BN TV, N1 BA and TVK3 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kurir, Telegraf, Blic and Krstarica in Serbia, AntenaM in Montenegro, and 24 Sata in Kosovo.

Facebook's internal search feature has proved to be very useful for revealing the worst affected groups and individuals. It was enough to type a few complaint-related words or slurs themselves (often repeatedly posted despite the deletions and initial soft warnings), set the date as November 2017, and everything came out. Predictably, the radical nationalists have suffered a serious blow, mainly Croatian anti-immigrant activists, as well as Serbian extremists and hooligans who regularly used it against Albanians. Most of them are marginal and publicly unknown figures, with two exceptions from Croatia. The first one is Dražen Travaš, a former cameraman and nationalist blogger who uses a slur against regional political opponents, and the second one is Marcel Holjevac, a notorious Islamophobe and the alt-right internet star who writes the conspiracy-theory-related articles for a sensationalist web portal Dnevno.

To the surprise of many, by far the worst affected groups are from the left of the political spectrum, particularly those belonging to the New Atheist movement. In all these Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian Facebook groups, the gf-word was used as a synonym for a Muslim. Beside tens (if not hundreds) of ordinary users who were blocked, virtually all of their leaders and prominent members were also punished. The full list is too long to include here, but the short one includes Pavle Močilac, Julijana Adamović and Davor Kustec from Croatia, Damir Omerbegović and Emir Dervišević from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Marko Ekmedžić, Vladimir Božanović, Ivan Marković, Bojan Dragićević and Aleksandar Lambros from Serbia.

Other banned Croatian 'progressives' include the libertarian advocates Nataša Ivanković, Igor Kadum and Ante Kljaković, the homosexual activists Dorino Manzin, Ivica Erdelja and Gordan Duhaček, and virtual preachers Igor Premužić and Matija Babić. Ironically, Babić blamed the 'Croatian Talibans' for his block, while Travaš found the 'Yugoslav Communists' responsible for his one. Both actually represent two faces of the same coin, i.e. primitives incapable of thinking beyond binary frames. A tabloid website Index has also offered the same explanation for purge as its editor (and founder) Babić, blaming the 'backward ultraconservative Catholics and Islamists' who allegedly 'recognized themselves in the gf-word.' Index's anger is quite understandable considering that several of their Facebook posts with the gf-word have been deleted, and their journalists Frane Ćapeta and Petar Stošić were also banned for using it.

Still, not everyone was disappointed. Luka Kordić, a young Croatian author and poet, posted a short review on his Facebook profile:

"I'm so glad about all these idiots getting themselves blocked by Facebook for spamming this one term. I saw it coming. The term was a simple-minded and arrogant import from the US which got fused with local urban chauvinism, so folks were throwing it at anyone ranging from Arabs to people who simply aren't from Zagreb.
It's particularly great to see two rather large idiots who used to sing praises to Zoran Milanović [infamous Croatia's former Prime Minister] get themselves blocked. They're the sort of harebrained burgoise who thing they're so clever, refined and cultured, while being nothing more than fools and a danger to both themselves and their surroundings.
The bad thing is that no permanent IP banns were handed out, but it's nice to see Index [a Croatian daily tabloid website], a breeding ground for unjustified arrogance, rail about freedom of speech and complain about hundreds of the "unjustly" banned.
They're not unjustly banned and everyone who was using that term is an idiot, I don't care if it's you or anyone you care about. Kill yourseles, and if you've been raising any kids, kill them before they grow up to be idiots by looking up to you. This country is incapable of facing down bakcwardness because you're the people who are supposed to fight it, but when you try you get your crude foolish selves banned.
I'm not often happy about Facebook, but there you go, sometime it does cheer me up."

His post received over 250 likes and tens of comments, the majority of them favorable, and a few objecting the suppression of speech. "You have right to be a simple-minded racist, but then you also have consequences," Kordić concluded.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak is a social anthropologist and human rights defender with more than five years of experience in the Open Society Institute (OSF), an organization campaigning for human rights and reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia. His research interests include law and religion, human rights, comparative ethics, and international relations. Born in Osijek, he lives and works in Zagreb.