1984, the important work of George Orwell, never ceases to prove its incredible topicality and its ever more adequate adaptation to the infinite drifts of the modern world in its totalitarian version.
In his novel, the British author invented the ingenious concept of the “Two Minutes Hate.” This daily moment is made available to the middle class of Oceania by its leaders. These two minutes allow them, under their benevolent gaze, to expunge all the resentments, anger, and frustrations accumulated against an enemy—a scapegoat. They come out of the two minutes soothed and purged of their bad thoughts, a good thing, since such violent emotions could, potentially, challenge the order imposed from above. In the opinion of Oceania’s leaders, the institutionalisation of the two minutes of hate has prevented the proliferation of thought crimes.
Today, the Two Minutes Hate logic is undergoing new developments. According to internal emails that Reuters consulted and revealed on Thursday, March 10th, the company Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram—two social media that appear as avatars of Orwell’s telescreen—has decided to allow users to post on their accounts calls for violence against Russians and Russian soldiers. Calls for the killing of Presidents Putin and Lukashenko will also be allowed. Calls for violence against Russian civilians remain prohibited. This temporary change in content control policy will apply in a limited list of countries, namely Armenia, Azerbaijan, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine. Such hate speech will only be tolerated “in the context of the war in Ukraine.”
A few days ago, Facebook announced that it would allow posts praising the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, according to the investigative newspaper The Intercept. Meta spokesman Joe Osborne said that the private company was “making an exception for now for posts praising the Azov regiment only if the post refers to the context of the war in Ukraine or its role in the Ukrainian National Guard.” The move is reminiscent of pre-war Austria, which used to allow the study of Mein Kampf, under the guise of literary or cultural enrichment. Needless to say, this strategy was politically efficient.
The Russian embassy in the U.S. reacted strongly to the announcements. “Users of Facebook & Instagram did not give the owners of these platforms the right to determine the criteria of truth and pit nations against each other,” the embassy’s Twitter account read.
There is no question who the aggressor is in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine today. Russian presence in Ukraine has violated objective criteria set by the norms of international law. But the use social media has made of the war, of Russia, opens the door to a completely different horror. Are we facing the dawn of the imperial screen that is advancing in a project to control individuals, to the point where it sets the rules for authorised hate?
The choice made by Facebook proves that reason and eloquence are no longer considered valuable political tools. Direct calls for violence, sometimes even to the point of murder, are quietly included in the list of content deemed morally acceptable under certain conditions. They become temporarily negotiable ideas, in view of a certain context, that would make them tolerable, even desirable. With this choice, the Meta company is crossing—and it’s not the first time—the limits of propriety that understands there are things that should not be done.
Facebook thus gives itself the luxury of offering its two minutes of hate to its subscribers, telling them, in its great wisdom, which enemies are allowed. And users are not fighting for freedom of expression, for a platform for debate. They are vulnerable to the floodgates social media opens to hate speech, which they admit in these words:
We are issuing a spirit-of-the-policy allowance to allow T1 violent speech that would otherwise be removed under the Hate Speech policy.
Prisoners of war would be exempt from this tolerance of hate. Small consolation. The leaders of the social network subscribe to the principle against which Christian morality has always wisely warned: the end justifies the means. The extremely targeted nature of Meta’s decision proves its perversity. Everything is thus reduced to a question of temporary definition and passing moods.
The dystopian story of 1984 teaches us the merits of political fiction. So let’s imagine right now that according to the whim of Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts, the hate speech policy changes, in a week, in a month, in a year, and designates new authorized targets. Who will be the next ones allowed to be hated, or killed?
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).