Oversight Board Overturns Meta’s Original Decision in ‘Knin Cartoon’ Case

The Oversight Board has overturned Meta’s original decision to leave a post on Facebook which depicted ethnic Serbs as rats. While Meta eventually removed the post for violating its Hate Speech policy, about 40 moderators had previously decided that the content did not violate this policy. This suggests that moderators consistently interpreted the Hate Speech policy as requiring them to identify an explicit, rather than implicit, comparison between ethnic Serbs and rats before finding a violation.

About the Case

In December 2021, a public Facebook page posted an edited version of Disney’s cartoon “The Pied Piper,” with a caption in Croatian which Meta translated as “The Player from Čavoglave and the rats from Knin.” The video portrays a city overrun by rats. While the entrance to the city in the original cartoon was labelled “Hamelin,” the city in the edited video is labelled as the Croatian city of “Knin.” The narrator describes how the rats decided they wanted to live in a “pure rat country,” so they started harassing and persecuting the people living in the city.

The narrator continues that, when the rats took over the city, a piper from the Croatian village of Čavoglave appeared. After playing a melody on his “magic flute,” the rats start to sing “their favorite song” and follow the piper out of the city. The song’s lyrics commemorate Momčilo Dujić, a Serbian Orthodox priest who was a leader of Serbian resistance forces during World War II.

The piper herds the rats into a tractor, which then disappears. The narrator concludes that the rats “disappeared forever from these lands” and “everyone lived happily ever after.”

The content in this case was viewed over 380,000 times. While users reported the content to Meta 397 times, the company did not remove the content. After the case was appealed to the Board, Meta conducted an additional human review, finding, again, that the content did not violate its policies.

In January 2022, when the Board identified the case for full review, Meta decided that, while the post did not violate the letter of its Hate Speech policy, it did violate the spirit of the policy, and removed the post from Facebook. Later, when drafting an explanation of its decision for the Board, Meta changed its mind again, concluding that the post violated the letter of the Hate Speech policy, and all previous reviews were in error.

While Meta informed the 397 users who reported the post of its initial decision that the content did not violate its policies, the company did not tell these users that it later reversed this decision.

Key Findings

The Board finds that the content in this case violates Facebook’s Hate Speech and Violence and Incitement Community Standards.

Meta’s Hate Speech policy prohibits attacks against people based on protected characteristics, including ethnicity. The content in this case, which compares ethnic Serbs to rats and celebrates past acts of discriminatory treatment, is dehumanizing and hateful.

While the post does not mention ethnic Serbs by name, historical references in the content make clear that the rats being removed from the city represent this group. Replacing the name “Hamelin” with the Croatian city of “Knin,” the identification of the piper with the Croatian village of Čavoglave (a reference to the anti-Serb song “Bojna Čavoglave” by the band ‘Thompson’ whose lead singer is from Čavoglave) and the image of rats fleeing on tractors are all references to Croatian military’s “Operation Storm.” This 1995 operation reportedly resulted in the displacement, execution, and forcible disappearance of ethnic Serb civilians. The comments on the post confirm that this connection was clear to people who viewed the content.

The Board is concerned that about 40 Croatian-speaking moderators deemed the content not to violate Facebook’s Hate Speech Community Standard. This suggests that reviewers consistently interpreted the policy as requiring them to find an explicit comparison between ethnic Serbs and rats before finding a violation.

The Board also finds this content to violate Facebook’s Violence and Incitement Community Standard. The Board disagrees with Meta’s assessment that the content constitutes a call for expulsion without violence. By referring to the events of “Operation Storm,” the post aims to remind people of past conflict and contains a violent threat. The cartoon celebrates the violent removal of Knin’s ethnic Serb population and may contribute to a climate where people feel justified in attacking this group.

A serious question raised by this case is why Meta concluded that the content did not violate its policies, despite it being reviewed so many times. The fact that the content was not sent to Meta’s specialized teams for assessment before it reached the Board shows that the company’s processes for escalating content are not sufficiently clear and effective. As such, the Board urges Meta to provide more information on how it escalates content.

The Oversight Board’s Decision

The Oversight Board overturns Meta’s original decision to leave up the content.

As a policy advisory opinion, the Oversight Board recommends that Meta:

  • Clarify the Hate Speech Community Standard and the guidance provided to reviewers, explaining that even implicit references to protected groups are prohibited by the policy, when the reference would be reasonably understood.
  • In line with Meta’s commitment following the "Wampum Belt" case (2021-012-FB-UA), the Board recommends that Meta notify all users who have reported content when, on subsequent review, it changes its initial determination. Meta should also disclose the results of any experiments assessing the feasibility of introducing this change with the public.

For Further Information:

To read the full decision, click here.

To read a synopsis of public comments for this case, please click here.

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