Despite attempts to make it off the platform, a violent far-right Ukrainian group links with American white supremacists uses Facebook to recruit new members, organize violence, and spread its far-right ideology around the world.
Although yes banned the Azov movement and its leaders more than a year ago, Facebook continues to profit from ads posted by the far-right organization until Monday.
Since July, Azov, which emerged during the Russian invasion in 2014, has opened at least a dozen new Facebook pages. Alla Zasyadko, a 25-year-old member, used it to place 82 ads on the social network, paying Facebook at least $ 3,726, according to the platform’s advertising library. Many of the ads called for street protests against the Ukrainian government. One of the ads encourages children to enroll in a patriotic youth training course. Similar courses they have included training in firearms.
Zasyadko did not respond to requests for comment.
A Facebook spokesman told BuzzFeed News: “The Azov battalion is banned from our platforms and we remove content that represents, praises or supports them when we become aware of it.”
At the time of publication of this story, the main Facebook page of the Azov movement, which appears as the Ukrainian Corps, a name resembling that of the political arm of the movement, National Corps, was still active.
Facebook has received strong criticism for allowing American right-wing militant organizations to organize and run ads on the platform. Some of these groups have committed violence during the Black Lives Matter protests, defended by the civil war, and allegedly conspired kidnap and kill elected political officials. Facebook dit last month he had deleted thousands of pages and groups linked to “militarized social movements.” Many of these pages and groups were removed after BuzzFeed News caught their attention on Facebook.
But it has been difficult to oust right-wing extremists from the social network, as many of them reappear days or weeks after their withdrawal.
Facebook banned the Azov movement, which has many members defending neo-Nazi beliefs, in April 2019. The company removed several pages associated with the group, including those operated by its senior members and the various branches they lead.
But since July 16, the group operates the new page of the Ukrainian body. The page does not attempt to hide that it belongs to the Azov National Corps: it openly discusses the activities and leaders of the National Corps, links to Azov’s websites and email, and posts photos of members with uniforms at rallies and torchlight processions.
Facebook has no reason not to know that the Azov movement is dangerous. Following a series of violent attacks on gypsies and LGBTQ people throughout Ukraine by members of the National Corps and its paramilitary wing of the street, the National Militia, the US State Department named The Azov National Corps is a “nationalist hate group.”
Matthew Schaaf, who heads the Ukrainian office of the human rights group Freedom House and has watched the group closely, said the Azov movement’s ability to mobilize people through social media poses a threat to in society.
“Over the past two years, participants in Azov-affiliated groups have used violence against vulnerable groups in Ukrainian society and threatened civil servants, with social media as an important tool to organize these actions and share their results.” , Schaaf told BuzzFeed News. “Many of these aggressions are accompanied by propaganda posts before and after on social media.”
Azov began in 2014 as a volunteer military battalion that helped Ukraine defend itself against the invasion of Russia and its separatist power forces. The symbol of the battalion is similar to that of the Wolfsangel, the insignia widely used by the German military during World War II. Although human rights groups accused the battalion of torture and war crimes during the first months of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, in late 2014, the National Guard of Ukraine incorporated the Azov battalion into its official precinct, where it became known as the Azov Regiment.
Military unity has been a favorite lover of the Kremlin, with Russian President Vladimir Putin using the group to justify its attacks on Ukraine as a fight against fascism. Although the group is not generally popular in Ukraine, its neo-Nazi ties are clear. In 2010, the battalion’s founder, Andriy Biletsky, dit that Ukraine should “lead the world’s white races in a final crusade … against the Semitic-led Untermenschen [subhumans]”.
Biletsky could not be reached for comment.
Although the regiment still seeks inspiration from Biletsky, it has become political; he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 to 2019, but lost re-election. He now leads the National Corps political party, which has largely failed to get elected members, but is using social media to try to increase its support. He is also one of the founders of the movement’s Intermarium project, which builds bridges with white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Western Europe and the United States.
Although Facebook previously withdrew the Intermarium pages, a new Intermarium page was created on September 9, headed by the International Secretary of the National Corps, Olena Semenyaka, has been sharing news and information about far-right and neo-Nazi figures in Europe and promoting “cultural” events at his Kiev office.
Following the ban, Semenyaka has also reopened Facebook and Instagram accounts under a pseudonym.
Semenyaka did not respond to any requests for comment.
Thanks in part to social media, the National Corps has made forays into white nationalist groups in the U.S., including California. Rise Above Movement, whose members participated in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, but saw charges for their actions later fallen. In April 2018, RAM founder Robert Rundo visited Kiev and participated in an Azov organization Wrestling club. That October, the FBI wrote that it believed Azov was involved in the “formation and radicalization of white supremacy organizations based in the United States.”
Last month, Ukraine deported two American neo-Nazis associated with the U.S.-based Atomwaffen division that had tried to set up a local branch of the group with Azov fighters to gain “combat experience.”
As Azov uses Facebook to expand beyond Ukraine’s borders, experts are concerned. “The use of violence and the possibility that they could bring together large crowds of young men willing to use violence, all facilitated by social media,” Schaaf said, “gives them power.”