Despite attempts to kick him off the platform, a violent Ukrainian far-right group ties to American white supremacists uses Facebook to recruit new members, organize violence and spread its far-right ideology around the world.
Even though he banned the Azov movement and its leaders Over a year ago, Facebook continues to profit from the ads placed by the far-right organization as recently as Monday.
Since July, Azov, born during the Russian invasion in 2014, has opened at least a dozen new Facebook pages. Alla Zasyadko, a 25-year-old member, used one to place 82 ads on the social network, paying Facebook at least $ 3,726, according to the platform’s ad library. Numerous advertisements called for street protests against the Ukrainian government. One of the advertisements encourages children to enroll in a patriotic youth training course. Similar Classes included firearms training.
Zasyadko did not respond to requests for comment.
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “The Azov Battalion is banned from our platforms and we remove content that represents, praises or supports them when we are notified.”
At the time of this article’s publication, the Azov movement’s main Facebook page, listed as the Ukrainian Corps – a name that resembles that of the movement’s political arm, National Corps – was still active.
Facebook has been heavily criticized for allowing American right-wing militant organizations to organize and broadcast ads On the platform. Some of these groups got involved violence during Black Lives Matter protests, pleaded for civil war, and conspired to kidnap and kill politicians. Facebook mentionned last month it had deleted thousands of pages and groups linked to “militarized social movements”. Many of these pages and groups have been deleted after BuzzFeed News brought them to Facebook’s attention.
But chasing right-wing extremists from the social network has proven difficult, with many reappearing days or weeks after being fired.
Facebook banned the Azov movement, which has many members who espouse neo-Nazi beliefs, in April 2019. The company removed several pages associated with the group, including those managed by its top executives and the various branches they lead.
But since July 16, the group manages the new page of the Ukrainian Corps. The page makes no attempt to hide that it belongs to the Azov National Corps – it openly discusses the activities and leadership of the National Corps, links to Azov websites and email, and posts photos of members in uniform at rallies and torchlight marches.
Facebook has no reason not to know that the Azov movement is dangerous. Following a series of violent attacks against Roma and LGBTQ people across Ukraine by members of the National Corps and its paramilitary street wing, the National Militia, the US Department of State appointed The Azov National Corps is a “nationalist hate group”.
Matthew Schaaf, who heads the Ukrainian office of human rights group Freedom House and has observed the group closely, said the Azov movement’s ability to mobilize people through social media poses a threat to society.
“Over the past two years, participants from groups affiliated with Azov have used violence against vulnerable groups in Ukrainian society and threatened officials, with social media serving as an important tool to organize these actions and share their results,” Schaaf told BuzzFeed News. “A lot of these assaults are accompanied by before-and-after propaganda messages on social media.”
Azov started in 2014 as a volunteer military battalion that helped Ukraine defend itself against an invasion by Russia and its independent proxy forces. The battalion symbol is similar to that of the Wolfsangel, the badge widely used by the German military during World War II. Even if human rights groups have accused the battalion of torture and war crimes during the first months of the Ukrainian-Russian conflict, at the end of 2014, the Ukrainian National Guard integrated the Azov battalion into its official fold, where it was renamed the Azov regiment.
Military unity has been a favorite scarecrow of the Kremlin, with Russian President Vladimir Putin using the group to justify his attacks on Ukraine as fighting fascism. Although the group is not very popular in Ukraine, its neo-Nazi ties are clear. In 2010, the founder of the battalion, Andriy Biletsky, mentionned that Ukraine must “lead the white races of the world in a final crusade … against Untermenschen, led by the Semites [subhumans]. “
Biletsky could not be reached for comment.
While the regiment still looks to Biletsky for inspiration, it entered politics; he was a member of the Ukrainian parliament from 2014 to 2019 but lost his re-election. He now heads the National Corps political party, which has largely failed to get its members elected, but uses social media to try to gain support. He is also one of the founders of the movement’s Intermarium project, which builds bridges to white nationalists and neo-Nazis in Western Europe and the United States.
Although Facebook previously removed the Intermarium Pages, a new Intermarium Page was created on September 9. Managed by the International Secretary of the National Corps, Olena Semenyaka, he shared news and information on far-right and neo-Nazi figures in Europe and promoted “cultural” events in his Kiev office.
After a ban, Semenyaka also reopened Facebook and Instagram accounts under a pseudonym.
Semenyaka did not respond to a request for comment.
Thanks in part to social media, the National Corps has made inroads with white nationalist groups in the United States, including the Rise above the movement, whose members attended the Unite the Right rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va., but were later accused of their actions fall. In April 2018, RAM founder Robert Rundo traveled to Kiev and participated in a meeting hosted by Azov fight club. In October, the FBI wrote that it believed Azov was involved in “the formation and radicalization of white supremacist organizations based in the United States.”
Last month, Ukraine expelled two American neo-Nazis associated with the US-based Atomwaffen division which had attempted to form 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 increasingly concerned. “The use of violence and the possibility that they can gather large crowds, mostly young men willing to use violence, all facilitated by social media,” Schaaf said, “gives them power.”